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I've just been looking up the etymology of the word "strike," as in “The pedestrian was struck by a vehicle.” (I was curious about why we always seem to use "struck" in this situation).

A quick Google search reveals that it comes from the Old English strican, which means “to pass lightly over, stroke, smooth, rub lightly” and is related to the German streichen, "to stroke." This of course seems much different than the current usage, "to strike a blow," or to hit hard. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the sense of dealing a blow came around by the early 14th century in Middle English, but I can't find anything to explain how this may have happened.

I'm very curious about how this word went from referring to a smooth and caressing action to a hard and damage-dealing one. Any clues?

  • I found this: benjamins.com/catalog/cilt.237.22rie but there isn't even an abstract of the article. I suspect, however, it would answer your question. Today, the German "streichen" is mostly used as "to paint" (a wall), and the derived "streicheln" means "to stroke, pet" (a cat) or "to caress" (a human). – KarlG Dec 30 '17 at 21:00
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    When edged weapons are involved, a stroke is equivalent to a strike. – John Lawler Dec 30 '17 at 23:12
  • And these are not the only str- words with a One-Dmensional sense. – John Lawler Dec 31 '17 at 0:57
  • I've modified the title, but if you don't like it, or I've completely missed the point you can, of course, edit your question and change back the title – Mari-Lou A Dec 31 '17 at 10:49
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I suspect that John Lawler's comment is the key to this question. The earliest use of "strike" in this sense in the OED refers to being struck by a weapon. As noted in the aforementioned comment, passing over something with a weapon carries an inherent implication of violence, which probably stuck with this sense of "strike" until it became as common as it is today.

The earliest cited use is from 1377

Al-þough þow stryke me with þi staffe with stikke or with ȝerde.

  • 1377 - Langland Piers Plowman B. xii. 14

The OED offers no specific etymological notes for this sense beyond what has been outlined in the question, so this explanation for the sense related to hitting something is somewhat speculative.

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