7

The Barn, Church Hall Farm, Broxted, Essex (England)
See the YouTube video

(13.40) George Clarke: The architecture of threshing barns is absolutely driven by their function. With two opposing doors to create the through draft, sloping floors to drain any water away from the grain and high ceilings for storage and the circulation of air.

(13.58) Dr. Nicola Verdon: Threshing was an incredibly dusty hard job, so you got these big barn doors which you would keep open to have a through draft. You can actually keep half of the doors closed and that literally is the ‘threshold’. You want a nice breeze coming through to get rid of the dust and so on but you want to make sure that the crop doesn't blow away.

(14.23) George Clarke: The threshold to the threshing barn… it is ‘holding in’–that's brilliant– all the material.

Image taken from TV programme "Restoration Man"

In 2010-11 Etymonline said (see Word Origin and History)

the oft-repeated story that the threshold was a barrier placed at the doorway to hold the chaff flooring in the room is mere folk etymology.

That derisive comment has since been modified; today Douglas Harper, the owner and editor of Etymonline, says

Old English þrescold, þærscwold, þerxold, etc., "door-sill, point of entering," a word of uncertain origin and probably much altered by folk-etymology. […] Liberman (Oxford University Press blog, Feb. 11, 2015) revives an old theory that the second element is the Proto-Germanic instrumental suffix *-thlo and the original sense of threshold was a threshing area adjacent to the living area of a house.

From M&W

Middle English thresshold, from Old English threscwald; akin to Old Norse threskjǫldr threshold, Old English threscan to thresh

There is no mention of a threshing barn, yet many barns in Britain were used for threshing wheat and have existed since the early middle ages. Where was this threshing performed? Did this building have a different name?

Even though Dr Nicola Verdon is a professor of Modern History and not an etymologist, she was certainly convincing when she explained the meaning of threshold, and it made perfect sense to me.

  • Is there any truth in the folk etymology that claims the origin of threshold is the area destined to ‘hold’ in the threshing?
  • Why do sources, such as Oxford Dictionaries and Merriam-Webster, say the etymology of the second element in threshold or threshold is unknown?

Related to but not a duplicate of Etymology of "Threshold" which specifically asks about its spelling.

  • The government official responsible for recording word etymologies was out sick on the day that word was invented. – Hot Licks Apr 28 at 21:38
  • Since wind is needed to winnow the wheat would threshing not have been done outside ? I suspect that instead of mats in doorways, to clean footwear before entering, the entrance to a doorway would have an area outside it with threshings strewn on the ground to act as a doormat. And they would have been held in some kind of shallow containment. Hence a thresh-holder in a doorway. – Nigel J Apr 28 at 23:46
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    @NigelJ Britain's climate is notoriously rainy, and exceptionally windy in the north and in Scotland, so how many weeks of decent dry weather could a poor farmer rely on? Working indoors would guarantee that the harvest wouldn't spoil. Not that I am a farmer mind you, so maybe winnowing (separating the wheat from the chaff) outdoors had its advantages . – Mari-Lou A Apr 28 at 23:53
  • As with all such questions, it's worth reminding people that EtymOnline is just Mr Harper's self-published blog and shouldn't be treated as a reliable source for any information. At best, it's a cut-and-paste of the entries at the OED; at worst, he simply makes up or misunderstands things. It's actually a step down from Wiktionary, which at least records (or openly displays the lack of) its sources. – lly Apr 29 at 0:23
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    @lly the same counts for the word origins blog, where the *thlo story had its inception, as far as I know. This is not considered admissable by wikty standards, on grounds of durable archivement alone. *-thlo is an instrumental suffix, so I should be surprised if it referred to an areo, though that's perhaps not impossible. Yet, there's no entry for the suffix so I can't tell whether it has a laudable pedigree or was based on folk etymology. Meanwhile I noticed that Ger. Grenze "border" from late Lat., from Polish granica does seem to relate to corn, too. – vectory Apr 29 at 4:47
7

The class VII Germanic strong verb behind English hold is particularly transparent in all cognate languages:

Old English: haldan (Anglian), healdan (West Saxon)
Middle English: holden/halden
Gothic: haldan
Old Saxon: haldan
Old Frisian: halda
Old Norse: halda
Dutch: houden
German: halten

The verb thresh is somewhat more divergent. Metathesis has transposed the r and e in Dutch and the English verb is no longer strong (ppl. throshen, cf. Ger. gedroschen), but the family resemblance is still strong enough to pick them out in a crowd:

Gothic: þriskan
Old English: þrescan, þerscan
Middle English: threshen
Middle Dutch: derschen
Dutch: dorschen
Old High German: dreskan
German: dreschen
Old Norse: þreskja, þriskja, þryskva
Swedish tröska

One would think, then, that if one were to form a compound of the root of one verb and a nominal form of the other to get threshold and its equivalent the result would be one happy family. The results are far from it:

Old High German: driscufli, -uvili, -ubli
Middle High German: drischuvel -ubel
Standard High German: not present (Schwelle)
Carinthian/Styrian: Drischpl, Trischpl
Dutch: not present (drempel)
Old English: þerscold, þerxold, þrexold, þerscwold, -wald
Middle English: þrescwold, þreshfold
Old Norse: þreskoldr
Swedish: tröskel

There seems to be a bilabial/labiodental something in most of these examples, but what exactly is anyone’s guess. What it isn’t, however, is any clear link to hold.

