ROCK.

I ran across the Spanish word rueca ‘distaff’ and (as is my wont) wondered where it had come from. That turns out to be a more difficult question to answer than one might think. I first turned to the Diccionario de la lengua española, which said laconically “(Del germ. *rŏkko).” With that to go on, Google Books got me a view of p. 110 of Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, by James Mallory and D. Q. Adams, with the entry:

*ruk- ‘over-garment’. [IEW 874 (*ruk(k)-); Wat 55 (*ruk-)]. Olr rucht (< *ruktu-) ‘tunic’, MWels ruch(en) (< *roukkā) ‘cloak’, OE rocc ‘over-garment, rochet’, OHG rocko ‘distaff, Goth *rukka (borrowed into Italian rocca ‘distaff’) (< Gmc *rukkōn). An isogloss of the western periphery of the IE world.

Which sounded reasonably convincing, except that I wasn’t sure why a word for ‘over-garment’ would turn into one for ‘distaff.’ Investigating further, I learned there was an archaic English word for ‘distaff,’ rock, first attested in the fourteenth century (a1325 in G. H. McKnight Middle Eng. Humorous Tales (1913) 23 “Wit my roc y me fede; Cani do non oyir dede”), whose entry, happily for me, had just been updated in June 2010. The long etymology says everything that can be said at present about the history of this difficult word:

Either cognate with, or perhaps borrowed < one of, Middle Dutch rocke, (in late sources, probably from inflected forms) rocken (Dutch rokken, †rok), Middle Low German rocke, Old High German roc, rocco, roccho, rocho (Middle High German rocke, German Rocken), Old Icelandic rokkr, Norwegian rokk, Old Swedish rokker (Swedish rock), Old Danish rooc (Danish rok), all in sense ‘distaff’; further etymology uncertain and disputed (see below). Compare Old Occitan roca (c1250), Spanish rueca (13th cent.), Portuguese roca (15th cent.), Italian rocca (a1321).
The dominant view is that the Romance words represent early borrowings from the base of the Germanic words, more specifically, from an unattested Gothic form *rukka (which would have diffused with the Visigoths in Italy and Spain). However, while this view poses no phonological problems for the Occitan and Italian words, it encounters difficulties with regard to the Spanish and Portuguese words, since these presuppose a common ancestor with open o (which regularly diphthongized in Spanish), which is difficult to reconcile with the suggested Gothic etymon, and equally difficult to explain as a borrowing from West Germanic. It has been suggested that the different vowel quality in Spanish and Portuguese (which is paralleled outside the Iberian peninsula by Rhaeto-Romance) might be explained by influence of the classical Latin synonym colus (see colulus n.). In addition, if the word is held to be originally Germanic, its further etymology is unclear, as no fully convincing cognates have been found for the Germanic words (a connection with the Germanic words cited at rochet n.1 has sometimes been suggested, but is very doubtful). See further J. Corominas Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico (1981) at rueca, with detailed discussion.
An alternative etymology derives both the Germanic and the Romance words from an unattested post-classical Latin form *rotica , a derivative of classical Latin rota wheel (see rota n.) or rotāre rotate v., the distaff being so called on account of its rotating motion. However, this etymology is not generally accepted.

There is a set of obsolete English names for more or less the same post-Christmas day [thanks, iakon!]: Rock Day was “the day after Epiphany (i.e. January 7th)”; Rockfeast was (in Norfolk) “a festival following Epiphany, traditionally the day on which women resume their spinning and other tasks after the Christmas holidays”; and Rock Monday was “the first Monday after Epiphany, traditionally the day on which women resume their spinning and other tasks after the Christmas holidays, marked in certain parts of the country by various festivals and other customs.”
I might also point out the charming (and obsolete) Scots expression to come over with one’s rock, meaning ‘to make a social visit’: 1793 J. Sinclair Statist. Acct. Scotl. VII. 613 “When one neighbour says to another,..‘I am coming over with my rock,’ he means no more than to tell him that he intends soon to spend an evening with him.” (Note the masculine pronouns, striking in the context of the common use of distaff to refer to women and their concerns.)

Comments

  1. Here in Mexico, I have come across Rueca as in Rueca de Gandhi, Gandhi’s spinning wheel, i.e., the whole apparatus, as opposed to one part of it.

