I am sure I must have looked up windlass before, but since I’ve never used one, or seen one that I remember (I must have seen them on ships, where they’re used for weighing anchor, but not known what they were called), the meaning went right out of my head; I’m hoping that by posting about it I may manage to remember it. A windlass is (in the AHD’s words) “Any of numerous hauling or lifting machines consisting essentially of a horizontal cylinder turned by a crank or a motor so that a line attached to the load is wound around the cylinder”; there’s an image at the link. The OED says (entry from 1926) “Probably alteration of windas n., of obscure origin,” but AHD improves on that: “Middle English wyndlas, alteration of windas, from Old Norse vindāss: vinda, to wind + āss, pole.” In Russian they call it лебёдка [lebyodka], literally ‘female swan’ (‘swan’ is лебедь [lebed’]); compare crane and French grue, also names of lifting devices.


  1. Didn’t Russian also borrow бра́шпиль from Dutch braadspil for a windlass in particular (or maybe a particular kind of windlass)?

  2. I have taken for granted that it was related to “wind~wound” and yet pronounced like “wind~gale”. Was that a lucky guess or something I don’t remember learning?

  3. Trond Engen says:

    No. gangspill. Different from Dutch. At least spill must be Dutch, and I’ll venture to guess that even the compounding with gang “going, walking” first happened in Dutch.

  4. Didn’t Russian also borrow бра́шпиль from Dutch braadspil for a windlass in particular (or maybe a particular kind of windlass)?

    Yes, it did, and it refers to a nautical windlass in particular; thanks, I’ve added it to my Eng-Rus dictionary.

  5. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, a horizontal cylinder. That’s not a gangspill. Sorry, can’t read.

  6. Trond Engen says:

    German Wikipedia is informative as usual. My takeaway: A Gangspill is turning around a vertical axis and is driven by walking. A Windspill is turning around a horizontal axis and is wound by hand.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    I had only a vague idea of what a windlass was. Halfway through the comments I thought the word referred to a capstan, but a capstan has a vertical cylinder. Is a windlass a kind of winch, only bigger?

  8. I don’t like boats very much, nor have I ever spent much time around them. However, I always thought that “windlass” was a very ordinary word. On the other other hand, I don’t think I realized that the cylinder had to be oriented horizontally (although I knew it generally was).

  9. But *why* are lifting devices named after birds?

  10. My search engine has almost given up the ghost, so I can’t confirm this: I have thought for a long time that ‘weigh anchor’ was originally ‘way anchor, or ‘away anchor’, meaning ‘send the hook to the bottom’. And there must have been a series of commands for unhooking and winding up.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    It’s weigh. The oldest type of scales involved letting a heavy object hang from a rope or string held in the hand in order to evaluate it, especially in comparison to another heavy object used as a standard measure. Holding an anchor hanging at the end of a rope or cable in order to let it go down into the water is the same type of action.

  12. However, weighing anchor means lifting the anchor, not letting it down. The OED lists several quotations for the sense ‘lift’, notably from Foxe’s Martyrs: “They tooke the sayd Roode [cross] and weyed hym vp and set hym in his old accustomed place.”

  13. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Oh, I see, I misunderstood what is going on with an anchor. It’s a long time since I read anything having to do with mautical life, and I forgot that weighing anchor is done when going out to sea, not when stopping the boat. So indeed if refers to lifting not letting down. Lifting something is what makes you experience how heavy it is: its weight.

  14. Indeed, under way is sometimes written under weigh under the influence of weigh anchor. Michael Quinion’s article says under weigh was actually the most common form in the 18C and 19C, at least in literary works.But for that matter under way is itself the result of a misunderstanding of Early Modern Dutch on der weg ‘on the way’. So in English we get to choose between a perversion and a perversion of a perversion.


  15. David Marjanović says:

    under way is itself the result of a misunderstanding of Early Modern Dutch on der weg ‘on the way’

    Huh. What about German unterwegs, then?

  16. Ya got me there. Maybe the perversion began in Dutch with onder for on der. It wouldn’t surprise me if German borrowed it from Dutch anyway, or some kind of Low Germanic.

  17. George Gibbard says:

    A look at wiktionary suggests that Dutch doesn’t have a preposition on (our on is aan in Dutch) while there is indeed a preposition onder. Meanwhile a look at tells me that Weg in German is masculine, so that I think a dative article der with weg in older Dutch seems unlikely. So might English have adapted Dutch onder weg and not on der weg?

    As for the etymology of English under, cf. Latin īnfrā ‘below’ from PIE (something like) *ndʰr-. In German unter can either mean ‘under’ or ‘among’ (for the latter cf. Latin inter, intrā.

  18. George Gibbard says:

    Latin īnfrā ‘below’ must be from Old Latin *īnferād, cf. Sanskrit adhara- ‘lower’. Meanwhile Sanskrit adhama- ‘lowest’ is apparently Latin īmus.

  19. So which sense of the word weigh makes the rowing command “weigh enough” make sense?

  20. That apparently is way enough ‘stop moving’.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Weg is indeed masculine in German, but unterwegs must be pretty old, because forming adverbs in -s (fake genitives?) hasn’t been fashionable in a long time. But maybe unterwegs is a red herring anyway, because it doesn’t mean “in the process of happening”; it’s much more literal, meaning “(while) traveling”. Bin schon unterwegs = I’ve already left and will arrive soon.

    Meanwhile Sanskrit adhama- ‘lowest’ is apparently Latin īmus.

    Not infimus (I don’t know the lengths)?

  22. Not infimus (I don’t know the lengths)?

    The first i should be (non-contrastively) long. Actually, both īnfimus and īmus may come from the same ancestor, the latter representing a syncopated variant (cf. summus).

  23. under way is itself the result of a misunderstanding of Early Modern Dutch on der weg ‘on the way’

    But we talk about ships moving “under sail”, “under steam”, “under power” – and more generally things are “under control”. And “way” is used as a synonym for “speed” or “momentum”; if a ship is moving fast enough for the rudder to work, it has “enough way on” – it has achieved “steerage way” because it’s got enough “headway”.

  24. & you all thought first of Saint Erasmus who was martyred by having his guts wound round a windlass, right?

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