Thursday, January 22, 2009

The etymology of “gavel”

Stop your caviling!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 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” [1]. 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. :)

[1] 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].


  1. I think definitely you are on to something here. Here are some other musings.

    Cavel are also, among other things, etymologically connected with "casting of lots" or allotement in Providence (Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language). Scottish kave is "to clean", "to separate the straw from the corn". In Middle German a kavele is a wooden piece used for casting lots. In Swedish a kavel is a rolling pin and etymologicaly connected with this very word.

    The Scottish dictionary also connects kevel with kif (quarrel, strife). "Gaffla" (literally "forking" or bifurcating) in Swedish dialect is also idle talking.

    In Swedish a gavel is called ordförandeklubba (chairman's club), from German keule. The club is also connected with rod, or even javelin (En. gavelock).

  2. Thanks, Idher. You’ve provided some interesting food for thought as well. I came across some of this (e.g., the “casting of lots” angle) during my research, but it didn’t feel as probable to me as the theory I put forward. Still, I suppose there is a possible imaginative connection between casting lots and having one’s lot determined in a courtroom.

    The possibility of a connection to javelin had not occurred to me. On first consideration, I’m not sure the senses (or initial consonants) of the two words are close enough. On the other hand, looking to Skeat for the etymology of javelin, one does find a couple of cognate forms in Breton (gavlin and gavlod) which demonstrate the sound shift we would be looking for. Skeat also gives Irish gabhla “a spear, lance”. Very close in sound-shape, but it could be mere coincidence.

    It would take a bit more of a leap to get from a spear to a (non-martial) hammer. There is also the fact that the apparent provenance of gavel is American, which would seem to make an influence from Celtic less likely than (a dovetailing?) influence from common English words cavil and/or gabble. Less likely, but certainly not impossible. There were quite a few Irish immigrants coming to America in the 19th century. Interesting line of thinking, and thanks again for sharing your ideas. :)

  3. I think it could be more involved here than pure linguistics, rather the Greek hermeneia in Plato's Cratylus could maybe help making all the phonetic concordances and symbolic meanings intelligible.

    The gravel is a common symbol in Freemasonry with its Pythagorean roots. Its true form is that of a stone-hammers cutting edge. When looked at in front, it is representative of a gavel or a gable of a house. This word seems to come from german Gipfel, a summit, top, or peak - or, again, Greek kephalē, "head".

    The keeper or master of the gavel is ordering a lodge like a stone-hammer governs the craft. An axis with a cutting edge also symbolizes with the sword or the rod between the scales of justice, or the idea of balance and harmony, which are the traditional emblems of royal power (or administrative and military function). The sword is also the attribute of the archangel Mikaël, the Angel of Judgement.

    The many different tools, clubs, ceremonial weapons and rods of wood that are given here as a means for settling a strife or casting the lots of Providence also suggest axis mundi, the Tree of Life, the World Tree, Yggdrasil in Norse mythology or "the middle column" in the sephirotic tree in the Jewish kabbalah, which all denotes Truth and Justice and is indissolubly linked with Peace, contrasting to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, an instance of ofermod which implicates sundering and strife - babeling or babble.

  4. Talking of the relationship between gavel/stone-hammer, masonry, sword, justice and kingship I found this in the Song of Durin:

    "The world was fair, the mountains tall,
    In Elder Days before the fall
    Of mighty kings in Nargothrond
    And Gondolin, who now beyond
    The Western Seas have passed away:
    The world was fair in Durin's Day.

    A king he was on carven throne
    In many-pillared halls of stone

    There hammer on the anvil smote,
    There chisel clove, and graver wrote;
    There forged was blade, and bound was hilt;
    The delver mined, the mason built.
    There beryl, pearl, and opal pale,
    And metal wrought like fishes' mail,
    Buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
    And shining spears were laid in hoard.

