Sunday, August 1, 2010
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 freedictionary.com, 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