I've often wondered why ash (trees) and ash (burnt residue) have the same name.

I've looked up the origin of both words, but I don't see anything that explains why the names are the same.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

ash (n.1)

"powdery remains of fire," Old English æsce "ash," from Proto-Germanic * askon (source also of Old Norse and Swedish aska, Old High German asca, German asche, Middle Dutch asche, Gothic azgo "ashes"), from PIE root *as- "to burn, glow." Spanish and Portuguese ascua "red-hot coal" are Germanic loan-words.

An ancient symbol of grief or repentance; hence Ash Wednesday (c. 1300), from custom introduced by Pope Gregory the Great of sprinkling ashes on the heads of penitents on the first day of Lent. Ashes meaning "mortal remains of a person" is late 13c., in reference to the ancient custom of cremation. Meaning "Finely pulverized lava thrown from a volcano" is from 1660s.

ash (n.2)

popular name of a common type of forest tree of Eurasia, North America, and North Africa, Old English æsc "ash tree," from Proto-Germanic * askaz, * askiz (source also of Old Norse askr, Old Saxon ask, Middle Dutch esce, German Esche), from PIE root * os- "ash tree" (source also of Armenian haci "ash tree," Albanian ah "beech," Greek oxya "beech," Latin ornus "wild mountain ash," Russian jasen, Lithuanian uosis "ash").

The close-grained wood of the ash is tough and elastic, and it was the preferred wood for spear-shafts, so Old English æsc sometimes meant "spear," as in æsc-here "company armed with spears," æsc-plega "war," literally "spear-play." Æsc also was the name of the Old English runic letter that begins the word.

I understand that words can be homonyms, which are words that have the same spelling but different meanings and origins.

However, the fact that both words are related to wood makes me think that it might not be a mere coincidence.

Is there a reason why ash (trees) and ash (burnt residue) have the same name?

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    I feel like you've answered your own question. It is probably just coincidence if the Online Etymology Dictionary has them coming from different PIE roots, and they are different words (though similar) in most other Germanic languages. – Tim Foster Dec 3 '18 at 16:35
  • @Wilson You might be be better off editing your question to use proper text for your quote rather than a screenshot image. It'll help people find your question... and possibly even answer it. – tmgr Dec 3 '18 at 18:57
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    @TimFoster : Feel like whipping up an answer? – Wilson Dec 10 '18 at 18:45

(1) The burden of proof

Research methodology requires that, unless you can provide evidence for a relation between two variables, you must assume that no such relation exists. Put differently, if you cannot demonstrate that your hypothesis of relatedness of two words is true, you must operate under the assumption of the null-hypothesis that the two words are not related. Or to use a legal metaphor, if you cannot prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty, you must let them go free.

There is no evidence that ash 'tree' and ash 'remains of fire' share a common historical root. We must therefore suppose that the two words are not related and that their homophony is a mere coincidence.

It is of course possible there is a relation between two variables and that there just isn't any empirical evidence to substantiate this. In other words, the hypothesis may be true even if you are not in a position to legitimately reject the null hypothesis. Or to use the legal metaphor again, the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" may sometimes result in guilty criminals who will not be convicted.

It is possible that, thousands of years ago, speakers of Proto-Indo-European or Proto-Germanic did indeed connect the roots that would eventually give rise to ash 'tree' and ash 'remains of fire'. But if so, this potential link is lost in the mists of time and we are now not justified to make this claim even if it might be true.

(2) Origins of the two words

The etymologies provided in the question are generally adequate. However, in order to show the two forms of ash do indeed appear to be etymologically unrelated, I will offer my own summary:

(a) ash 'burned ashes'

Several prominent cognates of the word ash exist in North- and West-Gemanic: Old English æsce, Old High German aska, Old Norse aska. From this we can easily reconstruct North-West-Germanic *['as.ka]. However, the Gothic cognate is surprising - it is azgō. This phenomenon looks very much like a Germanic consonant alternations explained by Verner’s Law (e.g. Ringe 2006: 275). Thus, the simplex n-stem, Primitive-Germanic *['as.kōn], may be a reanalysis of an originally complex word, perhaps derived or compounded, i.e. Proto-Germanic *['as] + *['gō-] forming *[as.'gō-]. What is the origin of *['as]? It's uncertain. One very good candidate is Proto-Indo-European * h2es- > * as- 'to burn, glow, dry up' (cf. Hittite ḫāššā- 'fireplace, hearth'). What is the origin of ['gō-]? This is extremely uncertain. There just isn't enough surviving material to determine what happened. All we know is that it's some extension with a velar. (e.g. Kronoon (2013: 38) suggests the source * dʰegʷʰ- 'burn'.) (Interestingly, the Armenian cognate also has a velar extension ačiwn 'ashes' so that further investiagtions of this word might shed light on the origin of the second element of the compoound.)

