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I remember in days of yore being told by a professor that threshold held the meaning of "stepping (or more literally, treading) through," implying a locative sense to the remaining -old morpheme. This, however, is not borne out in the standard declensions.

Does such a statement hold water?

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  • OED doesn't help much. "The first element is generally identified with thresh v. (? in its original sense ‘to tread, trample’), the forms of which it generally follows; but the second is doubtful, and has in English, as in other languages, undergone many popular transformations." (last updated 1912). Threshold is certainly an OE word. – Andrew Leach Feb 11 '15 at 18:38
  • Though the variation in related forms shows one can't put much credence in any etymology for the "-hold" part: [OE. þerscold, -wold, þerxold, -wold, þrexold, -wold = ONor. þreskjoldr, -koldr, nom. pl. þreskeldir, mod.Icel. þröskuldr, Norw., Sw. tröskel, Da. (dr)tærskel; cf. OHG. driscûfli neuter, MHG. drischuvel, durschufel, Ger. dial. drischaufel,] – John Lawler Feb 11 '15 at 18:59
  • Google gives the following when you ask it about -hold Old English haldan, healdan, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch houden and German halten ; the noun is partly from Old Norse hald ‘hold, support, custody’. Is this sense shared by threshold, household, freehold, foothold ... ? – Dan Feb 12 '15 at 22:05
  • I connect it with "the door's hold" which would make sense, but I know the etymology is totally unclear. But I would not see -old as a morpheme, an affix of word formation; that makes no sense. – rogermue Aug 23 '15 at 17:23
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This blog post by Anatoly Liberman gives a recent and comprehensive overview of some of the complications surrounding this word.

In summary, Liberman suggests, following Eduard Sievers, that the word's original etymon was þersc-o-ðl(o). The first part is related to modern thresh ~ thrash. The suffix -ðl(o), which later undergoes metathesis to become -ld, is described by Skeat as usually denoting an agent or implement.

(To me this scenario seems a bit implausible: the semantics of the suffix doesn't fit very well, and the proposed metathesis would have to have taken place independently in Old English and Old Norse in view of the Old Norse cognate þreskjöldr, unless borrowing was somehow involved. But I'm not an etymologist whereas Liberman is, so I'd be inclined to trust him rather than me!)

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No. The word was originally a combination of two separate words:

  • thresh
  • hold

It used to be spelled "threshhold" or "thresh-hold", but eventually the aitches were telescoped.

The word comes from the time when most regular folks had dirt-floored houses. In order to keep themselves off the dirt while inside the house, they would strew a heavy layer of "thresh" over it and would walk on that. This "thresh" was essentially what was left after threshing the wheat and barley (separating the grain from the heads and the straw). Because of traffic in and out of the door the thresh had a tendency to start migrating out the door. To stop this, they would lay either a piece of wood or a flat stone across the door opening. The top of this "thresh-hold" would be higher than the ground, and would stop the thresh from moving outside - and keep water from flowing in through the door, too.

ETA: As @JanusBahsJacquet points out, this may very well be folk-etymology, but if so it's a darned good folk-etymology. I don't remember where I first read about it, and I can't find a source, but oh well.

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    I haven’t seen this explanation before, but it has all the markings of a folk etymology that won’t stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, it is true that it used to be written thresh-hold, but long before that, it was spelt in various ways with no h at all. The earliest forms with the h seem to be from the 16th century, while it was being spelt (among many, many, many, many other variations) ðærscwold as early as the 10th century at least. It also used (up until around the 17th or 18th century) to be threshwood, threshfold, threshfod, thrashel, and freshwood. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 12 '15 at 20:48
  • Yes, @JanusBahsJacquet, it does have the characteristics of folk-etymology, but regardless of that, it's a better etymology than none at all -- which is where we are, otherwise. In its defense, at least it makes sense. I don't remember where I heard or read it, but I've always liked it as an explanation. YMMV. – Cyberherbalist Feb 12 '15 at 21:22
  • Are threshold and household related ? – Dan Feb 12 '15 at 21:43
  • Hmm, maybe. It's a good question, @Dan. I believe that "household" is a grouping word that pertains to persons, property or matters in the possession of, or having responsibility for a house. Check out the word "freehold". A "hold" or "keep" is a fortified property -- called that because someone holds it or keeps it, usually by force of arms. – Cyberherbalist Feb 12 '15 at 21:51
  • @Dan, which is at least one reason why I still like my threshold folk-etymology, despite the downvote(s). :-) – Cyberherbalist Feb 12 '15 at 22:00

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