    Unwearied then were Durin's folk
    Beneath the mountains music woke:
    The harpers harped, the minstrels sang,
    And at the gates the trumpets rang.

    The world is grey, the mountains old,
    The forge's fire is ashen-cold
    No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
    The darkness dwells in Durin's halls"

  5. More interesting ideas! It could indeed be more involved than simple and gradual changes in sound and sense. I know almost nothing about Freemasonry, except that it arose from fairly obscure origins and is somewhat secretive even today, yes? The German Gipfel, Greek kephalē that you cite seem promising. In such a case, the idea of the presider in the auction-house or courtroom as the metaphorical “head” or “summmit” of the proceedings may have merit.

    I think that gavel / gable may be a red herring, though. At least, that’s my opinion at present. Another friend of mine was pursing a similar line (not with gable itself, but rather with its antecedent forms, suggestive of the sense, “fork, forking”, related to the casting of lots and divination). It could be, but it doesn’t strike my intuition with the same force as cavil / gabble

    If we wanted to move beyond speculation, we would need to examine, much more exhaustively than heretofore, the written record of the word gavel. But I think we have, between us, certainly hit on some thought-provoking possibilities. One of them (or more than one, in tandem) is bound to be the right answer, and in any case, we’ve done better than the big dictionaries.

    Thanks for bringing us back to Tolkien, too. And don’t forget: even before this poem, Tolkien told us in The Hobbit that the “hammers fell like ringing bells.” :)

  6. I think Freemasonry can be a rather interesting source in connection with an obscure and seemingly twofold etymology like this, partly because branches of it seems to have been involved in the shaping of the U.S. constitution and administrative landscape, but mainly because words are symbols par excellence and Freemasonry is one traditional form of technical vocabulary and initiatic rituals which in its pure forms is a "living memory" of a today often (even to themselves) forgotten ancient and universally valid language of symbolism with the exactness of a geometrical science.

    Moreover, it seems like the English word head or German Haupt origins from a softening of an initial k-sound (Sanskrit kapalam, Greek kephalē, Latin caput). The skull or cavalrium resembles the rounded form of the gavel-head.

    Nice echo from The Hobbit there! In the same book we also have a direct conflation between sword and hammer in Glamdring, "Foe-Hammer"...

  7. Nice echo from The Hobbit there! In the same book we also have a direct conflation between sword and hammer in Glamdring, “Foe-Hammer” ...

    Indeed. And lest we forget, also in the single combat between Morgoth and Fingolfin, wielding (respectively) Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld, and the sword, Ringil.

  8. One more remark seems to be of importance concerning the sword and the gavel as a symbol of a balancing or uniting force of Truth and Justice: their combination of a T-formed or hilted vertical rod or axis with a double edge or head, like a double-axe or Thor's hammer Mjöllnir. This cosmic weapon is forged by dwarves in the likeness of the thunderbolt of Indra, vajra, which represents the "Middle Way" and destroys all kinds of ignorance, and is itself is indestructible. See also The Book of Revelation, where the two-edged sword symbolizes the power of the word: "In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword. His face was like the sun when it shines with full force."

    This symbolism of a distinct "Middle" or "Straight" Way indeed finds its application in the lore of Tolkien:

    "‘Be careful, friends!’ cried Gildor laughing. ‘Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue. Bilbo was a good master. Hail, Elf-friend!’ he said, bowing to Frodo. ‘Come now with your friends and join our company! You had best walk in the middle so that you may not stray."

    "I will not give you counsel, saying do this, or do that. For not in doing or contriving, nor in choosing between this course and another, can I avail; but only in knowing what was and is, and in part also what shall be. But this I will say to you: your Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true.'"

  9. Well said! This has been a most illuminating discussion. Indeed, moreso than I expected when I composed the post. Thank you for your contributions.

  10. What an interesting topic! What made you wonder about the origin of such a seemingly ordinary word?

    Even the venerable Oxford English Dictionary fails us, giving no etymology, but thrusting it out of their jurisdiction as “U.S. Only.”