Summary: ash 'remains of fire' probably comes from some kind of complex word, quite possibly the Proto-Indo-European stem for 'burn' + a velar extension of unknown nature.

Proto-Indo-European: ??? (extremely uncertain)
Proto-Germanic: ??? *[as.'go-] (uncertain, perhaps compound)
North-West-Germanic: *['as.ka] (certain, reanalysis as a simplex word)
Old English: æsce
Middle English asshe
Modern English: ash

(b) ash 'tree'

It is uncontroversial that this word derives from Proto-Indo-European * h3osk- > * osk- - the name for a common type of forest tree of Eurasia. The Proto-Indo-European * o regularly changes into * a in Germanic (e.g. Meier-Brügger 2002: 86), as in Latin quod English what etc., yielding * ask-. In West-Germanic, the word moved into the i-stem class, meaning that it took on the ending -iz. The earliest speakers of English, say c. 400 A.D., would have pronounced the word as *[ask.iz].

Summary: ash 'tree' goes back all the way to a Proto-Indo-European root with essentially the same meaning.

Proto-Indo-European: * h3osk- (certain, a simplex word)
West-Germanic: *['ask.iz] (certain)
Old English: æsc(e) (certain)
Middle English assh(e)
Modern English: ash

(3) The words may not be that similar

Because of the different etymological origins, the two senses of ash are actually pronounced differently in many Germanic languages. Compare the different pronunciations in the following modern languages:

                    ash 'burned residue'      ash 'tree'
German           Asche                             Esche
Dutch                 as                                      es
Swedish           aska                                   ask
Faroese            øska                                   ask
Gothic              azgo                             * asks (unattested)

Even in Middle English, the most common spelling for ash 'burned residue' would retain a final -e while most spelling for ash 'tree' would occur without such an ending (but there are many exceptions).

Thei shuln be ashe vndir the soole of ȝoure feet. (c1384 WBible(1), Dc 369(2))
A swyþe gret Asch. (c1300 SLeg.Kenelm, LdMisc 108)


Ringe, Donald (2006) From Proto-Indo European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kroonen, Guus (2013), Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Leiden: Brill.
Meier-Brügger, Michael (2002) Indogermanische Sprachwissenschaft. Berlin: De Gruyter.

  • Holy smokes. That is a solid answer. – Wilson Dec 15 '18 at 22:43

I think the fact the these two words are the same in English is probably just a coincidence. Although it can be tempting to come up with interesting links between the concepts of ash and the ash tree, I'd go with Occam's Razor - that the simplest explanation, requiring the least assumptions is the best explanation.

Thus as both forms have derivations going back to two different PIE roots, I think the likelihood is they only have the same form in English by chance. In most other Germanic languages, the words are similar, but not identical (e.g. - "askr" and "aska" in Old Norse, "Asche" and "Esche" in German). In fact, you could say it was almost inevitable that in one of the Germanic languages the two words would end up being the same.

However, it is interesting that the two derive from similar sounding PIE roots - *as and *askaz, which possibly date back, respectively, to *hehs and *hasy. So it's possible that there may have been some sort of link in very early PIE, or perhaps the progenitor of PIE, but I don't think we'll ever know for sure.

Hope that helps!


The Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary says:

ash (ash), n.

[AS. æsce.] A timber and shade tree (genus Fraxinus) of the olive family, having pinnate leaves, thin furrowed bark, and ash-colored branchlets: also, its tough elastic wood. See SAMARA, Illust.

Photo of text.

I wonder if the ash tree got its name because ash tree branchlets resemble ashes in appearance.

  • Sorry. I don't have access to that dictionary right now (someone sent me the photos). So, I don't have any more information about the edition of the dictionary at this time. – Wilson Dec 3 '18 at 15:05
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    The wood of European ash trees had many uses, so there would be plenty of waste, and it burns easily but has poor fuel quality, so it might have been the main source of potash (ashes used to make soap). It also has plentiful seeds, related to the olive, but I don't know if that contributed to the quality of its potash (potassium). – AmI Dec 3 '18 at 20:36

It could be that ash trees, when burnt, leave many ashes, or it could be a complete coincidence caused by similar-sounding words from different languages being modified into English.

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