Monday, May 2, 2016


One day it occurred to me that the word "walk" was spelled kind of oddly, and I wondered where it came from. Not surprisingly, its roots are a bit less than firmly known, but they start from Old English and go to proto-German and old Norse.

The surprising part was that the words it comes from didn't mean what we would mean by walk. My favorite etymology site,, says it's a combination of the

Old English wealcan "to toss, roll, move round"..., and 2. wealcian "to roll up, curl," from Proto-Germanic *welk- (cognates: Old Norse valka "to drag about," Danish valke "to full" (cloth), Middle Dutch walken "to knead, press, full" (cloth), Old High German walchan "to knead," German walken "to full"), perhaps ultimately from PIE root *wel- (3) "to turn, roll" (see volvox).

The shift in sense is perhaps from a colloquial use of the Old English word or via the sense of "to full cloth" (by treading on it), though this sense does not appear until after the change in meaning.
Which led me to look up fulling on the Wikipedia. I knew it had something to do with wool cloth, but had I thought it was some kind of cleaning or repair process to existing cloth or clothing.

Turns out it's part of the process of turning sheep's wool into wool cloth, cleaning it and making it thicker or fuller, to be exact. And the process involved walking on the material, usually while it was immersed in some kind of liquid (urine during Roman times, or water mixed with fuller's earth in later years). Okay, sometimes they used their hands or a club to hit the wool, but it's easy to see why feet would have been a good tool, just as with grapes.

Even more eyebrow-raising, the last names Fuller, Tucker, and Walker are all derived from this same job.

So the word "walk" comes from a process that required walking, but before that was the word for walking (in Old English). I wonder what the word for walking was in Old English and the other source languages?

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

What a wonderful post. I had no idea that walk had such a complicated story.