A weaver of silk, a weaver of words

What do the king of American dictionaries and one of nature's most fascinating and (regrettably) feared subjects have in common?

Let's start with the Greeks. They gave us the word spaein, meaning "to drag or draw." The word was adopted by the Old Teutons (Germans) who packed it up with the rest of their verbal baggage and took it to fifth-century Britain (along with an invading army or two).

Once planted in Britain, the word underwent some linguistic crossbreeding. and emerged as the Old English verb spinnan. We now say "spin."

Middle English speakers (those from the 12th through 15th centuries) devised a word that meant a spinner: spithre. It came to mean a member of the arachnid family. In time its spelling changed to a form we recognize today: spider.

In Sanskrit, a language spoken in ancient India, a spider was urna-vabhis, or "wool weaver." According to scholars, the most likely Indo-European root for "weave" and "web" is webh, meaning "to braid or weave." This root word spread and bore fruit in the Old Norse word vefa, the Old High German weban, and ultimately in the Old English wefan.

"To web" then became the noun webb, until the English banished the second "b."

The Old English word for a woman weaver was webbestre. After the 1300s the word applied to any weaver, man or woman.

"Webster" became a surname, just as had Cooper (barrelmaker), Boyer (from the word "bowyer," or archer), Sawyer (a cutter of wood), and many others.

So when you think of Noah Webster, the father of American English grammar and usage, think of a man who published his first major web of words in 1806 and called it "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language." How compendious (brief) was it? In it, Webster, who mastered 12 languages, defines "spider" simply as "the name of a well known insect."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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