    I wonder what everyone outside the U.S. calls this thing?

  11. Thanks, C.B. What made me wonder about it? Hmmm. I can’t recall exactly what it was; I’ve been mulling it over and dictionary-diving for some time now, on and off. I can tell you that I tend to nose around in dictionaries of various kinds quite a bit, just for fun, and whenever I come across something whose etymology is unclear or unknown, I get curious. I make little lists of such words and sometimes research them. I have post-it notes covered with chicken scratch all around my desk. :)

    As to what those outside the U.S. call a gavel, good question! I don’t know! Anyone?

  12. As to the German kavele mentioned by Idher, related to that might be Dutch kavel, meaning a 'lot' at auction.

  13. Thanks, Harm. I wonder which came first, the auction-house use of the gavel or the courtoom? I would presume the former, but I don’t know.

  14. Sorry I am late to the party :) The word 'kevel' in several forms is undoubtedly Old English for various types of hammer, including the gavel but has remained interchangeable with ‘gavel’ up until the late 19th c. hence the lack of any explanation of its disappearance in contemporary reference. It seems the likely origin of the term for a judicial hammer although other interpretations have been offered.

    The word Gavel (gävel/gevel/gafl/gavle/gaffel/gable etc) is likely a related but older word and I feel is worth investigating. Gavel is possibly proto-Germanic, proto Indo-European (PIE)or Gothic in origin, and must have arisen prior to 400 AD to keep with the known spread of the word through Indo-European language. Versions of 'gavel words' are found in Gothic, Old Saxon, Old Norse, Old Frisian, Faeroese, Latin, Hellenic Greek, Tocharian, Celtic and their direct successors.

    The Uni of Texas Linguistics Research (UTLR) found that ancient Indo-European words phonetically pronounced with 'gebh', including 'ghabh-lo' are ancient words for a fork or a branch (PIE: 'ghabh-lo' > 'Javelin'; as mentioned before is literally a tree branch). I have found nearly 20 Indo-European versions of gavel to mean ‘fork’ alone. Most, if not all of the other old 'gavel words’ build from the idea of forking, splitting, branching, dividing etc. ‘An Etymological Dictionary of the Romance Languages’ (EDRL) indicates a romance Latin origin for ‘gavalus’/’gabalus’ (meaning ‘cross’). It is possible that ‘gable’ referred to the forked or crossed timbers that support a gabled roof structure (or formed a mallet).

    Phonetic words 'ghebh-lo'/'ghebh-la' (spelled gibla in Gothic) are possibly the earliest literal renderings of 'gavel'. According to UTLR they mean 'pinnacle'. Hellenic Greek is sometimes suggested as an alternative the language of origin, as the word 'gavel' is closely related to kephalē (Hellenic for 'head') as mentioned before. Therefore the Old English word 'kevel' may be derived from kephalē/gibla i.e. the 'head' of the hammer.

    Later renderings of ‘gavel’ take up related meanings, mostly not really relevant to this article. Of course, in Old English 'gafol' includes various types of tax/rent/tribute or 'split of the take' and in Old English Gavelkind was a law relating to the division of wealth among heirs. It would seem unlikely but perhaps ‘gavel’ was derived from a Saxon, or even a Celtic word for a 'splitting' tool.

    ‘Gevel’ (‘façade’) is another related term for ‘gable’ but, like the word 'javelin', 'gevel' is a more recent Norman French derived gavel word. The use of the term coincides with the historic European architectural practice of covering the non load-bearing pediments of gables with decorative facade walls. All the same, it still is fun to think 'gavel' is conceptually related to the facade of the impartial law that judges must wear in their duty, of which the hammer is frequently a part.

