I wondered where Russian ниц ‘face down, prone’ came from, so I looked it up in Vasmer and found the Slavic root was compared to various other IE forms, including OE niowol, nihol ‘prone.’ I then wondered if that was included in the OED, and sure enough it was, barely (the last citation is from c1300), in the unexpected form nuel (entry updated December 2003):

Etymology: Cognate with Middle Dutch niel, Middle Low German nǖle, nǖl, nugel, nigel prone, prostrate (compare also Middle Dutch vernielen (Dutch vernielen), Middle Low German vornēlen, vornielen (German regional (Low German: East Friesland) fernêlen, fernûlen), all in sense ‘to destroy, bring low’), probably < the same Indo-European base as Sanskrit nīc- keeping low, facing down, nīcā below, down, downwards, Old Church Slavonic nicĭ bent forward, prone, representing an extended form (labiovelar extension) of the Indo-European base of nether adv.¹


Prone, prostrate.

eOE Épinal Gloss. (1974) 42 Pronus, nihol.
OE Ælfric Old Eng. Hexateuch: Josh. (Claud.) vii. 10 Aris nu, Iosue; hwi list ðu neowel on eorðan?
OE Paris Psalter (1932) clxviii. 10 Nifle nædran cynn.
lOE King Ælfred tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. (Bodl.) i. 8 He gefeoll niwol ofdune on þa flor.
c1300 (▸?a1200) Laȝamon Brut (Otho) 16777 Octa..nuel feol to grunde bi-vore þis kinges fote.

I’m tempted to say “let’s bring it back,” but I guess we don’t really need a synonym for prone. I note with amusement (having thought about homonyms) that besides newel ‘central pillar forming the axis of a spiral or winding staircase’ there is another newel ‘a piece of news; a novelty’ (alteration of novel after new):

1484 W. Cely Let. 23 Apr. (1975) 212 Item, syr, as ffor syche newellys as ys here, plese hytt yow to comen wyth the brynger herof.
a1500 in R. L. Greene Early Eng. Carols (1935) 272 Syns that Eue was procreat..Cowd not such newels in this lond be inuentyd.
c1528 Sir T. Clifford Let. 18 Mar. in Camden Misc. (1992) XXXI. 75 And newyelles we have noyn bott this Mounday xvjth day of March at nyght my lord Tressorer and my lord Chamerlayn cam to the kyng and [etc.].
1579 E. Spenser Shepheardes Cal. May 276 He was so enamored with the newell, That nought he deemed deare for the jewell.
1614 J. Davies in W. Browne Shepheards Pipe sig. G5 O! how my heart’s ioy-rapt, as I had cought A Princedome to my share, of thilk Newell.

That’s just plain charming.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    After some poking around it turns out that the whole phrase “nifle nædran cynn” was intended to English only a single word (“serpentes”) in the Vulgate, but in general the psalter in question (this is the one where the Englishing of the first 50 is traditionally ascribed to Alfred the Great Hisownself, although obv this psalm was not in that batch) apparently has loose/embellished OE renderings that are consistently wordier than the Latin because something other than strict translation was going on.

    I was reminded of the Old Norse Niflheim, but then things get confusing, as online sources suggest both that the suspected cognate “nifol” in OE is an “alternative form” of “neowol,” but that the former comes from PrGmc *nibilaz (glossed as “dark, misty,” which is consistent with the meaning of Niflheim) while the latter comes from PrGmc *nīwalaz (glossed as “lying down, prone, prostrate, deep …”). Not sure why “nifol” would have drifted semantically over from mistiness to proneness, but no doubt there’s a Just-So Story that could be concocted.

  2. PlasticPaddy says

    Rather than a different root to expain the f in nifol, could the nifol/neowol variation be a dialect difference? In Northern Scotland, you have f > wh.

  3. David Marjanović says

    In Northern Scotland, you have f > wh.

    The other way around (fit “what”) – but *[w]/*[β] confusions are pretty common between Germanic languages, e.g. hawk vs. German Habicht, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find one inside Old English.

  4. PlasticPaddy says

    Thanks. I have a right/left confusion. 😊
    Bosworth-Toller has
    lǽw, léw “injury, weakening”
    léf “weak, injured, infirm”
    þeów “servant, slave”
    þeóf “thief”
    Maybe someone else (Nelson Goring?) can clarify.

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