June 11, 2013

Case File #013.06.11: WEB

Web is another one of those English words that can be traced all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon era. Originally spelled webb, it was derived from the Old English verb wefen (also spelled webben or webbian), meaning “to weave yarn or thread,” and was thus the general term for woven fabric. (Webster and weber, also derivatives of wefen, were once common terms for “a person who weaves fabric,” but they were supplanted by weaver in the fourteenth century and survive today as surnames only.) Surprisingly, the sense in which web refers to a spider's silken network didn't show up until the late thirteenth century, and it wasn't until the late sixteenth century that the word also came to mean “the membrane between the toes of ducks and other aquatic animals” and, figuratively, “a snare or trap.” The verb senses of web—that is, “to ensnare or entangle” and “to form a web-like shape or network”—are even newer, having first appeared in the writings of Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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