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The Etymology of 'Kindle' by Mark Forsyth

EtymologiconShe seeks to kindle with continuous kissing…

Said Shakespeare in his poem Venus and Adonis, but for some reason the marketing chaps at Kindle haven't used the line yet.

Etymologically, 'kindle' is in one of my favourite groups of words: the forgotten frequentative. It's a subject that I wrote a whole chapter about in my book, The Etymologicon. It's a group that contains bustle, waddle and that old favourite disgruntle. When you did something frequently in Old English the Old Englishmen would just add an –le to the end of the word.

Most of the time it's obvious where this has happened. If you frequently spark, you sparkle. If you keep cracking you crackle.

Some are a little less obvious, but much more romantic. Knights in shining armour used bump into each other on purpose and they called it jousting. Jousting has rather disappeared as a pastime, but when people keep bumping into you, you still say that you're being jostled.

The same idea goes for nuzzle (rubbing someone with your nose) and gobble (stuffing food into your… mouth).

But sometimes a verb has disappeared, while the frequentative remains. There is no longer a verb to snug or to fond. But there was once and if you are fond of somebody often enough you may end up fondling them.

And some words have gone completely. Unless you are a time-travelling Viking who's just stopped off to read this blog post, you're very unlikely to have heard of the Old Norse word kynd. It existed once, though, and the word came into English with the Viking invasions, got its frequentative suffix, and is still sitting in your hand today.

Originally 'kindle' just meant setting fire to things, but according to the OED 'kindle' has had the extra meaning of to inflame, excite, rouse, inspire (a passion or feeling) since at least the 14th century.

That's presumably the meaning that marketing men at Amazon had in mind when they picked the name.

I could be wrong though. The dictionary says that 'kindle' can also mean a baby hare. I'll have to get in touch with Amazon and check. I'll also try and sort out a deal whereby every Kindle copy of The Etymologicon comes with free continuous kissing.

--Mark Forsyth

Mark Forsyth is a writer, journalist and blogger. Every job he's ever had, whether as a ghost-writer or proof-reader or copy-writer, has been to do with words. The Etymologicon springs from his Inky Fool blog on the strange connections between words.


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Great post Mark!

I've followed your blog for longer than I've owned my Kindle, but I love them both equally.

I recently purchased your book - the kindle edition of course - and look forward to reading it. Keep up the great work!

One use of 'kindle' that seems not to be noticed by dictionaries is applied to rabbits (domesticated rabbits in the UK, at least). When a doe produces a litter of young, she is said to have 'kindled'.

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