Monday, March 27, 2017

Word of the day: heirloom

Did heirloom first denote a loom so great that it’s passed down from generation to generation? I’d been meaning to look that up for months. Seeing the word heirloom while shopping for seeds finally prompted me to find out. Is there a loom in heirloom? Yes and no.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains it all. Heirloom is made of two nouns. The second is the surprise: loom (c. 900) derives from the Middle English lome, meaning “tool, utensil.” Thus an heirloom is

a chattel that, under a will, settlement, or local custom, follows the devolution of real estate. Hence, any piece of personal property that has been in a family for several generations.
And later, figuratively, “anything inherited from a line of ancestors, or handed down from generation to generation.” The OED dates heirloom to 1424. Loom as a machine for weaving fabric is earlier (1404), but the citations for heirloom make clear that the word has to do with any kind of property, not with machines for weaving.

As for heirloom in relation to plants, that sense of the word is a recent invention:
Chiefly N. Amer. Of or designating a variety of plant or breed of animal which is distinct from the more common varieties associated with commercial agriculture, and has been cultivated or reared using the same traditional methods for a long time, typically on a small scale and often within a particular region or family.
The first citation for this use of heirloom comes from the New York Times, 1949: “One of the old heirloom varieties of lettuce seems to be coming to the fore.”

As for the verb loom, “to appear indistinctly; to come into view in an enlarged and indefinite form”: it’s unrelated. The OED explains:
Skeat suggests that the original meaning may have been “to come slowly (towards),” and compares East Frisian lômen, Swedish dialect loma to move slowly, Middle High German luomen to be weary, < luomi slack.
The OED also notes the word loomy (Scots and northern dialect), meaning “misty, cloudy.”

Long story short: an heirloom isn’t a weaving machine, nor is it something looming in the distance. Nor is it related to Erroll Garner, though the rights to “Misty” would be quite a heirloom.

[As for loom the noun, the word’s “ulterior etymology,” as the OED calls it, is murky: lome may derive from the Old English gelóma, “utensil, implement,” or from the Old English gelóme, “often,” the latter possibility suggesting that lome designated “things in frequent use.” Skeat: Walter William Skeat (1835–1912), distinguished philologist.]

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