  2. Trond Engen says:

    Norwegian rokk means the whole apparatus too.
    I like the rotica suggestion, but does the phonology add up in Germanic?
    How do we know that to come over with one’s rock means the spinningwheel and not the overcoat?

  3. “…*ruk- ‘over garment’ …MWelsh ruch(en)…”
    This word is still present in Welsh with senses of ‘a covering’, ‘over-garment’ etc.
    rhuchen:
    1. pilen. (pellicle, film)
    2. mantell, gwisg (cloak, dress)
    3. cibyn (husk)
    Also there’s the verb (to sift) and a collective noun:
    cibau, pilennau, ebran (husks, films, bran).

  4. Oops!
    rhuchio – verb ‘to sift’
    rhuchion – collective noun

  5. marie-lucie says:

    Distaff vs spinning wheel
    The distaff and spindle combination long preceded the spinning wheel, The carded wool was held up on the distaff and fed out by hand into the thread that was induced to form by the rotation of the spindle. The distaff itself had nothing to do with this rotation, but the wool was pulled out gradually in order to feed the thread accumulating around the spindle.
    The spinning wheel both spins the thread and wraps it around the wheel, guided by the hands from the mass of carded wool held in one’s lap or in a basket, while one foot regulates the speed of the spinning motion. I know how to operate a spinning wheel but have never learned the more ancient method with distaff and spindle.
    See Wikipedia under “hand spinning”, which shows several pictures of people using those instruments.
    Perhaps rock, etc referred primarily to the the distaff full of wool (and secondarily also the necessary spincle): visiting women would bring their “rock”, their own wool held on the distaff, to spend the evening spinning with their neighbours and relatives, just as knitters bring their own yarn and needles to other women’s houses in order to spend the evening knitting companionably.

  6. Also note Slavic “rukho” (Old Russian рухо, Polish rucho, Chesz roucho, etc.) — clothings.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Trond: How do we know that to come over with one’s rock means the spinningwheel and not the overcoat?
    It would seem strange to come with the intention of watching TV or playing cards with the neighbours and say “I am coming over with my winter coat”. It is much more likely for women to come prepared to spin, knit, etc, together, each bringing their materials and equipment. So perhaps it was interpreted by men as meaning “I’m coming over with my gear”, therefore “I’m coming to spend the evening with you”, engaged in some activity as well as enoying the company.

  8. I’m a spinner, and growing up in Spain a rueca was a spinning wheel. But I’m sure it also meant spindle back in the day. I’m not sure why it would be a distaff, but this is one of these things non-spinners often get confused (really likely Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on a distaff, not a spindle)…

  9. Adding to my previous comment: spindles were often made of rocks. A Roman soldier on a day’s march could spin enough woold to sell it when he arrived at the next camp, by kicking the stone spindle to spin in front of him… maybe this is the connection?

  10. marie-lucie says:

    In the French version of Sleeping Beauty (la Belle au Bois Dormant ‘the beautiful girl in the wood asleep’), she pricks her finger on une quenouille, a distaff.
    The whole spindle would not be made of rocks, but the “flywheel” or “spindle whorl” attached to the spindle could be made of a pierced rock.
    I never heard this about the Roman soldiers. Perhaps they spun on slow days, when they did not have to hurry getting to the next camp.

  11. How could Rock Day be a church holiday when it was the first working day after the twelve days of Christmas? Even Homer nods.
    A woman once told me knitting is only half a thing, the other half being conversation. So too spinning.

  12. Rolling a spindle by kicking it would produce irregular and unusable thread.

  13. How do we know that to come over with one’s rock means the spinningwheel and not the overcoat?
    Maybe it is an invitation to come over and get your rocks off.

  14. A rock is small enough that people were able to spin while walking along. You could easily take it over to the neighbour’s house if you wanted to visit. That’s what people did, because they worked all the time.
    My wife’s friends bring their spinning wheels when they come to visit, but that’s because they have cars to transport them. And modern spinning wheels are much more compact than the old ones.
    Rock is a common word in Scots; it turns up in a lot of folk songs. And apparently the use of it was common in some areas up to the 19th century.

