Category Archives: Language

Talking Craft: Shuttle

A good shuttle, while not absolutely required to make cloth, is one of the most important tools for efficient weaving.

From top to bottom: two stick shuttles, a boat shuttle, a rag shuttle, an end-feed mill shuttle, a baby boat shuttle, and a ski shuttle. The small walnut shuttle in the upper left is a belt shuttle, which is a type of small stick shuttle with a sharp tapered edge for beating in the weft of narrow bands.

The operating principle is the same for the simplest stick shuttles and the heaviest industrial flying shuttles: the shuttle carries weft (or woof, or filling) thread back and forth through an arrangement of warp threads.

Original graphic:

When you consider the back-and-forth motion of a shuttle on a conventional loom, it’s easy to see how the word came to be applied to any sort of relayed transportation device.

From Old English scytel (“dart, arrow”), from Proto-Germanic *skutilaz (compare Old Norse skutill (“harpoon”)), from *skut- (“project”) (see shoot). Name for loom weaving instrument, recorded from 1338, is from a sense of being “shot” across the threads. The back-and-forth imagery inspired the extension to “passenger trains” in 1895, aircraft in 1942, and spacecraft in 1969, as well as older terms such as shuttlecock. (Source: Wiktionary)

More obsolete than a stick shuttle?

So the next time you hop on a shuttle bus, wherever you’re going, you can really think of yourself as part of the… fabric… of modern society.

Or something.

Talking Craft: Textile

There’s not much craft progress to report today, but I have some more linguistic trivia for you.

Handwoven scraps and samples.

As you almost certainly know, for most of the industrialized world, handspinning and weaving are specialty crafts and hobbies more than a central part of daily life. But textile production has been a driving force behind human innovation and industrialization for millennia, and that left a mark on our language. Common words like “textile”, “cloth”, and “fabric” come from old, old roots, and have relatives that may surprise you.

For instance, the word “textile” has cousins that we use all the time whether or not we work (or play) with fabric. It can be traced directly to the Latin word texere “to weave”, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *teks. This root was inherited by the Indo-European languages, where it took on various forms and meanings. Among its older and more obscure descendants, we have Old High German dahs “badger” and Sanskrit taksan “carpenter”. Others that might be more familiar include modern English “text”, “technical”, and “architect”. For my French-speaking readers, this is also the origin of tisser “to weave”.

(In case you’re still curious, the word “cloth” came to English through the Germanic branch from another Indo-European root, *gleit-, which had a meaning along the lines of “to cling to”. Like “textile”, “fabric” came through Latin, but from Indo-European *dʰabʰ “to fashion, to fit”.)

Okay, I got sucked into the Wiktionary web. The word under discussion is supposed to be “textile”, if you’re confused. Anyhow, a few members of its family tree jumped out at me:

  • Latin texere: weave; plait; construct with elaborate care
  • Greek techn: art, craft, practical skill

I like thinking that our crafting terms are related to words with these cheerful connotations. Of course, so are the words “tissue” and “technophobe”, but let’s take what we can get.

Now, it’s back to the workbench. Spring is on its way, and I’ve got two of my favorite things on my mind: trees and miniatures. A tiny treehouse may be in the works. Where’d I put the superglue?

(Sources for this post:,,, Fact-checking is never discouraged.)

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.