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