  15. There’s an interesting article on ‘Rock Day’, St Distaff’s Day and spinning, women attending a ‘rocking’ etc. at this website:
    http://www.thebookofdays.com/months/jan/7.htm

  16. Distaff in Greek is also ???? (róka).

  17. Grimm adds:

    das wort drang in die romanischen sprachen schon frühe ein; ital. rucca, span. rueca; heute giebt es noch im franz. rouque die spule, wovon ital. rocchetta, engl. rocket, deutsch rakete.

    To which the OED replies:

    ‘rocket, n.4 Obs.
    Also 5 roket, 5–6 -ette.
    [a. OF. roquet, northern form of rochet, = It. rocchetto: see ratchet n.]

    1.1 A bobbin. = rochet3. rare.
           c 1440 Promp. Parv. 436/1 Roket, of the rokke (P. roket of spynnynge), librum, pensum.     1611 Florio, Rocchello, a rocket or bobbin to winde silke vpon.

  18. It just occurs to me: “rocket” meaning “bobbin” would be the spindle, is it not ? I never really understood what a distaff is. Now that I do, I suppose that since distaff and spindle are both things you wrap wool/thread around, the words for them could be confounded. As marie-lucie wrote: “Perhaps rock, etc referred primarily to the the distaff full of wool (and secondarily also the necessary spindle)”.

  19. How could Rock Day be a church holiday when it was the first working day after the twelve days of Christmas?
    Quite right; I’ll fix it. Thanks.

  20. Grumbly Stu: The distaff is used for wrapping the unspun wool or flax around; the spindle is a mechanism for spinning, usually with a weight (“whorl”) which can be made of many things (including rocks). The spindle is common to many cultures worldwide but there’s a lot of variation in design.
    John Cowan: since the consistency of the strand is determined by manipulation by the hands, not the feet, I think for a skilled rock-kicker it would be perfectly possible to make good yarn. The difference is going to be how fast the rock was spinning (hence productivity), not the quality of the yarn.

  21. Pica: I don’t see how you maintain tension in the yarn while you are walking steadily and the rock is moving erratically.

  22. And doesn’t it get dirty?

  23. Rock is a common word in Scots; it turns up in a lot of folk songs.
    Most famously, perhaps, “The Baron of Brackley”: A ballad in which the Baron’s wife alerts him that his cattle are being stolen…
    “O rise up ye baron and turn back your kye,
    For the lads o Drumwharran are driving them by.”
    “How can I rise, lady, or turn them again?
    Where er I hae ae man I wat they hae ten.”
    “Then rise up my lasses, tak rokes in your hand,
    And turn back the kye: I hae you at command.
    Gin I had a husband as it seems I hae nane,
    He wadna lie in his bower see his kye taen.”

    Thus taunted (is he to be defended by a bunch of women with distaffs?) Brackley goes out to fight and is killed. Turns out his wife is not at all saddened by that result.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Pica: I think for a skilled rock-kicker it would be perfectly possible to make good yarn
    JC: Pica: I don’t see how you maintain tension in the yarn while you are walking steadily and the rock is moving erratically.
    The story of the Roman soldiers spinning sounds fishy to me. Where does it come from? Perhaps (since anything is possible, even the most incredible realities often being stranger than fiction) some of them tried it in camp, but I don’t see whole regiments of foot soldiers “armed” with distaff and spindle in addition to their own weapons, kicking away at the spindle whorls on those famous roads. To become a skilled anything, you need plenty of practice. Would the training of Roman footsoldiers have included spinning while walking, kicking a rock attached to a spindle with just the right degree of force and directionality not to send it flying into their comrades’ legs?
    Vasha: great story!
    Thus taunted (is he to be defended by a bunch of women with distaffs?) Brackley goes out to fight and is killed. Turns out his wife is not at all saddened by that result.
    Why should she be? they were probably married not by their own choice but for the benefit of their families, and the wife had to nag him to get him to even defend his own possessions. Why would she mourn this loser?

  25. Of course, in prehistory spindles were made of rock. Flint knives were used for ritualistic purposes right through the Copper and Bronze Ages and into the Iron Age. Most people were poor and also conservative, so would use flint and obsidian for things like scraping hides, and obsidian for surgery probably long after the invention of writing, so I wouldn’t doubt that stone spindles continued to be used. Penelope and other weavers would have used stone spindles and whorls.

