Adventures in Etymology – Nostril


Today we are delving into the origins of the word nostril, as requested by Sculley_volley on Tiktok

A nostril [ˈnɒstɹɪl / ˈnɒstɹəl] is:

  • either of the two orifices located on the nose (or on the beak of a bird); used as a passage for air and other gases to travel the nasal passages.

It comes from the Middle English nosethirl [ˈnɔːsˌθirl] (nostril), from the Old English nosþȳrel [ˈnosˌθyː.rel] (nostril), from nosu [ˈ] (nose) and þyrel (hole, opening, aperture, pierced). Another word for nostril is nosehole, and the technical/medical term is naris [source].

The word thirl is or was used in some dialects of English to mean a hole, aperture, nostril, or a low door in a dry-stone wall to allow sheep (and hares) to pass through, otherwise known as a smoot. It’s cognate with the word thrill [source].

Incidentally, the word smoot is also a unit of length equal to 5 feet 7 inches (1.70 m), which was named after Oliver R. Smoot, who was used to measure the Harvard Bridge as a prank in 1958. The bridge was found to be 364.4 smoots (2,035 ft; 620.1 m) long [source].

In Old English, þyrel [ˈθy.rel] appeared in other compound words such as ēagþyrel (window, lit. “eye hole”), wāgþyrel (doorway, lit. “wall hole”), and swātþyrel (pore, lit. “sweat hole”) [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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