Hello faithful followers.
Quick! Look at your calendars!
What day is it? That’s right: Fun Etymology day!
And what a special Fun Etymology day it is, good folk, for today we have not one, but TWO words: “shirt” and “skirt”.
As those of you who follow this little recurring segment of ours know, English is a language that borrowed quite liberally from many other languages. Amongst these languages, two have a very special place: Old French and Old Norse. Today, we’ll talk about the latter.
Old Norse was the language of Scandinavia during the Viking Age, and it was very closely related to Old English. Some even hypothesise that speakers of the two languages might have been able to understand each other with some effort.
Starting from the 9th century, the Vikings invaded and conquered parts of England, and this intense and sustained contact between the two cultures gave the English language the opportunity to borrow quite a lot of words from Old Norse, even some very frequent ones, such as the pronoun “they” (but that’s a story for another Fun Etymology).
A legacy from this time can be seen in one particular phonological phenomenon: the fate of the Proto-Germanic consonant cluster “sk”.
Both English and the Scandinavian languages have their ultimate origins in the Proto-Germanic language, but this consonant cluster evolved quite differently in the two branches: in English, it became the modern sound “sh” as in “shoe”, while in the Scandinavian languages it remained “sk”.
What this means is that if you find an English word that begins with the cluster “sk”, then it’s almost certainly a borrowing from Old Norse.
Which brings us to today’s Fun Etymology: the words “shirt” and “skirt”, which, etymologically, come from the same Proto-Germanic word *skjurton, meaning “short garment”. Where “shirt” represents the natural evolution of the word in English, “skirt” was borrowed from Old Norse, but with a different meaning.
Sometimes, in the tumultuous history of words, one word can split in two. Isn’t that neat?
How many sk- words can you think of?