Talking Craft: Thrums

As a kid, I had a penchant for unusual science fair projects. One year I undertook a detailed investigation of the limbic system. (I’d gotten hold of an illustrated anatomy book and liked the shape of the fornix.) But my favorite was the topic I chose at the age of eleven: etymology, the study of word histories and not of insects. Not that there’s anything wrong with insects, but my delight was in gluing a bunch of Greek and Latin roots to magnets, sticking them to the back of cookie sheets, and encouraging my fellow preteens in the haphazard construction of classical-sounding if ungrammatical neologisms.

A very few years later, I started studying Tolkienian linguistics.* Aside from permanently establishing my nerd credentials, this led me to approach morphological paradigms and grammatical structures in a way that many modern language courses, well, don’t. This interest led more or less directly to my university studies in linguistics. These days the field encompasses rather more than the casual collection of Greek roots**, but I still have considerable affection for good old dictionary-style etymology.

So what does all this have to do with the professed theme of this blog—crafts?

A surprising quantity of terminology from weaving and other ancient handicrafts survives into modern (if specialized) English. I’d like to make exploration of this terminology a regular series on this blog, so let me know if this sparks your interest!

Today’s word is one I mentioned in my last post: thrum. According to the traditional definition, thrums are loom waste: the scraps of warp (yarn) remaining after a piece of cloth has been cut off a loom. Merriam-Webster gives this etymology:

  • Middle English, from Old English –thrum (as in tungethrum ligament of the tongue); akin to Old Saxon thrumi end part of a spear, Old High German drum end part, fragment, Old Norse t-hrömr edge, verge, brim, Greek tramis perineum, term n boundary, end — more at TERM

Observation 1: thrum is a distant cousin of terminal. It is, indeed, the terminal portion of a warp.

Observation 2: Tungethrum is a fantastic word.

Thrums on the loom.

Webster’s also gives the obsolete but interesting definition of “a ragged beggarly lout”. There’s a joke in there somewhere about people who buy weaving equipment.

Anyhow, I get the distinct impression that weavers have been faced with the problem of what to do with thrums for as long as there have been weavers, resulting in such inventions as hooked rugs and thrum-decorated garments like these and these (using unspun roving rather than loom waste). Thrums seem like they ought to be useful, but if anyone has any suggestions for dealing with the heap below, I will be most grateful.

Continuing the blog theme of tangled yarn messes!

*On the off chance that you share this particular hobby, the lack of mutation in the compound of my blog title is out of fondness for the word “tintinnabulate”. I suppose a more probable but less reduplicative Sindarin name would be something along the lines of Tithinniel.

**Which might indeed be more entomological than etymological.

2 thoughts on “Talking Craft: Thrums”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s