This weekend marks the opening of the XXII Winter Olympic (and, lest we forget, Paralympic) Games in Sochi, Russia. Athletes will produce a blizzard of speed, spins, and sticks as they compete in 15 major events far removed from many of our everyday experiences–except for that “polar coaster” most of the country seems to be riding of late. The origin of skis, skates, and sleds certainly had their practical purposes in more historic, northerly life, from hunting and transport to much needed recreation and release from months of cold, dark, and cramped quarters.
But what about the origin of skis, skates, and the words for other winter sports? In this post, we will look at skate, ski, and luge.
Make no bones about it, skate originates in a mistaken plural. The Dutch for these frames, fixed to the soles of shoes for gliding across ice, is schaats in the singular and schaatsen in the plural. The English understood this singular schaats as a plural, lopping off the final s to generate skate, as it eventually came to be spelled. It’s very possible that the Dutch developed the word from Old North French, escace or escache, meaning “stilt.” This, in turn, could be from the Frankish *skakkja, related to English’s shake. Or it could be related to English’s shank, as in the part of the leg. Shank may be rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *skeng-, “crooked,” like a bent leg. Make bones about that, for “the earliest skates were made of shank-bones” from animals, as Weekley notes. Webster makes a point to specify quadripeds. Apparently skating “was popularized at the Restoration…, Charles II’s followers having learnt the art in Holland” (Weekley). On this, Weekley cites the Diary of John Evelyn from December 1, 1660:
The strange and wonderful dexterity of the sliders on the new canal in St. James’s Park, performed before their Maties by divers gentlemen and others with skeets, after the manner of the Hollanders.
Before their Maties, indeed. Anthropologically, this would ultimately be in the manner of Ancient Finland, as the earliest skates are found in Scandinavia and Russia.
Ski rides an etymological bunny slope down from the Norwegian ski, in turn from the Old Norse skið, “snowshoe,” and yet older, as the ODEE puts it, a “billet of cleft wood.” Related are Old English’s scid and shide, which point to the Proto-Germanic *skid– and yet further back to the Proto-Indo-European *skei-, “to cut” or “split.” The English verb shed, as in to “cast off,” still carries this old sense of cutting or splitting in watershed, with its metaphorical and geographical dividing points. (If you’re like, you always thought of watershed in terms of a building. TIL…)
Most of my dictionaries leave luge’s origin as unknown. French, Swiss, and Gaulish origins are offered. The Online Etymology Dictionary presents Medieval Latin’s sludia (“sled”) as a possibility. Improbable, but hey, so was everything about Cool Runnings.
Next post, we’ll pick up with sleigh, curling, and hockey.