Saturday, August 28, 2010


Mike from Cadillac asked about the origins of the word pen (< L. feather) and the word pencil (< L. little tail). The answer brought up the word nib—the split end of a pen used to apply the ink.

Nib probably came from a word that sounded much like neb. Clusters of northern European languages such as Frisian, Icelandic, Swedish, and Danish had similar words, all meaning the beak of a bird. This evolved into the concept of a point or a projection:

  • the tapered point of a pen
  • the bill of a bird or the proboscis of an insect
  • the short handles that project from the shaft of a scythe
  • the pole of an ox cart
  • a pointed extremity
  • a small projection on the underside of a roofing tile

A second branch of the same word focuses on the idea of lumps.

  • a small lump or knot in wool or raw silk
  • fragments of shelled cocoa or coffee beans; there are also licorice nibs
  • a speck of extraneous matter in a coat of paint or varnish

Nib is also slang for a person of superior social standing or wealth. I recall my mother using the word in a slyly mocking manner by referring to a pretentious person as “His Nibs.” That use of nib seems to have no connection (or at best, a tenuous connection) to what was discussed above. The OED relegates it to nib3.

SIDEBAR: Neil Cowley Trio plays His Nibs

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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