The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is a shaft a rod or a hole?

Q: How come we use the word “shaft” for two different things: a linear object like an arrow and an open space like a tunnel in a mine? Are these two usages somehow related etymologically?

A: The “shaft” that’s a slender rod and the “shaft” that’s a narrow hole have always been two different nouns in English.

But it’s natural for you to wonder if there’s a link somewhere in their ancient ancestry, since both “shafts” are long, straight columns—the first a solid object and the second a hollow cavity.

Well, there is probably a connection, but scholars disagree on what it is.

The first “shaft”—a smooth, straight stick or pole, like the body of an arrow or spear—was known in Old English as sceaft around the year 1000 or earlier, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

 The other “shaft”—the hole or pit—wasn’t known in Old English. It made its appearance in the 1430s, the OED says, when it meant “a vertical or slightly inclined well-like excavation made in mining, tunnelling, etc., as a means of access to underground workings.”

How did the different “shafts” develop?

The OED says the original, rod-like “shaft” probably got its meaning from the sense of something shaven—that is, scraped and made smooth. (The Old English verb sceafan meant to shave.)

This word has its origins in a prehistoric Germanic root that linguists have reconstructed as skafto-, which has to do with shaving. That ancient root, in turn, comes from an even earlier Germanic word element that has to do with digging.

There are a couple of theories about the origin of the pit-like sense of “shaft” in English. Here are the possibilities: 

(1) In Europe in the early Middle Ages, speakers of Low German simply transferred the word for a rod to mean a pit. The Low German schacht combined both senses of “shaft,” perhaps with “the primitive notion being that of something cylindrical,” the OED says.

In his Principles of Historical Linguistics (1991), Hans Henrich Hock suggests that this Low German schacht (in the sense of a pit) may have originated as miners’ jargon, perhaps as early as the late 900s, and later filtered into English as the new noun “shaft.” Many other Low German mining terms made their way into English and other languages, according to Hock.

(2) The two “shafts” developed separately, much further back in their Germanic ancestry. 

As the OED puts it, the prehistoric Germanic root “skafto- represented by Low German schacht, English shaft ‘pit-hole,’ may be a separate formation” of the Germanic root of “shave” in its original sense, “to dig.”

If the last suggestion is true, then the first “shaft” (the rod) is derived from the notion of something shaven and the second “shaft” (the pit) from that of something dug or excavated.

While English got both “shafts” from Germanic sources, we should note that the words have cousins in Latin (scapus, a stem or stalk) and Greek (skapos, a staff or support).

But enough ancient etymology. We don’t want to dig ourselves into a hole here.

The original English “shaft” (the rod) has been used in many ways, figurative as well as literal, to describe all kinds of rod-like things.

Over the centuries, the same “shaft” has been used to describe an architectural column, a beam of sunlight, a bird’s feather, the stem of a wineglass, a rotating mechanism (driveshaft, crankshaft, etc.), and many other objects.

This “shaft” has also given us slang usages, and as you might imagine (given the phallic nature of the word), few of them are respectable.

For example, the penis has been described as a “shaft” since the early 1600s, according to citations in Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

The OED cites this mock-poetic example from a comic song published in 1772: “For Cupid’s Pantheon, the Shaft of Delight Must spring from the Masculine Base.”

And since the early 1950s, the verb “shaft” has meant to give someone a raw deal—to cheat, reject, slight, take advantage of or treat the person unfairly.

Green’s quotes this line from Mickey Spillane’s noir novel The Long Wait (1951): “She’s going to have more on her mind than trying to shaft you.”

Then of course there’s the expression “to get the shaft,” meaning to be on the receiving end of a raw deal. This has also been a common slang usage since the 1950s.

The OED cites this explanation from a 1959 issue of the journal American Speech: “A girl or boy who makes a play for another’s date is snaking. … If he succeeds, the loser gets the shaft (sometimes with barbs), the purple shaft, or the maroon harpoon, depending upon the degree of injury to his pride.”

This more graphic definition of “get the shaft” appeared in 1960 in the Dictionary of American Slang, by Harold Wentworth and Stuart Berg Flexner: “the image is the taboo one of the final insult, having someone insert something, as a barbed shaft, up one’s rectum.”

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