ply = {with object} 1. Work steadily with (a tool)

2. {no object, with adverbial of direction} (Of a vessel or vehicle)
travel regularly over a route, typically for commercial purposes

3. (ply someone with) Provide someone with (food or drink) in a continuous or insistent way

3.1. Direct (numerous questions) at someone:

[Etymonline:] "work with, use," late 14c., shortened form of applien "join to, apply" (see apply). The core of this is Latin plicare "to lay, fold, twist,"
from PIE root plek- "to plait, twist" ...

I wish to dig deeper than the definition, which I already understand and so ask NOT about. I heed the Etymological Fallacy. What are some right ways of interpreting this etymology (to naturalise or rationalize it), so that it feels reasonable and intuitive?

I omitted the rest of Etymonline that concerned archaic linguistic variants. OED also inundated me. How does "to lay, fold, twist" evolve into the above 4 definitions? How do they relate to each other? I'd guess that ply is a cognate of the French « plier », but this doesn't help,
because « plier » is much narrower and means only 'to bend or to fold'.

  • 2
    You forgot the definition of (noun) "ply" as a layer -- plywood is made of multiple plies.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 31, 2015 at 2:14
  • 1
    What exactly are you asking? How the Latin root (or really the germanic cognate) became those four meanings? People use words metaphorically. That's how meanings change. Do you not see how they are all at least related? Are those connections for each four what you're looking for? Actually can you edit to show exactly which four definitions you're asking about?
    – Mitch
    Mar 31, 2015 at 2:42
  • These definitions are actually a cognate of the French appliquer, and not of plier. Mar 31, 2015 at 2:51
  • @HotLicks Thanks. I was just focusing on the verb here. I'll ask about the noun, if necessary, as a separate post. Or did you wish to know about the noun?
    – user50720
    Mar 31, 2015 at 3:04
  • 1
    The question is a NARQ. Voting to close.
    – Kris
    Mar 31, 2015 at 11:33

2 Answers 2


Each of the four definitions "radiates" out from the original idea of plek- "to plait, twist".

If you have ever observed a person spinning thread, weaving cloth, or making a woven basket, you know that it can be meticulous, slow, and repetitious work:

  • The individual elements need to be aligned properly.
  • Each element must be interconnected with the other elements.
  • A pattern must be carefully maintained for strength and beauty.

All of the definitions emanate from this notion of slow repetitious work:

  1. Definition one of ply suggests this slow repetitious work with simple tools, as on page 101 of Alfred J. Church's Stories of the Old World

Yet it is not for Troy, or for the people, or even for my father or my mother that I care so much, as for thee in the day when some Greek shall carry thee away captive, and thou shalt ply the loom or carry the pitcher in the land of Greece.

  1. Definition two of ply suggests the slow repetitious work of traveling one small step at a time before modern transportation machines made travel fast and easy. Consider page 20 of Neil Wigglesworth's The Social History of English Rowing:

London watermen brought their wherries from the capital on wagons 'to ply upon the River Cam and row people up and down from the fair to town.'

  1. Definition three of ply suggests the slow repetitious work of influencing a person with one serving after another of food and drink. From page 312 in Volume 8 of Arabian Nights:

Nur al'Din refused, but the Frank ceased not to ply him with meat and drink and lure him with lucre, still adding to his offers, till he bid him ten thousand dinars for her; whereupon Nur al'Din, in his drunkenness, said before the merchants, "I sell her to thee..."

  1. Definition 4 of ply suggests the slow repetitious work of interrogating someone with one question after another. From The Vernon Courier, THURSDAY JULY 4, 1889 Vol. IV, No. 5

If you wish to cultivate a gossiping, meddling, censorious sprit in your children, be sure when they come home from church, a visit, or any place to which you do not accompany them, to ply them with question concerning what everybody were [sic], how everybody looked, and what everybody said and did...

  1. The noun definitions of ply all connect directly back to the notion of weaving and folding:

noun (plural plies)

1.0 A thickness or layer of a folded or laminated material:

1.1 [USUALLY IN COMBINATION] A strand of yarn or rope:
[AS MODIFIER]: four-ply yarn

1.2 The number of multiple layers or strands of which something is made:

2.0 short for plywood.

3.0 [MASS NOUN] (In game theory) the number of levels at which branching occurs in a tree of possible outcomes, typically corresponding to the number of moves ahead (in chess strictly half-moves ahead) considered by a computer program.

3.1 [COUNT NOUN] A half-move (i.e. one player’s move) in computer chess.


  • There is another usage for ply which was overlooked,which is ply as in strand or more specifically, twisted strand. It's used to describe yarn in terms of how many individual strands are twisted together to form a particular type of yarn. This is of course closely related to the use we see in plywood. I believe that etymology can surely give us insight into how a word evolved but sometimes common usage and a bit of imagination and just connecting things in a more visual way will take words into different and unexpected paths. English to me, has that dynamic and organic feel to it.
    – Nekito
    Mar 31, 2015 at 3:17
  • Thanks, @Nekito. I believe, the ODO noun definitions 1.1 and 1.2 cover the strands of yarn application for ply.
    – ScotM
    Mar 31, 2015 at 21:43

Could ply as it applies to shipping be related to the ancient Greek word for 'ship', πλοῖον, and the verb for 'to sail', πλέω?

  • If you're asking this as a question, it should be in the form of a question post. With a little more rep, you can ask for clarification or make suggestions in a comment. If you're suggesting this as an answer, answer posts are intended to be authoritative responses that address what was asked in the question. So a good answer would cite your own research to support this idea. That's the likely reason why this has attracted a downvote. Can you do some research and expand the answer?
    – fixer1234
    Jun 4, 2017 at 20:52

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