Well, nobody’s been sending me links and it’s too hot for me to exercise my brain, so let me just share a word I happened across recently, alnage:

Now historical.

1. The fee or duty charged for alnage (sense 2) of cloth; the revenue raised by this means; = ulnage n.2.
2. The action of formally determining whether woollen cloth conforms to particular standards of shape and quality, as required at various times under British law; attestation that these standards have been achieved, by the affixing of a lead seal. Also: the office of the Crown responsible for doing this; = ulnage n.1.
The original requirement was that cloth should be two ells in width and of uniform quality throughout. The requirements as to width were later relaxed; regulations on quality remained in force until 1724.

And here’s the etymology:

< Anglo-Norman aulnage, alnage, Anglo-Norman and Middle French aunage (French aunage) duty paid per ell on cloth sold (early 14th cent. in Old French), measurement and inspection of cloth (14th cent. or earlier) < aulner, auner to measure by the ell, to measure (cloth) against a fee (< aulne, aune: see ell n.1) + -age -age suffix. Compare ulnage n.

So there’s alnage and ulnage, both related to the good old word ell; why isn’t there an *elnage assimilated to it? (In the OED, it would be between elmy “Consisting of, characterized by, or abounding in elms” and El Nath, which can mean either “The star α Arietis, the brightest star of the constellation Aries; (Astrology) the first mansion of the moon” or “The star β Tauri, the second brightest star of the constellation Taurus.”)

Oh, and there’s also alnager “An officer appointed to examine woollen cloth and certify its quality”; sadly, “The position of alnager was formally abolished under English law in 1699.” (However, “The title of Great Alnager of Ireland continued in use as a courtesy title of the Baron de Blaquiere until the death of the 6th Baron in 1920.”)


  1. I love this graphic:

    Obsolete Russian units of length

    (Discovered while contemplating the fact that English has the Germanic inheritance ell as well as alnage by way of French, but also the Latin anatomical term ulna, and the Celtic uilleann in uilleann pipes, and arshin ultimately of Iranian origin (cf. the Middle Persian measure ārešn, Old Persian arašni-). There’s a nice selection of cognates here.)

  2. Not knowing that much Russian literature, the only units I recognized were the versta and the pood (not spelling it “pud” because tee-hee, I suppose.)

    There are probably a bunch of good etymologies there.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    The first baronet de blacquiere was created in 1800 and the family first arrived in England in 1685. The second baron was “Alnager and Collector of the Subsidies of Alnage in Ireland, 1797-1817, when the office was abolished.” (Source:
    So it was at first a real, not honorary post, even though it had been abolished in England (and Scotland?) a hundred years earlier. The continuation of the office in Ireland may have been related to the Penal Laws, but it could have been inertia.

  4. David Marjanović says

    There’s a nice selection of cognates here.

    …and what a mess it is. The short first vowel in Germanic, Celtic and Italic, as opposed to the long one in Greek, can be explained quite neatly by Dybo’s Law, but the long second vowel in Celtic comes out of nowhere, and Germanic seems to have both a native form (short second vowel) and a Celtic loan (long second vowel), and then there’s the weird lack of umlaut almost but not quite throughout North Germanic…

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    Is this root *Heh₃l also related to *kʷel = to turn?
    *kʷeḱ-= to see/look
    *h₃ekʷ = to see/eye

  6. Alnage was a real tax which made Irish wool more expensive than English wool, and one of the “commercial restraints” that vexed Irish patriots of the later 18th century. The office of Great Alnager was one of the many sinecures in the gift of the Dublin Castle administration whose holders for a fixed fee farmed out the attendant responsibilities to agents. I guess it was only an absolute sinecure after the 1801 union.

  7. and what a mess it is.

    No kidding! Look at the Armenian words included: oł(n), ul(n), ułuk, amol (possibly), il (possibly), ali (possibly), ałeł(n) (possibly).

  8. In fact no, the tax was not abolished until 1817. The last holder and heirs got compensation of £500 annually until 1845.

  9. David Marjanović says

    …and what a mess it is.

    And the mess continues: the first syllable of Ellbogen comes out as /œ/ in my dialect, while the regular outcome of *-al(l)i- is /ø/, so this is an etymologically nativized loan from Standard German!

    Is this root *Heh₃l also related to *kʷel = to turn?

    How would I know? 🙂

    I think we’d need to have a pretty good picture of something like Nostratic to answer that kind of question.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    Thanks. I thought k superscript w might be a recognised prefix.

  11. David Marjanović says

    There are no recognised prefixes at all in PIE; and *h₃ wouldn’t just disappear without a trace in this kind of environment, except in oddly specific circumstances.

  12. Concerining the lack of umlaut in North Germanic: “Ein i, das nach kurzer Silbe verstummte, hat nur dann Umlaut bewirkt, wenn seine Wirkung durch R verstärkt war” (Ranke, Hofmann, Altnordisches Elementarbuch, §7.2). This would explain the lack of umlaut in Old Icelandic (R is the transliteration of the runic sign corresponding to Germanic z)..

  13. David Marjanović says

    But it didn’t “become mute”. It’s still there: the form alin survives all the way into Modern Icelandic and Faroese.

    At the same time, Old Norse also had eln with *i-umlaut and ǫln with *u-umlaut! The latter survives in Icelandic as öln.

    A recent PhD thesis has looked at the complexities of when *i-umlaut did and did not happen in North Germanic, and concluded that unstressed Pre-Germanic *e and *i did not undergo the unconditional merger (to *i) of current textbook wisdom. Instead, only *e and *iz triggered umlaut. LIkely, the unconditional shift from *e to umlaut-triggering [i] did happen as textbook wisdom has it, but the previous *i had gotten out of the way earlier, perhaps moving off to [ɨ], except where a following *z blocked this. Later, after *i-umlaut had run its course, [ɨ] shifted back to [i] or [ɪ] and gave us such forms as Old Norse staði.

    Earlier, somebody else had proposed that in West Germanic, the shift did not happen, and the remaining *e did not trigger umlaut, while *i did. That would explain why Modern Standard German has 3sg fährt and 2pl fahrt “to move on wheels, by ship, on skis, to hell, or up into heaven”:


    Late Pre-Germanic

    Proto-Germanic: note Pre-Germanic umlaut of *e

    MHG: note “secondary umlaut”
    (I’m making this up; I bet both forms are attested, but I haven’t checked.)

    Modern Standard:

    …and indeed, the cognate of staði is Stätte.

    …so, back to the topic: the “ell” word is reconstructed with *e, which is after all plainly preserved in Greek, in the second syllable. The fun part is that that should have caused umlaut in North but not in West Germanic, yet we consistently find it in West and only rarely in North Germanic.

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