  26. Well, he was right when he said he’d be outnumbered ten-to-one. Seems to me better to lose one’s cattle than one’s life, but opinions could differ.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    iakon: A spindle is made of two parts, the shaft and the whorl (or something else which holds the finished thread). The most ancient spindle shafts known are made of wood, and some later ones (actually recovered, or mentioned in ancient texts) are of ivory or metal, probably used by high-class women such as Penelope. The whorl (if used) provides the weight and is used as a flywheel to keep up the rotation imparted by the hand. The whorl itself might be made of stone, but certainly not the shaft.
    Earlier I quoted from Wikipedia under “(hand) spinning”, but I have now looked up the articles for “spindle” and “distaff”, both of which show spinners at work. I think that the reason that “distaff” and “spindle” are often confused is that the mass of unspun fiber on the distaff, which is held high with respect to the spinner’s body, is much more conspicuous than the small spindle, which is held low.
    The authority on primitive and ancient weaving and spinning is Elizabeth Barber (Prehistoric Textiles, 1991, which is quite technical; and the more popularly writtenWomen’s work: the first 20000 years, 1995, among other books). She became the authority on ancient weaving because she is a classical scholar, an archeologist, and a practicing weaver, and she has been able to combine her skills in her work. In addition to the frequent confusion of the meaning of ‘distaff’ and ‘spindle’, many objects have been misunderstood by (largely male) archeologists who were vaguely aware that they had a role in textile-making but did not know exactly what. I see a reflection of this problem in a picture in the “spindle” article, where some objects from a Greek museum, looking quite different from the ones in other pictures, are called “spindles” but are probably loom weights, apparently made of pottery. (Loom weights were used with vertical looms, attached to sets of warp threads to keep them taut).

  28. The argument that “rock” for distaff is related to “rock” meaning stone only works in an English-language context. Distaff is “rock” or some varient thereof in other Germanic languages which all use the same root as stone (eg German “Stein”) to refer to hard masses of petrified matter. The OED also provides separate etymologies for these two meanings of “rock”.
    BTW, it is possible to spin with a drop spindle while walking. The spindle is suspended from the thread being spun and as long as you walk steadily the gyroscopic motion of the spindle is not interrupted (I looked for a video of this to illustrate it better, but my search engine skills aren’t coming up with anything right now). Even so, the story about the Roman soldiers sounds a bit dubious to me. If there’s any basis for this I’d love to know the source.

  29. The authority on primitive and ancient weaving and spinning is Elizabeth Barber
    I took my first linguistics class from her!

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Brenda is right, and there are many old pictures of people such as shepherds (male and femals) spinning while walking (slowly), but they have small spindles and are certainly not kicking them! The most conspicuous accessory of an old-fashioned hand spinner, though, is the distaff. Were Roman soldiers carrying distaffs as well as kicking spindles about? using their long spears as distaffs? It all sounds far-fetched.
    The Wikipedia article on distaff says right away (also called rock). It would be quite impossible to use a rock/stone as a distaff.
    Incidentally, the French word une quenouille is supposed to be a borrowing from an old German word die Knülle. And I also learned from Wiki that in Canadian French, the same word is used for the bulrush or cattail, as the seed mass towards the tip looks somewhat like the mass of wool or other fiber attached to the top of the distaff.

  31. Side note: from this root comes the Yiddish word for jacket (or in some dialects skirt) rekl.

  32. Surely the remark from mens nike air max 2011 doesn’t come from a human brain.

  33. I am like those male archaeologists, m-l. I must read Women’s Work!
    Brenda, I felt confused when I wrote my comment. I should have recognised a message from instinct and rephrased the comment as a question.

  34. I like the idea of an old Swedish rokker. I get tired of hearing about Mick Jagger etc.

  35. John Cowan says:

    Jagger looks pretty Swedish to me, but that may just be my ignorance of the tongue of Strindberg and Ongentheow (as we anglophones call Angantyr).

  36. Jagger is a variant of Jaggard, which is from the French surname Jacquard (a derivative of Jacques), and the most famous Jacquard was Joseph Marie (1752-1834), French inventor of the Jacquard loom, and so we return to rocks.

  37. This seems as good a place as any to say how wonderful it is to have all these old posts open for comment.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    Oh yes, relearning things we might have forgotten in the meantime.

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