Well, if you thought about it, you might have seen this post coming. After my last post on what 'bespoke' means, it had to gradually occur to me that with all the sprechen and sprachen and speaking going on, there was a big question about another aspect of the word, which, dare I venture, doesn't probably have a lot to do with speech. I'm talkin' spokes, people. No, not spokespeople. Those things that you find inside wheels that I suppose keep the rim from getting wrecked. My confession of ignorance isn't really about function--though I suspect there is a thing or two to learn there too, but about etymology.
What's the root?
Okay, okay. You guessed it already, didn't you? My problem was that I got stuck on the vowel. It's not related to speak, it's related to spike. Or probably is. At least in one theory, it's related to a lot of sharp, pointy things, like spines and pinnacles and Lithuanian thorns (speigliai) and tongues of buckles (spitna), and Latin ears of corn (spica), and all relating back to one of those ProtoIndoEuropean bases, *spei-, meaning 'sharp point'. Apparently the OED is not so sure that it actually relates to all the Germanic family words, but in any case, in Old English it was spaca and is related to the word spicing, which meant 'large nail'.
This all makes sense, but I'm still a bit confused. Spokes originally referred not to those those little sticks you see connecting the hub and the rim, but to lengths of a log that had been split horizontally into sections. What we now think of as spokes were actually carved out of these longer pieces of wood. The meaning of the word drifted, in that fascinating way that words do drift, from the raw material to the finished product. I'm not really sure why those original bigger pieces of wood were called spokes, though. It wouldn't seem that they would have necessarily been all that sharp, but I doubt I can dig down to the heart on that.
A couple of things came to light as I researched this word. One is that even spokes have geeks. One of the things that spoke geeks (mainly cyclists) talk about is the question of 'hang or stand?'--that is, does a loaded bike stand on its bottom spokes, or hang from its top ones? You can look at it one way, or you can look at it another. It's all a bit beyond me, I'm afraid.
|The desired spoke length for wheels with crossed spokes.|
And it was only as I was writing this that I realized that there was a phrase about spokes that's a bit odd. The expression 'to put a spoke in one's wheel', meaning to put a stop or obstacle into someone's plans, doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you try to visualize it. An extra spoke would only strengthen the thing, wouldn't it?
Well, in fact, we're talking about a whole different set of wheels. Before spokes, there were still wheels. They were circles of wood with a small hole or two in which a long pin (or spoke) could be inserted and then act as a kind of brake.
|Getting around in the Bronze Age|