Interesting Words
Ait • Noun

Pronunciation: ayt

An ait is an islet, an isle, a small island, usually in a river. In Scotland it can also serve as the word for oat. We find the O to A switch in many Scottish pronunciations, like laird, the Scottish variant for lord.

The second sense of today’s word is probably just the Scottish pronunciation of oat, but the first meaning may be surprising. First, it is sometimes spelled eyot, as ‘the eyots of the River Thames.’ This word was early on combined with land to make sure everyone understood it to be land surrounded by water. The result, eitland, today is island.

River islands come with a touch of romance, maybe engendered by the works of Mark Twain: “Riding north from Harrisburg along the Susquehanna, I am constantly reminded by the aits in that river of Tom Sawyer’s life as a boy on the Mississippi.” Do be careful buying one, however; living on one might not be all that romantic. “When Phil bought a plot of land in Florida for his retirement, he didn’t realize that it was an ait in the Okefenokee Swamp.”

This word came from Old English igeth, which was eit by Middle English. The Old English word is a reduction of Proto-Indo-European akw- “water,” the same root that became aqua “water” in Latin. We see the Latin word in many English orrowings, like the word for the color of Mediterranean water, aqua, and others, including aquarium, aqueduct, and the water of life, aquavit. Latin had a verb from this root, too, aquari “to fetch water.” The past participle of this verb was aquatus, inherited by Italian as guazzo, which French borrowed for the water-color painting known as gouache. To drain the water away in Late Latin was exaquare, from ex “away (from) + aqua “water.” Old French smoothed this word off a bit, creating esseouer (essorer “to wring out” today). At this point English worked its magic to reduce this word to sewer.

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