Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 23, 2010


In January, I wrote about my brush with lexicographical greatness in the form of the countless boxes of citation cards that the creators of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) passed on to their heirs, who created the Middle English Dictionary. If you missed that thrilling episode, it’s HERE.

Tonight, we had an excellent exercise in the fascinating pursuit of chasing down word derivations. It started as we sat eating dinner, looking out the back windows, from which we can see the new gazebo our neighbors have built. It features a chandelier that, I swear, actually uses candles instead of electric light. Haven’t seen them do it, but they must be able to lower it to replace the candles and light them. That, of course, is the purest definition of the word, chandelier: a branching framework that holds candles. I remarked to The Counselor that, so far as I knew, the exact English cognate for “chandelier” is “chandler,” a word we know well, since the woman from whom we bought Rancho Retro was herself a ship’s chandler, supplying the big cargo ships that call at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, just a mile or so down the hill from the ol’ Rancho. As soon as I said that, though, I caught myself. I was making an assumption. Etymology is rarely as neat and tidy as one thinks, and there is no field in which it is more true that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Fortunately, we had the means to check my assumption.

The Compact Edition of the OED is a nifty tool for determining the origins of English words. It has more than 300,000 word entries packed into two hefty volumes, which the publisher accomplished by printing four pages of the original 20-volume work on each page of the “Compact Edition.” Until not long ago, I could read those close-packed entries unassisted, but lately I find that the light is not as good as it used to be, and I use the magnifying glass that comes with the set, which I didn’t need for my first 35 years of owning the Dictionary.

So we looked up “chandelier.” Surprisingly, the word only entered the English language in the middle of the 18th Century. Hmmm. That can’t be right. It’s clearly a French word, as the derivation tells us, and we know that French was the “official” language in England from soon after the Norman Conquest (quick quiz: name that year!). It stands to reason that what we know as “chandeliers” were being called what they are well before the 1700s. Well, the very next dictionary entry is, indeed, “chandler,” and, by golly, just as I predicted, the original sense of the word is a branched holder for candles. This is probably the first time in a thousand such tries that I’ve been correct about the derivation of a word. Yes, the first recorded occurrence in English is in the 14th Century, and it came into English via French. A “chandler” meant the same thing as the French word, “chandelier,” with a few vowels dropped out, as we are wont to do. So, what we are dealing with is something that happens all the time in the untidy business of word derivation. The word came into the language once in a one form — “chandler” — and then entered it again in another: “chandelier”. Right here is a powerful justification for my decision not to pursue a career in the business of etymology. Too messy. I rest my case.

I had one thought that a more original-sounding and purely English-language expression might be “candle-holder,” and looked up that entry. It’s there in the OED too, but darned if “candle-holder” didn’t enter the language until 1592 in a work named Romeo and Juliet. That darned Shakespeare! Do you know that he coined or at least provided the first recorded instance of an overwhelming percentage of the words and phrases that are now part of the language? With a little online work, you can turn up the number. It’s overwhelming. No one better deserves the title, “staggering genius” than he.

So, the next obvious question is, how do we get to “ship’s chandler,” as someone who supplies goods to naval vessels? There has to be a connection. Right. OED says that almost contemporaneously with the emergence of “chandler” as an object that holds candles, the word also was applied to a person who sold candles, and there’s a meaning labeled “b” signifying an officer who is responsible for supplying and maintaining candles in a household. From there, also at about the same time, come an entire range of words like “corn-chandler” and “ship-chandler,” who sell goods of various types. There are other forms of the word, testifying to the impressive facility that English has to generate new coinages from base metal: chandlering, chandleress, chanderlerly. It’s no wonder that speakers of other languages despair at ever mastering our ability to spawn new words from old!

All this background about the OED might lead one to conclude that it is the ne plus ultra of dictionaries of historical record. Nay nay! We English speakers were late to the game. Dictionaries on historical principles (the official category of this sort of book) had already been completed in Italian, French, Spanish, German and Dutch, all begun in the 17th Century and mostly published in the 18th, before the OED saw the light of day. And the first to the game — big surprise here — was China, whose Kangxi dictionary was published in 1716. The largest such dictionary is the Dutch Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, which was published in 1863 and took 150 years to complete.

That is a perfect segue (if I do say so myself) to suggest that you visit my Blog Brother and fellow harmonica player in the Global Jam’s blog about the performance of our Global Jam at:

I also encourage you to visit Niece Katie’s blog about her experiences from her summer internship in a theatre in London. She has a writerly voice voice and a joi de vivre that few writers of many more years’ experience can claim:


  1. Thanks for the plug and the compliments!

    I rarely venture so far into entymological studies, but it sure is fascinating. Learning the cognates and false cognates in the foreign languages I’ve studied was a real eye-opener as to just how much of a jumble English as we know it is.


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