Etymologies are usually staid affairs; whether they are long lists of preforms and cognates or simple statements that the origin is unknown, they are devoid of passion, humor, and exclamation marks. Not so that of the OED’s coil² “Noisy disturbance, ‘row’; ‘tumult, turmoil, bustle, stir, hurry, confusion’”:

First in 16th c.: of unknown origin. Prob. a word of colloquial or even slang character, which rose into literary use; many terms of similar meaning have had such an origin; cf. pother, row, rumpus, dirdum, shindy, hubbub, hurly-burly, etc.
The conjectures that coil may be ‘related’ to Gael. coileid (‘koletʃ) ‘stir, movement, noise’, or to goilim (‘golɪm) ‘I boil’, goileadh, ‘boiling’, or to goill (goλ) ‘shield, war, fight’, are mere random ‘shots’, without any justification, phonetic or historical. Coil is unknown in Scotland, and no evidence connects it with Ireland. Gaelic or Irish words do not enter English through the air, with phonetic change on the way!

Somebody was feeling mighty frisky in the Scriptorium that day!

Incidentally, definition 4 b. is “mortal coil: the bustle or turmoil of this mortal life. A Shaksperian expression which has become a current phrase.” Note the quaint spelling “Shaksperian”; in the list of authors he’s Shakespeare as usual. Yup, mighty frisky.

Addendum. Now see this post translated into Latin at Sauvage Noble!

Update (Mar. 2021). The Sauvage Noble link is dead, and the Wayback Machine has not archived it; you can see a post where he announces the translation here (scroll to bottom).


  1. Yes, I’ve long thought it one of the most misunderstood words: what, people ask, is a mortal coil? I’ve met Shakespeare PhDs who think that a mortal coil is spiral-shaped somehow.
    BTW, for the closest thing the OED comes to a bizarre entry, check the latest edition’s “Sikh”, which randomly includes material for an encyclopaedia entry.

  2. That’s great!
    “The majority of Sikhs are still located in the Punjab in northern India, but many are now living in other parts of India, and in Africa, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. Sikhs became famous for their military prowess in the 19th century during the period of British imperialism. The Sikh religion requires its members, among other institutionalized customs, to wear a turban, and this has brought Sikhs into conflict with authorities in some countries outside India in the second half of the present century, mainly because of local regulations about the wearing of crash helmets on motor cycles.”
    I particularly love the bit about “the wearing of crash helmets on motor cycles.”

  3. Hmm. I always though the “mortal coil” was the human body. Live and learn.

  4. Unless Shakespeare intuited the DNA coil structure, the pother of life makes more sense.

  5. Hee! Reminds me of the day I finally realized sleep knit up the raveled sleave, not sleeve, of care. For years I had wondered what the heck Shakespeare (uh, Shakspere?) had meant by that.

  6. “Gaelic or Irish words do not enter English through the air, with phonetic change on the way”
    No, they enter the normal way. English was an important minority language in Ireland for centuries, as a result of immigration and settlement in the southeast, and not at all in a dominant position. The language was under enough pressure from the dominant Irish language that laws were felt necessary to stop English-speakers from learning Irish and passing into the majority population.
    Supposedly words like ‘bother’, ‘tyke’,’dig – understand’ and ‘fond’ date from this period.
    Phonetic change: “Fond’ has a fairly important vowel change in it versus ‘fonn’. ‘Dig’ has a consonant change from “tuigim’, in line with a normal synchronic initial mutation. The same may be true of ‘coil’. English-speakers are likeliest to settle on one form of the word or another. We sure don’t drag in all forms of French words we borrow, unless as doublets.

  7. Coil in this context reminds me of roil, one of my favourite words, which has the same meaning of agitated chaos and is also of unknown origin. Makes me think of smoke coiling up in convoluted twists towards the ceiling, with a side order of man being born to trouble as the sparks rise upwards.
    The business with Sikhs on motorcycles is to do with problems over headgear in the UK when crash helmets became a legal requirement. There were also issues with police helmets, which were neatly sidestepped with special blue turbans with chequered edge. These days, uniformed public service organisations in London have many variations of their official clothing to fit the numerous ethniticies who make up proportions of the local workforce. The Rastafarian hats of the London Underground are particularly fine.

Speak Your Mind