Q From Martin Turner: I’ve just looked up thwart in Collins Dictionary and wasn’t surprised to find an Old English origin. Or that it has various splinter meanings, such as a seat in a boat. But I’d guess that there is a tale to tell in its history over these many years. Is it one of these words whose meaning has completely changed? Care to take it on?
A “Splinter meaning” applied to a boat seat sounds painful.
Thwart is strictly speaking Middle English. However, an equivalent word did exist in Old English, thweorh, transverse, perverse, angry or cross. It seems to have died out and the adverb thwart was reintroduced from the related Old Norse thvert. It’s from an ancient Indo-European root that’s shared by Latin torquere, to twist. In English an early sense was of something transverse or crosswise.
The early evidence is pretty sparse — it doesn’t seem to have been especially common — so the way it developed isn’t altogether clear. Early on, though, the idea developed of something that lay or was put across the way, so hindering or obstructing one’s progress. Another early sense, recorded around 1250, was one borrowed from Germanic languages of a person who was figuratively obstructive or cross-grained — awkward, obstinate or stubborn. The verb, which appeared about the same time, first meant to oppose or hinder. Our modern sense, to successfully oppose another person’s intentions, appeared near the end of the sixteenth century.
The story of the boat thwart is curious. The basic idea is clear enough: that the seat was across the boat, placed from side to side or transversely (you might say athwart, formed from thwart in the same way that across came from cross). But the sense only appeared in the early eighteenth century. Before that, the seat was a thoft (from an ancient root meaning to squat), which changed in the seventeenth century into a form that was spelled as thought, thaught or thawt. By the eighteenth century it seems this word had become unfamiliar enough that speakers assumed the “correct” form was thwart.
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