Adventures in Etymology – Lead

Today we’re delving into the origins of the word lead.

Lead Ingots

lead [lɛd] is:

  • a soft, heavy, metallic element with atomic number 82 found mostly in combination and used especially in alloys, batteries, and shields against sound, vibration, or radiation.
  • a thin strip of metal used to separate lines of type in printing.

It comes from the Middle English le(e)d [lɛːd] (lead, cauldron), from the Old English lēad [læɑːd] (lead), from the Proto-West-Germanic *laud (lead)), from the Gaulish *laudon (lead), from the Proto-Celtic *ɸloudom (iron), from the PIE *plewd- (to fly, flow, run) [source].

Words from the same Proto-West-Germanic root include lood [loːt] (lead, plumb bob) in Dutch, Lot [loːt] (plummet, solder) in German, and lod [lʌð] (plumb bob, fishing weight) in Danish [source].

Words from the same Proto-Celtic root include luaidhe [ˈl̪ˠuːiː/l̪ˠuəjə] (lead) in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, leoaie (lead) in Manx [source].

Words from the same PIE root include float, flow, flood, fleet and Pluto in English, vlotten (to glide, go smoothly) in Dutch, and flotter [flɔ.te] (to float, flutter, wave, mill about) in French [source].

Incidentally, to word lead [liːd], as in to guide or direct, is not related to lead (the metal). It comes from the Middle English leden (to lead, carry, take, put), from the Old English lǣdan (to lead, bring, take, carry, guide), from the Proto-Germanic *laidijaną (to cause one to go, lead), causative of the Proto-Germanic *līþaną (to go, pass through), from Proto-Indo-European *leyt- (to go, depart, die) [source].

Here’s a video I made of this information:

Video made with Doodly [afflilate link].

I also write about words, etymology and other language-related topics on the Omniglot Blog, and I explore etymological connections between Celtic languages on the Celtiadur.

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One thought on “Adventures in Etymology – Lead

  1. I find it interesting, looking back on my life, how I so greatly misunderstood lead. As a kid in school, you’d see someone poke another student with a pencil, only to have them cry out (after yelling, of course),”Why’d you do that? I’ll get lead poisoning from the lead pencil!” No one seemed to notice that pencils were made with graphite, and have no lead at all.

    Later, in chemistry class, I was fascinated by the Latin word for lead, which is plumbum. That explains why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb and not Ld or something. It also explains “plumbers” as people who worked with lead to solder pipes, and “plumb line” as a string tied to a lead weight to create a true vertical line.

    I am plumb confused about how many other aspects of “lead” have I missed over the years. I suspect that similar expressions, like “plumb crazy” relate back to the plumb line being a “true” straight line was extended such that “plumb” meant “truly” or “actually”.

    I was plumb delighted to share this with y’all.

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