Another etymological adventure: I saw a reference to the fact that ajar was originally on char ‘on the turn’ (i.e., of a door, ‘slightly opened’), and I thought I’d investigate this mysterious char. The OED lists it as “chare, char,” saying the original but now obsolete sense ‘turn’ (whence either ‘occasion, time’ or ‘turning back, return’) is usually cher or char. An extension of this sense is ‘turn or stroke of work; an action, deed; a piece of work or business,’ and this develops the specialized meaning ‘an occasional turn of work, an odd job, esp. of household work; hence in pl. the household work of a domestic servant’ (1606 SHAKES. Ant. & Cl. IV. xv. 75 The Maid that Milkes, And doe’s the meanest chares; 1881 HUXLEY Sc. & Cult. ii. 34 Mere handicrafts and chares). But this, the “extant sense,” is “now usually CHORE.” Cue lightbulb over head.

What’s the etymology, you ask? Tangled:

OE. cerr, cierr, cyrr, masc. i- stem:—O.Teut. type *karri-z or *karzi-z… Often identified with OHG. chêr, MHG. kêr, Ger. kehr, MDu. kêr, Du. keer, masc.; besides which there is OHG. chêra, MHG. kêre, Ger. kehre, MDu. and MLG. kêre, LG. kêr str. fem.; but these represent OTeut. types *kairi-z-oz or kaizi-z, oz, and *kairâ or *kaizâ, the vowel of which has no connexion with that of the OE. word. No forms cognate to either are known outside Teutonic.


  1. That’s fascinating. “Kehren” in German means “to turn,” but also “to sweep” (i.e., with a broom), but I had no idea it was related to either “chore” or “ajar”.

  2. I suppose you don’t use ‘charwoman’ in the US?

  3. Another interesting wrinkle: an intermediary stage between on char and ajar was at jar, as used by Swift: “Opening a few wickets, and leaving them at jar.” OED says this was based on false analogy to a preexisting sense of at jar (also shortened to ajar), meaning “in a jarring state, out of harmony, at odds.” (But see the April 1901 issue of Modern Language Notes for a more phonologically motivated explanation.)

  4. I suppose you don’t use ‘charwoman’ in the US?
    No, but many of us are familiar with the UK use.

  5. Until I read these comments, I always thought “charwoman” was “tealady”, from cha, the Punjabi pronunciation of chai. Thanks for the clarification.

  6. My mother remembers singing as a child,in a German Christmas carol, that the Christ child “kehrt mit seinem Besen, ein in jedes Haus” until she was informed that it should be “kehrt mit seinem Segen”.
    She sang “sweeps with his broom in every house” rather than “turns in with his blessings at every house”

  7. You mean ajar isn’t about a jar holding the door open? Or did I just have a funny turn? Or churn?

  8. I thought she was called a charwoman because she cleaned out the ashes from the fireplace.
    Like Cinderella. 🙂

  9. David Marjanović says

    I suppose “Teutonic” is Germanic, chosen so they can use Ger. for German without fear of confusion?

  10. David: “Teutonic” only shows up in OED etymologies that haven’t been revised from the olden days (like most entries at the beginnning of the alphabet). Etymologies for revised entries use “Germanic”.

  11. So is there no candidate PIE etymon with the expected shape *ger?

  12. fimus scarabaeus says

    char lady be the one that serves cha, so wot would I know. T by any name be still Cha ****

  13. A chare is a little alley,where I come from (see http://www.newcastle.gov.uk/tlt/photo/026283.htm).
    So there is Broad Chare, Manor Chare, and Pudding Chare.
    “Chare is a word almost peculiar to Newcastle. Somner derives it from the Saxon cerre, diverticulum, the turning or bending of a way. Others think it comes from the word ajar, partly open. It is applied to narrow streets, lanes, or alleys.
    “A laughable mistake happened at our assizes some years ago, when one of the witnesses in a criminal case swore that ‘he saw three men come out of the foot of a chare.’—’Gentlemen of the jury,’ exclaimed the learned judge, ‘you must pay no credit to that man’s evidence. He must be insane.’ But the foreman, smiling, assured his lordship that they understood the witness very well, and that he spoke the words of truth and soberness.—Hist of Newcastle, published by Anderson.

  14. A chare is a little alley
    A snicket?
    Cf. question 1 here.

  15. Throbert McGee says

    At least as late as the 1980s, the Scout Handbook used by the Boy Scouts of America quoted the admonition of Lord Baden-Powell that a good Scout ought to “do a good turn daily” — a usage that otherwise was not current in colloquial U.S. English. (“Do a good deed daily” was the usual phrase.)
    But at certain rank-promotion ceremonies, Baden-Powell’s “do a good turn” wording would be recited as the Scout being promoted was physically lifted by his heels in a slow-motion cartwheel, with the assistance of several older Scouts or Scoutmasters.
    (No Kama Sutra jokes, please.)

