Wire twists

The electricians have been rewiring my new house this week and finished today, so I thought it would be interesting to looking the etymology of the word wire.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, wire comes from the Old English word wir (metal drawn out into a thread), which is related to the Old Norse word viravirka (filigree work), the Swedish word vira (to twist), and the Old High German word wiara (fine gold work).

Going further back we find that the Proto-Indo-European root of wire and wir is *wei- (to turn, twist, plait). This is also the root of the Old Irish word fiar (bent, crooked – cam in Modern Irish); the Welsh word gwyr (bent, crooked); and the Latin viere (to bend, twist).

The Proto-Indo-European Etymology dictionary gives the PIE root of wire as *chislom.

There are quite a few idiomatic expressions involving wire, including:

  • the wire – another for the telephone, and the name of a TV series
  • down the wire – right up to the last moment
  • get in under the wire – to accomplish something with little time to spare
  • get one’s wires crossed – to misunderstand
  • pull wires – to exert influence behind the scenes using personal connections, etc – also ‘pull strings’
  • wire in – to set about (something, especially food) with enthusiasm (not one I’ve come across before)

Does wire feature in equivalents of these expressions in other languages, or in other idioms?

This entry was posted in English, Etymology, Idioms, Irish, Language, Latin, Old Norse, Welsh, Words and phrases.

11 Responses to Wire twists

  1. stormboy says:

    ‘To be wired’ means to be very excited or high – perhaps an allusion to being connected to a source of electricity and the effect this has?

  2. Jerry says:

    In Dutch, “wire” is “draad”, so probably has no common etyomology.

    However, there’s something interesting. The word “wir” means nothing either, except that it is used in the word “wirwar”.

    The second part of that, “war”, is part of an expression. “In de war” means “tangled up” (in the literal sense: wires tangled up) or “confused” (in a figurative sense).

    “Wirwar” is used (only in the literal sense, by the way) as a noun, meaning “a collection of things tangled up”. (Sorry, there must be a single English word for that, but I don’t know.)

    So although the Dutch language apparently does not use a word derived from “wir”, we do use it in that expression “wirwar”. Funny, by reading this blog on English I am learning about my own language… 🙂

  3. Chris Miller says:

    I think ‘draad’ in Dutch is most likely cognate with English ‘thread’. As for the PIE *chislom, I couldn’t find the dictionary to find it at the link, but I know that the people at the Dnghu site use in a nonstandard way to represent a sound that other Indo-Europeanists all write with another letter. Unfortunately, I don’t remember what sound they intend. In any case, this reconstructed word seems to have no plausible relation to our ‘wire’. Could it be their conlang Modern Indo-European word for ‘wire’, rather than a real etymology?


  4. Chris Miller says:

    Two other observations.

    I wonder if English words beginning with wr- that have a meaning related to ‘turn’, like writhe, wring and wrong, might be related to the same root. There is also Slavic врема, vreme etc. (time) and the ver-/vor- in Latin-derived vertical and vortex that have the same wer- structure with a similar meaning…

  5. Yenlit says:

    English words derived from the same PIE root are:
    withe – a strong flexible twig especially of willow suitable for binding.
    withy – a willow tree especially an osier.
    ferrule – a metal ring, cap or tube placed over the end of a stick for added strength.
    I’ve never heard of the expression ‘to wire in’ although it’s in the dictionary – maybe it’s either an old figure of speech or used more outside of British English? Perhaps it’s a variant on the fishing phrase ‘to reel in’?

  6. Chris Miller says:

    That should be время (vremja) for Russian and vremě for Czech. Apologies for the typos!

  7. Yenlit says:

    @Chris – You’re probably on to something seeing as many words starting with the letter combination ‘wr-‘ seem to have connotations of twisting, turning, bending etc. such as the words: writhe, wrought, wring, wrench, wrist, wriggle, wrangle etc. Would it be possibly related to ‘worm’ also?

  8. Andrew says:

    “Down to the wire”, not “down the wire”.

    Also: “wiry”, meaning “lean and sinew: a wiry little person. ” according to: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/wiry


  9. Could it also be related to ‘weird’, which means strange or odd, and twisted (in a metaphorical sense)? Also, ‘warped’ may
    be related.

  10. Drabkikker says:

    @ Jerry,

    I have been told that the war part in Dutch wirwar is actually the cognate of English war. The common origin lies in the original meaning ‘confusion’; hence ‘conflict’, ‘chaos’, etc.

    I think the wir- element in wirwar was added later to create an imitative word of the universally attested ia type: bimbam, zigzag, tiktak, etc.

    Dutch doesn’t really have cognates of wire, although a remote relative is wier ‘seaweed’.

  11. Drabkikker says:

    @ myself:

    Ah! I checked the Etymology Dictionary, and it says that although the phonetic “bimbam” aspect is definitely at play, both wir- and war- did have an existence of their own, the former being the causative of the latter. I share your joy of learning about my own language here!

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