Confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court nominees—like Neil Gorsuch’s this week in the Senate—give obscure judicial terms a rare moment in the public spotlight. Consider super precedent, who fights baddies with the power of past decisions. Or stare decisis, which sounds like a long-lost sister to Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” And then there’s Chevron deference. Clearly, that means refueling your tank at a Chevron gas station over any of its competitors, right?
American political institutions love to sit.
Committees have chairs. Congressional chambers have seats. Courts have benches. Presidents have, well, desks.
They also love metonymy, that “figure of speech in which a thing is represented by something closely associated with it” (Drury, The Poetry Dictionary). Thus we refer to those chairs, seats, benches, and desks as stand-ins–sit-ins?–for the person, position, and power symbolically residing in them. (We saw metonymy at work in scarlet.)
One of the better known governmental metonyms–the gavel–has been making headlines, as the U.S. Supreme Court pounded the gavel on its term this year with some major decisions. Technically, the nine Justices aren’t themselves pounding the gavel. According to the Supreme Court Historical Society, that’s left to the court’s Crier, who bangs it right at 10am so all rise for the black robes entering the courtroom on days when they hear oral arguments.
The gavel, of course, is used in many a official assembly, and in many a metaphor. Gavels get grabbed. Gavels get passed. Gavels get brought down, gavel-to-gavel.
So, where does this gavel come from?
The etymology of this ceremonial, attention-getting wooden mallet is ultimately unknown.
Ernest Weekley makes a connection to a German dialectical use of gaffel in the Lower Rhine. He glosses it as “brotherhood” and “friendly society,” seeing a cognate to the English give. Indeed, a now obsolete meaning of the word gavel is “tribute” or “rent.” This gavel is given by the Old English gafol, a “tribute,” indeed related to give via its Anglo-Saxon ancestor, giefan. The usage lives on essentially in gavelkind, a concept Weekley nicely elucidates: a “system” primarily in the county of Kent in England, “by which property is divided equally instead of going to the eldest son” but originally a “form of tenure.”
The Oxford English Dictionary of English Etymology finds the word was first wielded in the 19th century (American dictionaries cite it in 1805) and primarily so in the United States, but otherwise offers no opinion.
Eric Partridge suggests gavel may be “akin to kevel, a hammer for stone-shaping or -breaking, itself [of obscure origin] but [probably] akin to [nautical] kevel, a strong cleat or timber for fasting a vessel’s heavy lines.” He goes on to root this nautical tool’s origin in the Latin clavis, or “key.” Clavicle is a descendant. Word historians give their assent to the gavel’s historical use among masons, so there may something to kevel’s case.
Others have proposed a line to javelin (cf. Welsh gafl, “fork”) from the Old French for “spear.” French also had javelle, a sort of loose heap of grains, linked to a hypothetical Latin *gabella, possibly from capulus, a “hilt” or “handle,” though primarily “coffin.” This diminutive noun is rooted in capere, “to seize.” And folk etymologies have cited gabble. Indeed, there are some connections, but they extremely tenuous, as the semantic and sound changes are suspect.
It seems the jury is out on gavel.