lode

O, how we are misled by appearances and strange attractions! We use a lodestone or follow a lodestar to lead us to the motherlode, but so often we find ourselves stuck in load-eye again, with loadstones and loadstars and motherloads. How can we load such ill-starred stones? But, you see, it is all because we see what we want to see. We see a difference just if we want to see one.

Look: more than a millennium ago there was a word lád in Old English (Anglo-Saxon); it meant (per Oxford) ‘way, course, journey, conveyance’. But the course of sound can be more coarse than sound, and on the way from Old to Modern that á became a long o, which we signify with a silent after the d. A lode, having been ‘course’ and ‘leading’ and ‘guidance’, is now ‘watercourse’ and ‘object of attraction’ and ‘vein of metal ore’. So a lodestone is a magnetic stone, not a heavy load but one you can use for navigation on a ship. A lodestar is a cynosure, and not just in the dog days. A motherlode is the main vein of metal.

Of course, on the other hand, we have load, which is what something is laden with, a burden to carry on the way. It traces back through various forms to Old English lád.

Oh. Well, yes. Historically, just like to and too (yes), lode and load are the same word, which over time was spelt variously: lad, lod, loodeloade. But the spread of senses in the watercourse of its meaning went too far and came to a delta, and the guidance and attraction senses went with lode, while the transporting-a-burden (or carrying-a-charge, as in a gun) senses went with load under the semantic attraction of lade (as in laden). Yes, that’s right: the attraction sense went one way, and the burden sense was attracted the other way.

We follow the sense wherever it leads. And we follow it backwards to where it leads us, too. We can follow lode and load back to lád, and we see that it is the Anglo-Saxon version of the word that in Old High German was leitâ, ‘course, leading, procession’, which is an ancestor of modern German leiten, ‘lead, manage, conduct’; it all traces back to Germanic *laiđā, which is also the source of our modern verb lead.

And with that, I think we’ve hit the motherlode. We consulted the lodestone and followed the lodestar and carried the load to wherever it all would lead, and we find it’s all from the same lexical ore, just as one metal can become bullets or type.

(Oh, by the way, the unattractive metal lead is not related to the verb lead. Don’t be misled by appearances!)

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