I think most everyone knows what a gavel is: “a small mallet used by a presiding officer or an auctioneer to signal for attention or order or to mark the conclusion of a trans-action” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., sense 1). There’s another kind of gavel, too, which might seem to better fit the usual subject matter of Lingwë — “tribute or rent in ancient and medieval England” (AHD, sense 2) — but I’m more interested in the first. Why? Because of the difficulties of its etymology. For sense 2, the etymology is unexceptional (OE gafol). Not so, the more familiar sense 1.
Of that word, AHD says nothing more than “origin unknown”. The Random House Unabridged (quoted by Dictionary.com) basically agrees: “1795–1805, Americanism; orig. uncert.” Encarta Online says only: “Early 19th century. Origin ?” And Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary is apparently flummoxed: “Etymol. uncertain.” Even the venerable Oxford English Dictionary fails us, giving no etymology, but thrusting it out of their jurisdiction as “U.S. Only.” Well, that’s just not good enough, is it?
The word is not in Skeat’s etymological dictionary (perhaps entering common usage a little too late for it), but Eric Partridge has taken a stab at it in his more recent dictionary. There, he acknowledges it to be “o.o.o. [of obscure origin], but perh[aps] akin to kevel, a hammer for stone-shaping or –breaking, itself o.o.o., but prob[ably] akin to naut[ical] kevel, a strong cleat or timber for fastening a vessel’s heavy lines” . The origin of the nautical kevel is through Old North French keville “wooden peg” (OF cheville), from Latin clāvicula, diminutive of clāvis “key”. Hmmm. I find myself in the rare position of being unconvinced by Partridge.
But wait a moment: let’s back up. Setting aside this unnecessary nugget of nautical nomenclature, kevel = “a stonemason’s hammer” has promise. A gavel is a kind of a hammer, after all. So what about a kevel? Some dictionaries have nothing to offer for the etymology of this word (e.g., RHU), but WRUD points to cavil as an alternate spelling. But cavil is also a verb, meaning “to raise irritating and trivial objections”, derived from OF caviller “to cavil, wrangle, reason crossly”, from Latin cavillārī “to jeer, scoff, quibble”, in turn from from cavilla “jeering, jesting, or banter”.
Now, I think we’re getting somewhere! What the connection between kevel = “hammer” and cavil = “argue” might be, if any, I will leave to your imaginations for the moment, but caviling certainly seems relevant to the idea of the gavel used in the auction-house or courtroom. After all, one uses a gavel to interrupt caviling. Partridge ventures that L cavilla might, by dissimilation, derive from L calvāri “to deceive”, while Skeat says its origin is “unclear”, but I have another idea. Actually, I have two.
First, could cavil be related to caw, as in “the hoarse raucous noise of crows and other birds”, clearly of onomatopoeic origins? It seems a reasonable metaphorical picture to me: cawing, chattering, “arguing” birds = arguing people: that is, caw qua cavil, Q.E.D.?
Second, and better, could cavil (and/or gavel) be related to gabble, the frequentative form of gab “to talk idly or incessantly, as about trivial matters”? What is a gavel for but to quiet down idle chatter? The word gab(ble) comes to us from ME gabben “to talk idly”, also used in the sense of “to lie, delude” (cause for concern in the courtroom, without a doubt!); and previously, from ON gabba “to mock, make a game of one”. Skeat calls the ON gabba “of imitative origin”, which sounds right on to me. It’s part of a cluster of similar onomatopoeic words (which, for brevity, I will save for a future post).
The sonic and semantic distance between the words cavil, gavel, and gabble seems quite small to me: I would find a relationship between them plausible, even probable. Far be it from me to second-guess Partridge or Skeat — not to mention the erudite men and women on the etymological teams of the various dictionaries cited above — but I feel pretty good about this. Although gab(ble) has a Germanic provenance and cavil a Romantic one, both are thought to be imitative; hence it’s not at all out of bounds to think they might have a common ancestor form. They’re also similar enough in form and function to have become conflated into gavel through protracted courtroom or auction-house usage, or even to have been blended deliberately into a kind of portmanteau.
What do you think? (And don’t all talk at once, or I’ll have to bring down the gavel to restore order. :)
 Partridge, Eric. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1959, p. 248 [The 3rd ed., 1961, is substantively the same].