This word seems to connote a little drip.

You may not know it if you’re from North America and haven’t read the right things. It may appear just to be the common part of fickle, mickle, pickle, prickle, sickle, stickle, tickle, and trickle (and, in sound, of nickel too), words that really don’t have a whole lot in common aside from sounding a bit like a small flow of water. It might seem a bit icky, too. But there are two things that ickle means in Britain.

Those of us who have read the Harry Potter books may recall Harry’s nemeses taunting him with “ickle Harry.” What does that mean? It’s actually just British baby-talk for little – it intentionally talks down by imitating child speech; it implies “you little drip.” It often shows up somewhere near bicky, which is baby-talk for biscuit (which, in Britain, means what we North Americans call cookie).

How do you get ickle from little? In North America, where we say the latter more like “liddle,” you don’t. But if you retain the manner (stop) more than the place (tip of the tongue), and turn the /t/ into a glottal stop, and – as one does – make that late /l/ into something halfway to a [w], the [k] is a reasonable outcome. And dropping the initial [l] is just baby talk. It wasn’t made up by JK Rowling, anyway. It shows up in Charles Dickens, EM Forster, George Orwell… It’s classic. If you’re British.

But there’s another word ickle too. Many people in England don’t use it either, but if you find someone who does, they’re probably from Yorkshire or parts near it. I hadn’t been aware of this word until I saw it mentioned in “The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape.” But it will be plain once I tell you what it means: ‘icicle’.

Does icicle seem like a good word for the thing it names, by the way? I’ve always thought so, but ice and icicle are words I learned at such a young age that they shaped my idea of what they named. The /k/ in icicle and ickle is hard like ice, yes; how about the syllabic /l/? Does it perhaps have a sense of the drips that trickle to the tip and make the icicle grow?

Do you wonder where the word came from?

It seems plain enough at first glance: ickle must be a clipped form of icicle, yes? But then where does icicle come from, anyway? It must be ice plus… what?

Plus ickle.

Ickle comes from an old Germanic word relating to pieces of ice. It mostly referred to these aqueous stalactites, but its cognate in Icelandic is jökull. Does that look vaguely familiar? You may remember Eyjafjallajökull; if you’ve learned anything much about Icelandic geography, you may know that the frozen centre of the country is a huge glacier, Vatnajökull. As it happens, jökull is the Icelandic word for ‘glacier’. (IPA geeks: it’s said [jœːkʏtl̥]. The rest of you: never mind.) So one way or another, ickle is a piece of ice, but in Iceland it’s rather bigger.

Well, like glaciers, icicles do grow under the right conditions – but glaciers are added to by snow on top, while icicles add a drip at a time, rolling down from the top to the bottom. A bit more, a bit more… sort of like how ickle became icicle. I guess the plain ickle (which, in Old English, was gicel, said like “yickel”) was just too, uh, ickle for them. So, for clarity, they added the ice part.

Hmm. One more drip and they would have had a means of conveyance.

One response to “ickle

  1. Oh James, I do enjoy your blog posts!

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