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Q From Kevin Stumpf: If you can please help me understand how the single, tiny word file came into the English language with such divergent meanings — a grinding tool and a storage space.

A They are words with different origins and forms that just happen to be said and spelled the same. English has many such, called homonyms, because its words derive from many different sources.

The file that smoothes and shapes is the more straightforward of the two. It had two names in the dialects of Old English, both of them Germanic in origin. The southern dialects had féol but the Anglian dialects of central and northern England had fil, which eventually prevailed.

The other file, the office one, has a stranger history. Its source is the Latin filum, a thread. It came into English via the French verb filer, to string things together. File was used from about 1500 for a then-common way of organising documents by linking them on a thread or sting. File later became a noun for the results of such filing and in time it was transferred to other methods of storage such as folders. When digital documents began to be stored on computers, it was a natural-enough figurative extension to call them files, too, though it’s a long way from physical threads. A sequence of comments in an online discussion is also called a thread.

The idea of threading documents hasn’t completely died out. Papers may be kept together with treasury tags, small formalised threads. Offices may still contain spike files, pointed metal rods in a base, on which documents are skewered. Journalists still talk of spiking a story when it is rejected, a memory of days when copy was prepared on paper and stuck on a spike file if it was spurned by the editor.

A group of people standing or walking one behind the other is said to be in single file. That comes from the same Latin source as the storage one. The idea is that they’re connected by an invisible thread.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Jul. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 19 July 2014.