Last post, I pointed you to my Strong Language piece on swear jars. Now, what might be pickling in this short, simple word jar? Quite the etymological surprise, if you ask me.

"Jar." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Jar.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), jar joins English in the 16th century. The OED records jar in 1598 in a reference to the Italian giara, glossed as iarre and defined as a liquid measure. (The letter j is late to the spelling scene.) While this citation is Italian, the word is likely from the French jarre or Spanish jarro. These, in turn, are taken off the shelf of…Arabic.

Etymologists trace this simple jar all the way back to the ancient technology of the Arabic jarrah, which the OED defines as an “earthen water-vessel.” Other definitions add that the jarrah was large.

Jar, as in jarring, is said to be of imitative origin. Ajar can refer to disharmony or, more commonly, a door slightly open. The latter is documented in Scottish dialects for on char. The former element was reduced to a, and the latter word comes from the Old English cęrra “turn.” So, a door ajar is a door “on the turn.” Strong Language contributor and co-founder James Harbeck gives us a further ‘taste’ of ajar.

Speaking of taste, jars can hold cookies, jam, tips, beans, or masons. That might just be a jarhead thing to believe, as a mason jar was once a Mason jar, named for the inventor who patented this now-hipster staple in 1858. Their screw-on lids are one of the real secrets to their success, as the New York Times observes.

There is a strange poetry–and even kind of absurdity–to what English words can preserve. Which puts to mind a favorite jar, the one Wallace Stevens placed in Tennessee in his 1919 “Anecdote of the Jar”*:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and a of port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Words–and the linguistic imagination–can be so much like Stevens’ jar.

m ∫ r ∫

*Stevens, Wallace. 2000. “Anecdote of the Jar.”  Anthology of Modern Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 130. Print.


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