  16. It’s still acceptable in British English to use “turn” to indicate work – not only in phrases like “do a good turn” or “one good turn deserves another” but also in saying someone “hasn’t done a hand’s turn” – meaning hasn’t done any work.
    Presumably this is related to “taking your turn” – doing your share of the work.

  17. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    And here I always thought that NHG kehren, especially as seen in Verkehr, was related to Danish køre = ‘move’ as of a car or engine. Wiktionary claims they are from *karzijaną and *kaurijaną, respectively. But then gives *karzijaną as an “alternative reconstruction” to the latter. What is a person to think?

    And *kaurijaną is supposed to give English cair = ‘turn, sweep’ of which this is the first I heard.

    Danish køre rundt is ‘rotate’ more generally, but there is no trace of anything like ‘sweep’.

  18. David Marjanović says

    DWDS for kehren offers:

    Bei Annahme eines grammatischen Wechsels germ. *kaisjan, *kaizjan lassen sich diese Formen mit anord. keisa ‘biegen, zusammenfalten’, isl. keisa ‘in die Höhe ragen, hochtragen’, schwed. kesa ‘durchgehen, fliehen’ verbinden, die auf einen Ansatz ie. *geis- zurückgeführt werden, der zu der nur in verschiedenen Erweiterungen nachzuweisenden Wurzel ie. *gei- ‘drehen, biegen’ (s. auch keifen) gehört; vgl. Pokorny 1, 354 f. Dieser fragliche Zusammenhang muß jedoch aufgegeben werden, wenn man für ahd. kēren von germ. *kairjan ausgeht und dieses (wie Petersson in: PBB 44 (1920) 178 f.) mit armen. cir ‘Kreis’, osset. zilyn (зuлын [sic – it’s in italics, so they didn’t notice]) ‘herumdrehen’ vergleicht. Ebenso ist aengl. cerran (westsächs. cierran, cyrran) trotz semantischer Übereinstimmung von den anderen westgerm. Bildungen zu trennen, da es eine auch im Vokalismus abweichende Form germ. *karrjan oder *karzjan voraussetzt.

    In short, if *kaisjaną ~ *kaizjaną is assumed, North Germanic cognates with meanings like “bend, fold, stick up, carry up, go through, flee” (!) can be found, but on the IE level the *s would be a Germanic-only root extension; if *kairjaną is assumed instead, non-Germanic cognates are available, but the North Germanic part doesn’t work. Old English cerran, cierran, cyrran has the same meaning but a different vowel (the rr isn’t mentioned), so it presupposes *karrjaną or *karzjaną (I wondered about *kazjaną, but actually, Gąsiorowski’s law would have turned that into *kājaną and then presumably just *kāną by PGmc times already… though, actually, that odd shape would invite analogical remodeling, so who knows, I guess).

    Anyway, I can’t see how to get a Danish ø out of this.

  19. The Danish ø is the West Scandinavian reflex of ey in ON keyra, Nyn. køyra etc., so a common origin must be found further back.

    B&L note that PGmc. *kauzí’jan- would be formally identical to a causative of the “choose” verb, PGmc *kéusan-, and suggest a semantic path “make want” -> “egg on, spur” -> “drive (animals; a kane or wagon)”. I suggest a Post-PGmc. contamination/semantic conflation of *kauzíjan- and *kaizjan-. Also *karzijan- “twist, turn” could enter the mix, maybe helped by the Latin borrowing carrus (Norw. kjerre).

  20. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    ON keyra > Da køre, cf *hauzijaną, > heyra > høre. But to get ON ey you need PG au + Umlaut, I would think. *kaurijaną would work, *kaisjan not so much. Nobody is claiming that ON keisa > Da køre.

    Unhelpfully, somebody deleted the page for *karzijaną from wikt.en with the remark “doesn’t work; you’d expect geminate rr in all descendants, compare *marzijaną” without fixing up the pages that linked to it; the snippet of deleted content does mention OE cierran but does not give a PIE root or allege any non-geminate descendants; cierran does link back to *karzijaną and give PIE *gers-. I was wondering what the original thought was behind giving *karzijaną as an alternative reconstruction for keyra, but maybe it wasn’t a very cogent one. And that is the only hint I found that kehren and køre might be connected, so I’m concluding that they probably aren’t.

    EDIT: I didn’t see Trond’s comment before posting. Kærre (n c) does look like something that could have come out of *karzijaną if it wasn’t from Latin, so perhaps that verb did indeed live long enough to merge with keyra.

  21. Stu Clayton says

    North Germanic cognates with meanings like “bend, fold, stick up, carry up, go through, flee” (!) can be found

    “flee” = turn tail and run. Dogs fold their tail between their legs “Stick up” and “carry up” are the odd ones out in this semantic grab-bag, not “flee”.

    Ich mache mir aus einem Philosophen gerade so viel, als er imstande ist, ein Beispiel zu geben [Nietzsche, quoted in the epigraph to Zweig’s essay on him in Der Kampf mit dem Dämon]

  22. It’s from “Schopenhauer als Erzieher,” the start of section 3.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    Thanks ! Zweig is unstinting with the prose in his book, but he omits footnotes.

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