The other problem I have is whether, say, before 825, the approximate date for the Anglo-Saxon Exodus where the word appears, there would have been enough barns of a size large enough in Great Britain for protected threshing and winnowing to produce the word and then somehow transfer it to a doorsill, all the while this strange phenomenon was magically occurring from Scandinavia all the way to Austria.

It seems more logical that whatever follows thresh has more to do with architecture than making sure winnowed grain doesn’t escape on the wind.

  • …where the word appears, there would have been enough barns of a size large enough in Great Britain for protected threshing and winnowing to produce the word and then somehow transfer it to a doorsill… There are probably no remaining traces of 9th Century timber barns, these structures over time would have either been looted by invaders, destroyed in fires, chopped for fuel, rebuilt or simply rotted away. Farmers didn't build barns to stand the test of time, it wasn't until the 14th/15th century (I'm guessing) when wealthy landowners invested in brick. – Mari-Lou A May 3 at 8:19
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I'll mainly address the second bullet point question. The first one is hard to answer - if there is any truth to the folk etymology, it would mainly be true in the sense that any folk etymology is true. It helped a community of later people explain what the word meant.

The folk etymology overdetermines the meaning of hold (to mean "holding in" the thresh), when the earlier forms of the word leave it unclear what precisely the second part of the word is. Even in the modern spelling there's an ambiguity between reading it as "thresh + hold" and "thresh + old." Its Old English forms support the latter reading more ("thresshholde" is Middle English), though note all the form changes in the Oxford English Dictionary's version:

Old English þerscold , -wold , þerxold , -wold , þrexold, -wold = Old Norse þreskjǫldr , -kǫldr , nominative plural þreskeldir , modern Icelandic þröskuldr , Norwegian, Swedish tröskel , Danish (dør)tærskel ; compare Old High German driscûfli neuter, Middle High German drischuvel , durschufel , German dialect drischaufel , etc.

-old/-wold in Old English and -kjǫldr/-kǫldr in Old Norse. So why don't we know what these endings mean? Because even their seeming simplicity here leads to several possible readings:

  1. Is it -wold, which in Old English would have referred to a forested area and in prior etymons would refer to wood or timber? (OED, "wold, n.") Hence it would be the wood that keeps the thresh inside. This is attractive but risky because, while wold may have meant timber in prior languages, it never meant that in Old English where the form appears. Furthermore, it's possible the wold spelling comes from Old English writers trying to make sense of the word as a compound.

  2. Is it related to old? Likely not (what does "thresh"+"old" even mean?), but the form aldr (meaning old) does exist in Icelandic/Old Norse and other Germanic langauges, and weirder origins have occurred.

  3. Is Anatoly Liberman right? His blog post, alluded to in the Etymonline update the question quotes, traces the second part to a hypothesized form -ðlo and claims that the resulting word refers first to a threshing space and then - eventually - a part of an entryway. In terms of his work, Liberman has the academic credentials and the linguistic depth to make a good argument on this, and his argument merits more thought than I've given so far. However, with respect to Liberman, his own argument requires accepting (a) an explanation for the second word that is heavy on forms and transformations but light on orthographic evidence and (b) an assumption that the threshold was once an area of a space and not just an entryway or boundary, when at least as far back as Old English and Old Norse it was not that. So it remains plausible but unproven.

  4. Is it something else we don't know? The form could be something not yet explained that occurs further back than Old Norse or Old English, at which point our linguistic samples are few enough that we may never know what it was. For all we know, it all comes back to hold again!

That should sum up some of the difficulties in determining the form of that second word. We know enough forms that it could be, but not enough to show which form it is.

  • 2
    I don’t really think expecting orthographic evidence for something like this is fair. Given that the second part of the word is obscure (and has demonstrably been altered by folk etymology in even the earliest attested stages of most of the Germanosphere), its origins must by necessity lie in pre-attestation times, in which case there is no orthographic evidence, by definition. Liberman’s article is the only source here that really goes into that stage, so naturally it will be light on orthographic evidence – that is the nature of historical linguistics. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 28 at 18:30
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    Or to put it differently: if there were any orthographic evidence (that didn’t contradict itself seven ways till Sunday) for the origin of the second part, we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all, because the etymology of the word would be clear to begin with. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 28 at 18:31
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    Worth noting those aren't the form changes listed by the OED, let alone all of them. The dozens of separate spellings are listed below, in the attestations, not in the etymology at the top of the entry. – lly Apr 29 at 0:30
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    I did a quick Google search for thresshholde and didn't find anything, might there be an "s" too many? – Mari-Lou A Apr 29 at 7:23
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    @Mari-LouA I just double-checked the Middle English Dictionary (quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/… ): thresschefold, thryssheholde, and related words appear. – TaliesinMerlin Apr 29 at 12:01

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