February 26, 2014

Case File #014.02.26: LIMPET

As you probably know, a limpet is a marine mollusk that has a shallow conical shell, a broad muscular foot, and a proclivity for tightly clinging to rocks. But what you may not know is that the roots of the word limpet ultimately wind back to the classical Latin verb lambere, which meant “to lick” and “to suck up.” In the Late Latin era, the verb was combined with the noun petra, meaning “rock,” to form the noun lampetra, which was used to mean “lamprey” but literally translates as “rock licker” or “rock sucker.” Lampetra became lampreda when it passed into Medieval Latin, and for reasons not entirely clear, lampreda came to mean both “lamprey” and “limpet.” When speakers of Old English borrowed the Medieval Latin term, they Anglicized its form to lempedu but continued to use it as a moniker for the two different aquatic animals. However, as Old English gave way to Middle English in the twelfth century, English speakers started using lamprey—derived from the Old French lampreie, it was thus originally spelled lamprei or sometimes laumprei—to refer to the eel-like creature, and they now applied lempedu solely to the rock-clinging mollusk. As you may have already guessed, the spelling of lempedu eventually evolved into the now familiar limpet (sometimes spelled lempet before the form was standardized), though etymologists and lexicographers are not all in agreement as to when this took place: some claim it happened in the early fourteenth century, whereas others say the contemporary form appeared no earlier than 1602.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

No comments:

Post a Comment