    I am guessing at this point but I expect the inclusion of a judiciary gavel, much like the parliamentary mace, was initially one of necessity. Either the Judge needed a means of defence against dissenting spectators, to subdue an unruly debtor/prisoner or even to mete punishment. A mallet allows this but in a far less threatening manner than a bladed weapon. This idea is supported by information from the US National Center for States Court web site. Banging the gavel would therefore be an obvious measure to quiet a crowd if a judge were so equipped. However it must be noted that there are no solid records exist of English judges using the gavel although the Freemasons were known to use it extensively and spread its use to the United States where it is still used actively.

  15. Sorry Jason, I was a bit carried away filling in the background on my last post. I want to actually address your musings and argue for the connections between ‘gavel’ (modern), ‘kevel’ (Middle English) and other words.

    ‘Gavel’ is widely recognised as a recent word often asserted to be an Americanised version of kevel/cavel from circa 1795-1805 (Online Etymology, Random House Dictionary etc). Public use of a gavel in 1793 by first US President and Freemason George Washington has helped contribute to this. However evidence exists of the use of the implement and the terminology by other Freemasons, and indeed stonemasons in England.

    ‘Gavel’ perhaps first appears in the fabric rolls of York Minster, church records starting from the early 14th century. It was undoubtedly a tool, itemised between “pykes… scho-velles et ij gavel...beringbarwes et ij whele-barwes.” The relevant roll(s) start from the date 1399 and are the earliest written references to a gavel tool. Decay of the cloth where the word appears hindered further investigation into the nature of the tool; perhaps it was actually a gaveloke (crowbar) or kevil but these tools are listed elsewhere under their correct names therefore a type of hammer is an accepted interpretation.

    The Ahiman Rezon is more solid evidence for the notion of the ‘gavel’s English origins. Printed in London, 1764 the 2nd ed. text describes the contemporary regulations of the Antient Grand Lodge of England. Therein the term gavel is used in its modern context. The relevant passage states “At the third stroke of the grand master’s gavel there will be a general silence… he who breaks silence…will be publicly reprimanded”. This section unquestionably names and describes the modern use of the gavel, and it appears to predate known American use of the term several decades. If the word also appears in the first edition (not available to me) this could place the first printed appearance of the modern word ‘gavel’ at 1756.

    Masonic lore, which is quite unreliable, claims the name ‘gavel’ refers to a gable (pinnacle) of the kevel’s axe face. I feel this provides a suspiciously convenient explanation but does offer continuity between the modern term and more traditional uses of the word. It is noteworthy that traditional Masonic gavels do sometimes have a peaked side or edge and these are held to be representative of a (Masters) rock quarrying kevel not a stone setting maul which has different symbolic meanings in Freemasonry. This stands in contrast with modern generic gavels which tend to be symmetrical.

    If cavel/kevel instead made a phonetic transition into ‘gavel’ the point of change is difficult to pinpoint. Freemasons have used both terms synonymously, at least in more recent history. Unfortunately they don’t appear together in significant (operative) Masonic texts. I am inclined to think this is because the distinction only gained significance once they had transformed into a broader social society after the 16th c. The (speculative) Freemason movement’s desire for ties to operative masonry and their love of metaphoric icons led them to adopt the tools of the stonemason in ritual and to ply each with greater meaning. The kevel’s significance as a master’s tool is a likely reason a stylised version was provided over an ordinary hammer to the individual in the position of Chair (the so called “Master” Mason). Were the name of the Chair’s hammer deliberately selected as a dialectic term for the kevel, as has been suggested, the spread of its use would have been simultaneously encouraged and concealed.

  16. If you accept kevil/kevel as the origin of gavel then older roots become difficult to trace. Kevil first appears in ME as spelling was standardised, distinctions formed between g/k and f/v and entirely new words were introduced into English by the Normans. Kevil’s immediate origin is interesting although disputed but perhaps is not as important in the broader context of historical ‘gavel’ words. With limited space, I must leave others the joy of investigating this root further.

