Sunday, August 1, 2010


I'm not quite sure why these thoughts occur to me after I've reached some irrevocable point, but it's not at all unusual that well after I wrote the last post on the Merchant Marine, it occurred to me that I'd gotten a phrase wrong. I know the phrase plying one's wares works, but plying one's way? I start to grow confused.

The more I thought about it, the more I found to ponder. What about '"reply"? "Plywood"? "Pliable"? Are these words related to each other, or not at all? I am going to guess a suffix route that branched out in many different directions. But what do I know? As we all have seen, not much...

Well, apparently, those Merchant Marines do ply their way. They may even plow their way. Turns out this is a word with a lot of permutations and ramifications. It all comes back to (yes!) an Indoeuropean root, namely *plek. Plek leads in many directions, and not only "ply", "plait", and "plight", but possibly "flax" and "flex" are also distant cousins.

Let's not wander too far out into those flax fields, though. "Ply", at least, comes pretty directly through Middle English back through Old French (plie, anyone?) to Latin plicare. What all this stuff has in common is the broad idea of folding or bending.

Now, personally, I wouldn't have thought that the idea of folding would have been so very promising as a root concept. I mean, you say "folding", I say "ironing". But out of it, we have "apply" with the general sense of bringing something into close contact with something else, we have "reply", which is "to fold back, and out of that "replicate", we have "implicit"  and "explicit", with their general sense of to be folded in with or to unfold. (A fascinating factoid from the Online Etymology Dictionary is that "explicit" comes from explicitus est liber-"-the book is unrolled". The term came up at the end of Medieval manuscripts, which were, of course, rolls, not bound books. It didn't come up in our current sense of "explicit sex" until 1971.)

And so on and so on and so on. Taking up this word is a bit like picking up a dinosaur bone in the desert, only to find that it's still attached to a whole dinosaur.

But to try to get back to the subject at hand--Neither plying one's way or one's trade would seem to have very much to do with folding. In these cases, it seems to be a shortened form of 'apply'. If you look at the, uh, applications of the word "ply" at, you'll see that what many of them have in common is diligence, practice and regularity. Apparently the word "ply" was first used in the sense of "to travel regularly" in 1803.

If you'd like to see how this word has mutated, you might check out this thread at egghorns. Egghorns looks like a good one to know about in general. But anyway, from the simple term "to ply one's trade," you'll find "plow one's trade", "plight one's trade", even "ploy one's trade". I'll leave it to any Northern Irish commenters who might chance by to either agree with or refute the idea presented there that in Northern Irish, "plough" and "ply" are near homophones.

Finally, I chanced upon yet another usage in a book I'm currently reading, written about an incident aboard a ship, perhaps plying its way through Aegean waters:

They said I was the strangest American they had ever met. But they liked me. They stuck to me throughout the voyage, plying me with all sorts of questions which I answered in vain.

Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi


  1. 'Plough and ply as near homophones in Northern Irish'?

    Much as I would love to confirm, not in my experience. In everyday pronunciation 'plough' rhymes with 'cow'. In local dialect it is 'ploo' (and 'coo'). But in broad Ulster-Scots it is 'pue' (like the church 'pew').

    'Ply' is easier - we don't use it! But wait, you said it comes from 'apply'? Well, the Ulster-Scots pronunciation of that is 'applaai' (This is actually how it is spelled phonetically in the U/S dictionary I have) and it is close to 'apploy'.

    So, round full circle - 'Plough' isn't pronounced like 'ply' here, but 'apply' is pronounced 'a ploy' (which is quite close to 'a plough').

    Now, where were we?

  2. Nice word(s)!

    Of course, there is another usage of the word ply, as demonstrated here.

    Warning: this might be the most bizarre, oddly hilarious, misunderstood website I've ever seen.

  3. Philip, yeah, I thought this sounded a bit dicey. Although how plough comes out 'pew' passeth my understanding. But thanks for the expert testimony.

    Brian, thanks for 'ply with wine'...I think...

    V word="properyo" (Which the Brick Testament definitely is not.)

  4. Hmm, and if one plies a source with enough liquor, perhaps his or her tongue will loosen.

    It appears Philip shot down your thesis on pronuncuation. No Irish need ply, he might well have said.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  5. No, it wasn't my thesis, it was from a forum, and I mentioned it because it sounded doubtful, but I wondered about it. But you never know.

    "Pronuncuation" is an interesting hybrid, though.

  6. Oh, my god, I should not post blog comments when I cannot give them my full attention.

  7. Well, I suppose that's one way of looking at it, but on the other hand it does lead to greater clarification.

  8. Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Clarifunctuation.

  9. Thanks Seana, I needed something else to think about after reading McKinty's post about the "tiger zoo".

  10. Glad to be of service, Glenna. Although I hadn't read that yet until you pointed it out...