The Grammarphobia Blog

A few kernels of truth

Q: Where does the expression “ear of corn” come from? Why an “ear” rather than a “nose” or a “chin”?

A: The “ear” of corn that we eat in summer and the “ear” that we hear with are unrelated. Yes, these are two separate and distinct words, both of which have been with us since Anglo-Saxon days and have different prehistoric roots.

In Old English, Middle English, and Modern English, the word “ear” has been used to mean a spike or head of grain. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the part of a cereal plant which contains its flowers or seeds.”

Here’s a typical citation from the OED: “The ripen’d Grain, whose bending Ears Invite the Reaper’s Hand” (from a 1740 poem by William Somerville).

This spiky agricultural “ear” is descended from an ancient Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as ak (“sharp”). It became the Proto-Germanic akhuz, which eventually gave us the Old English word ear around the year 800.

The word for the organ of hearing is another story. It is descended from an Indo-European root reconstructed as ous or aus (“ear”). This root became the Proto-Germanic auzon, which made its way into Old English (spelled eare) around the year 1000.

As for the non-Germanic languages, Latin inherited this Indo-European root as auris and Greek as ous (both meaning “ear”).

The words for “ear” in the Romance languages, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, came from the Latin diminutive auricula, and include the French oreille, Spanish oreja, Italian orecchio, Portuguese orelha, and Romanian ureche.

But back to agriculture. The phrase “ear of corn” did not always mean what it does to Americans today. Originally, around the year 800, a “corn” in Old English was a small hard particle, as of sand or salt.

Soon it was used to mean a grain or a seed, and consequently “corn” simply meant grain in general: wheat, rye, barley, oats, and so on (hence the terms “barley-corn” and “pepper-corn”).

Not until the 1600s did “corn” refer to the maize or Indian corn grown in the Americas, and even afterward, the word as used in Britain meant grain in general. For instance, the 19th-century Corn Laws in Britain were about grain crops.

The OED explains that the word “when not otherwise qualified, is often understood to denote that kind of cereal which is the leading crop of the district.”

Thus, the dictionary says, in most of England “corn” means wheat, but in northern Britain and Ireland it means oats, and in the United States it refers to maize.

“Wheat, rye, barley, oats, etc. are in U.S. called collectively grain,” the OED adds. “Corn- in combinations, in American usage, must therefore be understood to mean maize, whereas in English usage it may mean any cereal; e.g. a cornfield in England is a field of any cereal that is grown in the country, in U.S. one of maize.”

(The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes that in parts of Germany korn means rye.)

So to an American, “ear of corn” means corn-on-the-cob, but to a farmer in Yorkshire, it might mean the head of an oat stalk.

You’re probably fed up with corn by now, but in case you’re wondering, the horny growth you get on a sore toe is another “corn” altogether.

Again, two different Indo-European roots are at the bottom of the two “corns” – one meaning grain and one meaning horn.

The word for the sore on your toe entered English in the 15th century from the Old French corn, which was inherited from the Latin cornus (“horn”).

Before the 15th century, Englishmen referred to such a sore as an “agnail,” a now obscure word literally meaning a tight, painful nail.

But the “nail” here meant an iron nail, not a fingernail or toenail, so an “agnail” referred to “a hard round-headed excrescence fixed in the flesh,” as the OED vividly puts it.

Through a long process of “pseudo-etymology,” the OED says, the “nail” in “agnail” became associated with toenails and fingernails, and the term “hangnail” eventually came about.

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