Thursday, November 30, 2017

Word of the day: sledgehammer

Walking through the hardware store, I wondered: why sledgehammer? Does it have something to do with sledding? A mighty hammer used to free a sled stuck in ice?

The Oxford English Dictionary traces sledge to the Old English slecg, equivalent to the Middle Dutch and Dutch slegge and related to similar words in Old Norse and other languages. The surprise comes at the end of the etymology: “The stem *slagj- is derived from that of slay.” So a sledgehammer is a killing hammer? No, not really: the obsolete slay in question means “to smite, strike, or beat,” and sledgehammer or sledge, as the dictionary points out, refers “especially” to a blacksmith’s hammer.

Sledge, as I vaguely remembered, does also mean “sled” or “sleigh.” But that sledge derives from the Middle Dutch sleedse — no smiting there, just a sled. And sleigh comes from the Dutch slee, a contracted form of slede. No smiting there either.

The word hammer comes from the Old English hamor, hamer, hǫmer, equivalent to similar words in a number of Germanic languages. Says the OED, “The Norse sense ‘crag’, and possible relationship to Slavic kamy, Russian kameni stone, have suggested that the word originally meant ‘stone weapon.’” Primitive, man, primitive.

[Whatever we were looking for in the hardware store, it wasn’t a sledgehammer. I think it was microfiber cloths.]

comments: 6

The Crow said...

When butchering hogs and cattle, my father first stunned the animals with a sledge hammer (sometimes the blow has hard enough to kill). He then lifted the animal by its hind legs (bar was slid through a cut behind the Achilles of each leg so the animal could be hoisted to the top of a slaughtering 'tree'), cut its carotids and let it bleed out.

Could that be why the hammer has the name sledge, meaning to smite? Also, the weight of the hammer head added force to the blow; made it easier to hit the mark, whether it was an iron spike or that thin spot on the face, right between the eyes, called the sweet spot.

Never knew stuff learned on a backwoods farm would come in handy like this.

Michael Leddy said...

For sure, a sledgehammer will do grievous bodily harm. But the dictionary definition suggests that it was intended as a tool, not a weapon.

The only butchering I’ve seen has been in documentaries — a bullet to the head or a neck wrung. Your description is a strong reminder that the work behind food is something often hidden from us.

The Crow said...

The reason my dad chose to stun rather than shoot was that he used the brains for food. Shooting sometimes left the brains in a shattered, bloodied mess, whereas stunning (done correctly, which he did probably 95% of the time) allowed him to harvest near pristine brains.

(I'm appalled that I can write about such things so casually...actually, I can't. I'm beginning to feel guilty about the killings and methods used.)

Michael Leddy said...

I’ve heard about people trading off the work of butchering — they can’t bring themselves to do it to their own animals. And I know that 4-H kids often have complicated feelings when the animals they’ve raised are to be “sold.”

The Crow said...

I raised rabbits in 4-H, and cried like 17 babies when we took them to the butcher. I dropped out of 4-H right after least, the animal husbandry group, anyway. Stuck with domestic skills instead. Lived in Mountain View, AR at the time.

(WOW! It's true what they say about short-term memory loss when you get older! I couldn't recall what I did last Friday this morning, but writing about all of this has opened doors to 65-year-old memories that seem as fresh as yesterday.)

Michael Leddy said...

Martha, I hope that if you write more, you’ll post it.