What, to your mind, is the difference between sled, sledge, and sleigh?
If you’re from Canada or the US, you might feel that sledge doesn’t even belong in there, or you might think of it as the British version of sled. But I’ll let that slide for now.
Sleigh might seem the biggest and classiest; you think of “Sleigh Ride” and Santa’s sleigh and the “one-horse open sleigh” of “Jingle Bells,” and you can picture a largish vehicle with runners, likely made for being pulled across snowy and icy stretches by horses (or at least one horse). It’s also the glidiest word of the three – it ends on a drawn-out vowel sound, like a sleigh just coasting across a frozen lake. And it has that old-style –eigh ending tacked onto its slippery sl–, fit to go with the neigh of the horse.
Sledge is more on the edge, but it has an unfortunate resemblance to sludge and it shows up in sledgehammer, so it’s a heavy-seeming word. It sounds like its downhill glide ends in the mud. It has as many letters as sleigh, and it’s used in England (when they have enough snow), so you can judge as to whether it’s a bridge between sleigh and sled.
Sled is the simplest. It seems like a stripped-down version – never mind the fancy runners; you can just get a flat-bottomed piece of wood or plastic and zip down the hillside. Sled is what I grew up with. I remember going sledding in Exshaw, Alberta, when I was a little kid: I ran with my sled at the top of the hill and got a good speed, and I had lots of momentum going down what looked to me like a big hill but I’m sure was not really all that; at the bottom, I came to a stop against a snowbank – like the sudden stop at the end of “sled” – and three or four kids who had, without my noticing, jumped onto the back of my sled somewhere along the way (probably near the top) piled forward onto me. Sled is a word for childish fun, but it’s less well suited to singing. And sled looks and sounds most like slide; in fact, it almost seems like an alternative past-tense form.
So which do you think is oldest? It kind of looks like sledge or sleigh lost bits along the way to become sled, like scarf and toque* blowing off as you slide down the hill.
I bet you can guess where this is going.
Sleigh showed up in the US in the early 1700s, first spelled sley and slay, as a borrowing from Dutch slee, which is a shortened form of slede. It is indeed, historically as now, a word for a big sledge (or sled) made for carrying passengers and being pulled by horses (or, I suppose, a pickup truck). The spelling sleigh showed up by the later 1700s, evidently by analogy with weigh, inveigh, eight, and of course neigh. It just picked up the extra letters because they… well, I guess because it looked like fun.
Sledge showed up in English in the early 1600s, originally to refer to a carriage with runners instead of wheels, made for carrying goods or persons over snow or ice. It comes from Middle Dutch sleedse, related to slede; it’s also related to the now rarely used English word slead (rhymes with steed).
Sled has been seen in English at least since the late 1300s. It has long had a broader use, as it still does, not only for sledges but also for flat-bottomed things and for things made to be dragged across surfaces other than snow or ice (the sea bottom, for instance). If you’re out there sliding down the hill on a flat-bottomed piece of wood or plastic, you are safe calling it a sled. It is closely related to slead, already mentioned (which first appeared in the late 1300s), and both are related to the verb slide. Because of course.
So, yes, it started off light as sled and picked up more as it went.
I hope you haven’t gotten upsot by today’s bit of sleducation!
* By the way, non-Canadians, toque is the normal Canadian spelling for the knitted hat pronounced /tuk/, and if you say I’m wrong, you’re wrong – you come to our winter, you wear our parkas and toques and eat our poutine and say our words.