Printable Version
Pronunciation: spel Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. An incantation comprising a set of secret words that enchants someone or the enchantment itself (to be under a spell). 2. An unspecified length of time. 3. A tale, story, or narration. 4. Interim of relief for another person at some task or chore.

Notes: How did this word come to hold so many different meanings? The original meaning of today's word was "to talk, narrate, tell stories". Someone gifted at that is usually a charmer, so it is easy to see how the noun spell could have slipped into the meaning of magic talk or "incantation, charm".

In Play: But the other meaning of this noun, "an interval of time", derived from the same word in an odd manner. The original meaning of "sit for a spell" was "sit for a talk". The meaning of spell then shifted away from "talking" to the interval of time spent talking, as 'a rainy spell' or 'spell of bad weather'. Once the meaning had shifted to a time interval, e.g. 'to work a spell', we were only a short hop from "a turn", as to spell someone who is at work "take over the work for a time".

Word History: Today's Good Word is a direct descendant of Old English spellian "to tell, speak, talk". In Middle English it was spellen "to read letter by letter". This word was borrowed by Old French as espeller. Old French didn't allow S+consonant clusters at the beginning of words, so it usually added an E before such clusters in borrowed or inherited words. Later on the S dropped out e.g. state : état, as in coup d'état, which English borrowed back. So, currently, the French word is spelled épeler. We can find remnants of the older meaning, "story, tale", in gospel, originally god spell "God story", and German Beispiel "example", that is, a "by-story". (Thanks to Professor Dennis Baumwoll who once taught Old English at Bucknell University for spelling out the etymological intricacies of today's word to us.)

Dr. Goodword,

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