We need to talk about dinosaurs.

There’s been a lot of big compound nouns in the news lately: ceasefires, outbreaks, airstrikes. But none has been bigger than the Dreadnoughtus: 85-feet long, 30-feet tall, and an I’m-still-growing 130,000 pounds, this newly discovered dinosaur is believed to be among the largest land animals to have ever lived (New York Times).

This behemoth–scientifically, Dreadnoughtus schrani–takes it name from the compound dreadnought, aptly meaning, “fearing nothing.”

You may be familiar with dreadnought as the name for a class of big, British battleships, appearing in 1906 but revived, according to Ernest Weekley, from a specific Dreadnought of the Royal Navy in 1596. We can cite a yet earlier Dreadnought warship, however, in 1573.

Less fearful–and familiar–is the 19th-century dreadnought outerwear: a “thick coat worn in rough weather” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology [ODEE]) typically made of wool and also known as a “fearnought.”

That’s some rough weather.


The word dreadnought, you can see, seems a simple enough compound of dread and nought, but each element its own little surprise.  We’ll start with dread.

Dread is from the Old English adrædan, “to fear,” an old word dating back to the 12th century.

What happened to the initial a? It was lost in a process called aphesis, like in How ’bout that?, as we saw in my post on mad. This adrædan was from an earlier word, ondrædan. The first partond-, a variant of and-, meant “in,” “on,” or “against.” Cognate to anti- and ante-, this and– is also part of answer, whose literal parts add up to “swear against.” The Proto-Indo-European source of this prolific prefix is *ant-, “front” or “forehead,” so-called, I gather, because when you face me, your forehead is opposite mine. Words are physical things, see?

The second part, the -rædan? The jury’s out.

The ODEE says its a West Germanic base of obscure origin. Weekley maintains it is cognate to the Old Norse, hræda, “to frighten.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHD) links it to rædan, “to advise” or “counsel”–and, interestingly, ultimate source of the English read. At root, the AHD goes on, is the Proto-Indo-European *re(i), “to count” or “reason.” (We’ll duly treat read and *re(i) at a later date.) 

If this latter hypothesis is correct, then, dread originates in a sense of “something that should be counseled against.” Dreadful: You know, like, going for a swim right after eating.

And dreadlocks? You probably associate them with Rastafarianism, but they are indeed found throughout the world and history, from Peru to Egypt to India, often associated with ascetic devotion to God. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, dreadlocks is first attested in 1960, joining dread and lock, with:

the style supposedly based on that of East African warriors. So called from the dread they presumably aroused in beholders, but Rastafarian dread (1974) also has a sense of “fear of the Lord,” expressed in part as alienation from contemporary society.

Dinosaurs? Warships? Heavy coats? Cultural and religious treatment of hair? Reading? Yep, that’s precisely what a good etymology can connect.

Nought is next.

m ∫ r ∫ 


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