Perhaps a hidden threeness

I had occasion the other day to look up the origin of English tress and found that there are various theories. What’s known is that English took the word from Old French tresse. That noun meant ‘a braid of hair,’ a sense that English tress still has, although the American Heritage Dictionary marks it archaic. The modern sense of tress, as given in the Oxford Dictionaries, is ‘a long lock of a woman’s hair.’

But back to the origin of the word. The American Heritage Dictionary says that Old French might have inherited tresse from Vulgar Latin *trichia, tricia ‘a rope, braid,’ which the Romans had taken from Greek trikhiā ‘a rope,’ based on  thrix or trikh- ‘hair.’ The Dictionnaire historique de la langue française offers that hypothesis and a couple of others. One, proposed by Gamillscheg, would go back to Frankish *thréhja, from the same root as Germanic words having to do with turning (and possibly related to Latin torquere). Another theory, proposed tentatively by Corominas, sees the Old French word as a relative of Spanish trenzar, which would have arisen from the Latin verb tertiāre, based on tertius ‘third.’ The semantic connection, of course, is that hair is typically braided into three strands, each of which makes up a third of a braid. As for Spanish trenzar, the DRAE follows the same semantic line and reconstructs a phonetically dictated Vulgar Latin *trinitiāre, which would have been based on Latin trīni ‘three each.’

In summary, it’s unclear whether Spanish trenza and English tress are cognates or merely one more pair of etymologically unrelated words, like día and day, that coincidentally (but strikingly) sound similar and mean the same thing.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maria F.
    Apr 19, 2015 @ 12:48:34

    The conundrum I can suspect here is this one:
    “Tri-” is a word-forming element meaning “three, having three, once every three,” from Latin tres (neuter tria) or Greek treis, trias “three” and from Greek trikhia “rope,” from thrix (genitive trikhos) “hair”, from nominative plural of PIE root *trei- “three” (cognates: Sanskrit trayas, Avestan thri, Greek treis, Latin tres, Lithuanian trys, Old Church Slavonic trye, Irish and Welsh tri “three”).

    “In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. This learned term derives from the Latin cognatus (blood relative). In linguistic research it is generally understood as excluding doublets and loan words…Cognates do not need to have the same meaning, which may have changed as the languages developed separately.”-Wiki

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 19, 2015 @ 13:09:32

      The etymologists at the American Heritage Dictionary apparently don’t consider Greek thrix, trikhos ‘hair’ to be a descendant of the Indo-European root *trei- that meant ‘three’ and that led to all the other words in your first paragraph. Sometimes etymologists disagree about such things, but I’ve looked in several other sources and haven’t yet found one that ascribes Greek thrix, trikhos ‘hair’ to the Indo-European root *trei- that meant ‘three’.

      Reply

      • Maria F.
        Apr 19, 2015 @ 13:14:19

        I see, so they are also looking at “Germanic words having to do with turning (and possibly related to Latin torquere)” which suggest “twist”.

        Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 19, 2015 @ 13:11:46

      Note that Corominas’s conjecture was just that, a conjecture, but without definitive proof.

      Reply

      • Maria F.
        Apr 19, 2015 @ 13:34:10

        They’re most likely looking at Middle English “thred”, from Old English thrǣd; akin to Old High German drāt wire, Old English thrāwan to cause to twist or turn — more at throw:
        First Known Use: before 12th century, Related to THREAD= (Textiles) a fine cord of twisted filaments, esp of cotton, used in sewing, weaving, etc.

        Reply

  2. Maria F.
    Apr 19, 2015 @ 13:06:59

    They must be cognates because even if it is a “braid” it still is “three”, it has evolved from “tre-“. “Corominas, sees the Old French word as a relative of Spanish trenzar, which would have arisen from the Latin verb tertiāre, based on tertius ‘third.’ The semantic connection, of course, is that hair is typically braided into three strands, each of which makes up a third of a braid”-I agree with this tentative explanation.

    Reply

  3. shoreacres
    Apr 19, 2015 @ 19:40:14

    This is interesting, because I’ve never heard “tress” used in the singular. I’ve always heard “tresses” used to refer to long, luxurious, Rapunzel-like hair. A lock of hair was a small curl or bit taken to save as a token of a first haircut, or to place in a locket as a romantic gesture. “Locks” in the plural usually referred to a child’s hair: e.g., Goldilocks, and a strand of hair meant a single hair.

    As for braids? We wore braids, but we plaited hair. Curious. Of course this all is usage rather than etymology, but I’ve never stopped to think how precise our “hair vocabulary” actually was.

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 20, 2015 @ 05:40:22

      This line popped into my head: Tresses and dresses are things with which a man rarely messes. Both have elaborate vocabularies that I’m not familiar with. Like you, though, I have an impression that tresses is more common than tress. I went searching and turned up an 1876 translation of a French novel called The Golden Tress, and on p. 44 I found both the singular and the plural: “… Edmond turned round to look for the blond tress that he had thrown far away from him on the library floor….” “… I saw that she was pale, and her hair was flowing in long tresses on her shoulders.”

      Reply

      • Maria F.
        Apr 20, 2015 @ 07:52:36

        You mean you don’t like my hypothesis? This is beginning to reach a threshold…

        Reply

        • Steve Schwartzman
          Apr 20, 2015 @ 11:25:16

          I’m all for hypotheses, Maria. I just wish more documents from past centuries had survived. When we go as far back as Indo-European there are no documents at all (because writing didn’t exist yet), and we do our best to infer things about it from the languages that descended from that original.

          Reply

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