Close
Skip to content

The curious etymology of gloss

Glossolalia is a lovely word. It means ‘speaking in tongues’, or, as Wikipedia has it, ‘the fluid vocalizing…of speech-like syllables, often as part of religious practice’.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether this phenomenon is indicative of divine possession or mental disturbance, and look at the etymology: glossolalia (γλωσσολαλία) is a compound of two Greek words, γλῶσσα (glossa), meaning tongue or language, and λαλέω (laleō), to speak, talk, chat, prattle, or to make a sound. Hence speaking in tongues.

Divorced from its etymological context, you could argue that glossolalia becomes slightly onomatopoeic. (Or should that be autological?)

In any case, reading this made me think about gloss. A gloss is a scholarly explanation, typically of some obscure or opaque point or usage; like glossolalia, it comes from the Greek γλῶσσα (glossa), via Latin glossa, and gives us glossary.

(Wikipedia furnishes two rather charming examples of glosses:

A Cossack longboat is called a chaika ‘seagull’.
The moose gains its name from the Algonquian mus or mooz,‘twig eater’.)

But gloss can also be used to refer to a shine, or a sheen, or a refulgence, as in the case of gloss paint, or the glossy fur of a well-fed labrador. Curious. I spent an agreeable five minutes trying to work out how ‘glossa’ could have come to mean ‘shiny’ (have a go, it’s fun) before I checked it on etymology dot com.

Alongside the etymology touched on above, it gives the following as the origin of ‘gloss-meaning-shiny’:

– “luster,” 1530s, from Scandinavian (cf. Icelandic glossi “flame,” related to glossa “to flame”), or obsolete Du. gloos “a glowing,” from M.H.G. glos; probably ultimately from the same source as O.E. glowan (see glow).

Imagine that! Two radically disparate etymologies converging on the same word. I’d be interested to know how many other words share this characteristic and, in the case that they exist, how and if the two meanings interact and influence each other. I found it quite easy to imagine, for example, that ‘gloss’ as shiny could be connected to the idea of a scholarly gloss ‘polishing’ the meaning of a word, making it clear and brilliant where before it was murky and dim. Of course, I was totally wrong, but it just goes to show how contentedly the brain makes these little leaps.

Do let me know if you can think of any others…

Related Posts