When is a spike not a spike?

English has two unrelated nouns that have coincidentally ended up with the form spike. Most people are more familiar with the one that means ‘a large nail’ and that goes back to Old Norse spik. The other spike is ‘an ear of grain’ and also, in botany, ‘a type of inflorescence in which sessile [stalkless] flowers grow on an unbranched, elongated axis.’ This plant-related spike came from the Latin spica ‘an ear of grain’ that has evolved to Spanish espiga. The Spanish noun means the same as the second English spike but has also developed extended meanings based on appearance, including: ‘the end of a piece of timber that fits into another piece; the fuse of a bomb; the upper part of a sword; the narrowest part of a spiral staircase; a graft, i.e. a shoot of one type of plant inserted into another.’

English joins Spanish in extending meanings, but of the spike that is ‘a large nail.’ One such extension, figurative but also literal, is ‘a tuft of hair made to stand up on a person’s head’ (see pictures). In olden times, and to a lesser extent today, people would hammer a spike into something, e.g. the barrel of a gun, as a way of disabling it, so as a verb spike has come to mean ‘to render ineffective, to thwart.’ To spike a drink is ‘to add alcohol or a drug to it,’ which can result in rendering the drinker ineffective. In volleyball, to spike the ball is ‘to hit it sharply downward into the opposing court,’ which makes the other team’s defense ineffective.

English has gone back to Latin spica and borrowed it to mean, based on the resemblance to an ear of grain, ‘a kind of bandage passing, by successive turns and crosses, from an extremity to the trunk.’ In capitalized form, Spica is the name of the brightest star in the constellation Virgo; but if the star is clear, the reason it was given that name isn’t. Searching for an answer, I found the following in a Wikipedia article: “The name Spica derives from Latin spīca virginis ‘Virgo’s ear of grain’ (usually wheat).” The picture included in the article puts Spica at the tip of a formation of stars that can be seen—as always when talking about constellations, with plenty of imagination—to resemble the pattern of an inverted ear of grain.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    May 17, 2012 @ 21:12:27

    It’s amazing how many uses there are for “spike”. There’s also the spike deer – a young male with unbranched antlers.

    And I’m of the generation that can’t help but remember Spike Jones and his City Slickers – a perfectly terrible act that provided plenty of entertainment for my folks. Maybe Spike’s a good name for entertainers – today we’ve got Spike Jonze and Spike Lee.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 17, 2012 @ 21:29:55

      The spike deer is new to me, but Spike Jones is not, even though he was popular primarily before my time. When I was growing up we had a 78 record of Spike Jones and his City Slickers singing “Der Führer’s Face .”


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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