In a few short weeks, I’ll be married. So, naturally, wedlock has been on my mind. Literally, the word wedlock has been making my fingers flip through dictionaries. OK, I’ll admit this transition is a bit inelegant, but, rest assured, etymology does have its romantic side.
Specifically, I’m interested in the second half of the word: –lock. What’s going on with it?
First, the –lock in wedlock has nothing to do with the kind of locks we need keys for. Undoubtedly such locks do inform our understanding of wedlock, though. Two persons, bonded together, locked without a key…I mean, sealed and united together for a lifetime. This association is folk etymology but exerts its influence nonetheless.
Second, –lock is a dead suffix, once but no longer productive in the English language. It meant “action,” “proceedings,” or “practice,” and took the form of –lac in Old English. Essentially, it was a noun-former, functioning somewhat like -ing, –ness, or -ation. And it is probably from the Old English noun lac: “play” and “sport,” with ancillary meanings of “strife” and “sacrifice” as well as “gift.” Wiktionary adds “ritual.”
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that it appears in a dozen or so compounds in Old English, but only “wedlac survives with altered meaning.” OK, OED, let’s have some fun with Old English:
- Brydlac – “nupitals, marriage ceremony,” with bryd the source of “bride”
- Beadolac, feohtlac, and heaðlac – all referring to warfare (bead, “battle”; feoht, “action of fighting” and origin of “fight”; and the Game of Thrones-ian heað, “to raise” or “extol”)
- Hæmedlac and wiflac – both refer “carnal intercourse” (hæmed meant “fornication” and wif is the source of “wife”)
- Neaflac – “robbery”
- Wedlac – “pledge-giving, espousal,” with wed originally referring to a “pledge” or “wager” (I’ll save that for another day)
- Witelac – “punishment, torture, fine,” with wite meaning, essentially, the same
- Wrohtlac – “blame,” the meaning of wroht
You promised me 12, OED, and I counted 10. As noted, lac could also mean “gift,” and so we see freolac, a voluntary religious offering, and sælac, literally a “sea-gift,” some kind of a present or spoil given from the sea. In freolac, we have freo, the source of “free.” In sælac, we can see the “sea.”
Perhaps, though, wedlock is not alone in its vestigial –lac. What might keeping it company? Knowledge.
Ironically, we don’t know knowledge as well as you’d think, not to mention its complicated relationship to acknowledge. Obviously, knowledge is a compound, composed of know and, well, the second part. In Old English, the word was cnawlecce. You might see how cnaw became know, from the prolifically prolific Proto-Indo-European root *gno-. Can, cunning, could, uncouth are all cognate, to name an oh so short, English few.
The –lecce? We don’t know. Walter Skeat argues that it is akin to the very -lac we see in wedlock. The OED considers this as well, though holding out its close cousins –laik and –leche as possibilities. These options may be academic, though, because the evidence seems to point back to the fact the English –lac likely corresponds to the Old Norse leikr, meaning “game, sport, contest.”
We do know, though, that the transformation of –che to –dge is something also displayed in partridge and sausage, for whatever it’s worth.
Speaking of knowledge, do we know anything else about this –lac? Connections can be made, through the Old Norse leikr mentioned above, to “various Indo-European verbs applied to activities such as playing, leaping, springing, dancing, fighting.” Other scholars see connections to words for dancing and singing hymns.
Ultimately, these verbs–possibly including the verb, like, you know, like and the suffix –ly–may go back to the Proto-Indo-European *leig- or *loig-, meaning, variously, “jump, hop, tremble, bounce,” and “shake.” It’s unclear whether it’s causative–”to shake” or “cause to shake,” but these distinctions blur and merge, ultimately–but what we’re getting at here is the basics, anyways.
Our language–and in my book, our thought–is a thing of nouns and verbs, of objects and actions. While stuffed with abstractions like suffixes such as –lock, these are handy shortcuts for those base metaphors that I like to fancy is our more essential human experience in the world. See Spot run. It’s simple but it’s beautiful: This running is conceptualized, almost Platonically, as Action, associated with core efforts like playing and fighting; the linguistic mind, the human mind, transformed it into a portable, modular bundle of meaning.
It’s magical, these words are. Like demerlayk, a now obsolete word meaning “magic,” “the practice of the occult art,” and “the art of jugglery,” featuring a kin form of –lac and what was originally gedwimere, a “juggler” or “sorcerer.”
And yet nothing could seem more essential. So, see Spot run. And play. And jump. And dance. And get married. And research and write word origins. It’s simple but beautiful.