The Grammarphobia Blog

Spinning a yarn

Q: I assume the “yarn” one tells is somehow related to the “yarn” one knits with, but how are they related?

A: Terms from sewing, knitting, weaving, and other textile crafts have long been used in a literary sense, though the relationship between the “yarn” one tells and the “yarn” one knits with is somewhat murky. Here’s the story.

When the word “yarn” showed up in writing around the year 1000 (spelled “gearn”), it referred to spun fiber, as from cotton, silk, wool, or flax. (In Old English, “g,” before “e” “i,” or a diphthong, sounded like “y.”)

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes that the Old English word and similar ones in other Germanic languages were ultimately derived form ghorna, a reconstructed Indo-European term for gut.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins adds that a sailors’ expression, “spin a yarn” (tell a story), “led in the 19th century to the use of yarn for ‘story, tale.’ ”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “Hence yarn = a (long) story or tale: sometimes implying one of a marvellous or incredible kind; also, a mere tale.”

The earliest OED example for the expression is from a list of criminal slang in the Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux (1819): “Yarning or spinning a yarn, signifying to relate their various adventures, exploits, and escapes to each other.”

OK, “spin a yarn” gave us the noun “yarn” used in the story sense, but how did the nautical expression come to mean “tell a tale”?

The OED, Chambers, and Ayto don’t offer an explanation, but one theory is that the expression evolved from storytelling by sailors while spinning yarn—for example, in rope-making.

As Eric Partridge writes in Origins, an etymological dictionary, the usage arose “from the sailors’ and deep-sea fishers’ practice of reminiscing and story-telling while they are sedentarily engaged, e.g. in yarn-twisting.”

That’s possible, though we haven’t seen any evidence to support it. It makes sense, however, since many textile terms have long been used figuratively in reference to writing.

In fact, the words “text” and “textile” come from the same Latin source, texere (to weave). In classical Latin, textus (literally that which is woven) could refer to the style or  texture of a literary work.

The verb “weave” has been used since the 1300s “in metaphorical expressions relating to the contriving of plots or deception,” according to the OED. And “a richly woven tapestry” is now considered a cliché of book reviewing.

Since the 1600s, the noun “thread” has referred to a narrative train of thought, according to OED citations. Here’s an example from James Howell’s Instructions for Forreine Travell (1642):

“If one read skippingly and by snatches, and not take the threed of the story along, it must needs puzzle and distract the memory.”

Indeed, the OED has an example for the expression “spin a thread” used as far back as the 1300s in the sense of “tell a tale.”

This citation is from Kyng Alisaunder, a medieval romance written sometime before 1400: “He hath y-sponne a threde, / That is y-come of eovel rede.”

Interestingly, the literary use of “thread” has adapted itself to the information age, where the term is now used for a linked series of posts or messages relating to the same subject.

As we wrote last year, the OED’s earliest citation for the usage is from a May 30, 1984, comment on a newsgroup for beta testers: “When following subject threads, the next article with the same subject is located while the last page of the previous article is being read.”

And let’s not forget knitting! We’ve found examples of the terms “well knit” or “tightly knit” used since the early 20th century to describe literary works. Here’s an example from a 1910 article in The Bookman, an American literary journal:

“The conception of a well-knit plot without irrelevant characters and episodes and with the interest strongly focussed upon some one main issue is distinctly modern.”

(The author, Winston Churchill, was an American novelist, not the British statesman.)

Well, it’s time to wrap things up. Pardon us if we’ve left any loose ends.

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