September 11, 2013

Case File #013.09.11: SKULL

Old English had several words for the bone that encloses the brain, though all of them were compounds using either brain (brægen in Old English) or head (heafod ) as a base: brægenpanne, which translates as “brain pan”; heafodpanne, which translates as “head pan”; heafodbolla, which translates as “head bowl” or “head cup”; heafodloca, which translates as “head enclosure”; and finally heafodban, which translates as “head bone.” Around the end of the twelfth century, these compounds were all abandoned in favor of the now common skull, but curiously enough, nobody knows for sure where the newer noun came from. Among etymologists, the traditional belief has been that the word was derived from the Old Icelandic skalli, which meant “bald head” but was also sometimes used to mean “head bone.” However, a more recent theory suggests that skull evolved from the Old English noun scealu, which meant “husk or shell” and was often used as a generic term for cup- and bowl-like containers.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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