A gift of the Vikings

You know how it is: one word leads to another and that one to still another and so on. As part of one of those word chases I found myself at the Spanish word patera, which turned out to be ‘a dinghy.’ The Diccionario de la Real Academia Española to which I turned defines it this way: ‘Embarcación pequeña, de fondo plano, sin quilla.’ Make that ‘a small boat, with a flat bottom, without a….” So there I was with the word quilla, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before either, but which by context had to mean the same as the similar-sounding English keel. Where did the Spanish and English words come from? The Diccionario de la Real Academia Española attributed the Spanish version to French quille, so off I went to my Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, which said that the French word was probably borrowed from Old Norse kilir, which it noted was a plural because several pieces of wood are required to make this object. It gave a singular form similar to the Old Norse kjölr that the American Heritage Dictionary listed as the source of English keel. Sailing down through the centuries as a gift from the Vikings then, come the equivalent nautical terms quilla and keel.

Does either language’s word serve as the basis for another word? The online Span¡shD!ct says that Spanish quillaje means ‘harbor dues that used to be paid in France.’ That prompted me to search in English, and sure enough the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary defines keelage as ‘The right of demanding a duty or toll for a ship entering a port; also, the duty or toll.’ Once again the Spanish and English terms have a common origin, this time the synonymous French quillage, based on quille.

On the English side, but with no apparent Spanish counterpart, I also found keeler, which Wordnik, harking back to the wonderful Century Dictionary of the late 1800s, defines in these ways:

  1. One who works on a barge or keel. Also keelman.
  2. n. A small shallow tub used for some domestic purposes, as dish-washing, also to hold stuff for calking ships, etc.
  3. n. A square or oblong wooden box, from 3 to 4 feet long and 6 to 8 inches deep, used in dressing mackerel, and also to hold the salt used in the process. More fully called gib-keeler.

The fact that modern dictionaries list only people named Keeler implies that the lower-case keeler has fallen out of use (compare how Webster lingers only as a name), but you English speakers are free to revive it; surely there are still some small shallow tubs out there that you can casually refer to as a keeler to impress all your friends. And if you can enlist those friends in helping you to dress some mackerel using a keeler of type number 3, they’ll be head over keel in awe of your powers of persuasion.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Mar 02, 2012 @ 16:48:19


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 02, 2012 @ 17:19:30

      Thanks for the Spanish-language link. I’m not familiar with most of the technical terms it gives for parts of a ship, but then I wouldn’t know the English equivalents for most of them either; with your nautical background, though, you probably do. And bravo for your use of keel-hauled; it’s so apt it almost makes me keel over in appreciation.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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