    Alternatively Gavel/gafol (OE: ‘tribute’) is less tricky; we know it relates to the inheritance practice of gavelkind (division of land among the male heirs of a generation). Many OE words were used in this facet of OE culture. ‘Gavellers’ land-holding men or heirs were obligated to pay gafol; often as ‘gavelbred’ (food) and ‘gavelherte’ (agricultural labour) etc. Note that a gaveller was also sometimes called a malman.

    Again I will save readers the joy of investigating this link to the word’s origins, except to note that tributes in labour, product and military service were integral to the gafol system. Malman/malmin possibly evolved from Old Norse/Germanic ‘malmr’ (ore/metal/weapon) to describe payers of types of gafol and was possibly later mistaken by NF speakers for ‘Meil’man (hammer man, quarrier).

    A final possible connection may be found with OE ‘hafola’ (‘head’) which is also from Saxon/Gothic and related to gafol, ghibla and kephalē. You may remember I previously suggested Gothic as the origin of the first Eng. ‘gavel’ words. Astute readers will be aware the Hellenistic word ‘kephalē’ and Vedic/Bactrian ‘kapāla’ predate the true gothic tribes almost 400 years. Like these languages, Gothic was derived from PIE and Indo-Iranian origins. However PIE borrowed from Semitic languages which similarly borrowed ‘gibil’ from Sumerian.

    Prior to the conquest of Sumeria by the Akkads (Late 3rd C BCE), Gibil the god (bringer) of fire was worshiped by Sumerians. Gibil was the patron of maintaining the sharp point of weapons; he also possessed knowledge so vast Sumeria’s entire pantheon could not fathom it! With these traits of point (pinnacle) and knowledge (head) Gibil was an original prototype of later ‘gavel’ words. The Akkadians (Semitic tribes) later took on Gibil’s worship after conquering Sumeria. He was still known when Indo-Aryans, major spreaders of PIE languages, first arrived in the region.

    Qoph/Koph (the letter ‘q’) in ancient languages was represented by the crown of the skull. As the phonetic root for ‘Gibil’ is qbl this is no mere coincidence. ‘Q’ in Hieratic script is a flat-down semi-circle representing the top of a skull (knowledge). In all ancient Semitic scripts Q is a ‘ball on a stick’ (large head). Even Demotic script shows a shape called an ‘angle’ for this letter; this is the same ‘angle’ representing the headwear or forehead of many Pharaohs in artistic friezes.

    Some Semitic tribes continued to use ‘qbl’ to refer to matters of knowledge for aeons. Qabbalah and quibble are words also originating from this root that survive today. However Qoph indirectly entered most other languages or was discontinued (e.g. Greek: koppa) by transforming into the similar kaph/kappa (letter ‘g’ or ‘k’; symbolised as a bowl or inverted ‘q’ in demotic and also hieratic, albeit with a developing appendage).

    Indo-Aryan invasions of Assyria, starting 1800 BCE, saw ‘gavel’ words spread to Vedic tribes. Four millennia of cultural exchange between Europe, Africa, Bactria, Tocharia and South Asia spread variations of PIE globally with derivative ‘gavel’ words in historic language as far as Indonesia and Hawaii. Now it is used in some form on every continent.

    Food for thought…
    Cap, kopf, kaput: top of skull.
    Cup: bowl.
    Capital: head/chief.
    Capable (Sp. ‘capito’): (able to) understand.
    Captain (Latin ‘caput’): head man.
    Bantu ‘kapolo’ also Latin ‘captus’: ‘(en)slave’ ie. to captain.
    Sansk. & derivatives ‘kapāla’: ‘skull cap’, or ‘ceremonial bowl made from skull’.

  17. My good heavens, Mister Gavel, I can certainly see where you get your name! Who would have expected a random passerby (though I hope you’ve taken the time to explore other posts) to have so much to offer on this arcane subject. More than 1,800 words — so far! I found the Middle Eastern connections in your latest comment particularly fascinating. Thanks for contributing! :)