icicle

Those icicles are sneaky things. You have to look up.

Specifically, you have to look up why it’s icicle and not icycle.

I mean, yeah, icicle looks sort of like an upside-down image of icicles hanging off eaves, but the y in icycle would actually hang down like one, right?

Well, anyway. We know why it seems like it might be icycle: it sounds just like bicycle without the b. But the thing about bicycle is that it comes from bi ‘two’ plus cycle, from Latin cyclus, from Greek κύκλος, ‘circle’. In English we use cycle to refer to something that is figuratively circular, but with bicycle, it’s taken a roundabout route back to (two) literal circles – what goes around comes around.

But icicles are not round (well, except in cross-section, maybe). They’re stabby.

So what’s this word icicle made of? Well, ice, for one thing – or, to look at it, kind of two things: ice plus ice, minus an e and plus an l. But if it’s ice plus icle (which in fact it is), what’s this icle?

Does it mean ‘little’ – like ‘little piece of ice’? As in versicle and fascicle and canticle, from the Latin diminutive suffix -iculus or -iculum or -icula, varying by gender? That would make sense, right? Sure, that’s from Latin and ice is a Germanic word. But that happens sometimes – consider gazebo, for instance.

But that’s not what’s happened here. No, the icle in icicle is also from a Germanic root. Icicle is from ice plus ickle.

Oh, right, ickle, meaning ‘little’, right? Formed from a baby-talk version of little? You see it in some British books. So ‘little ice’?

Nope. Ickle is fickle. This is the ickle that comes from Old English gicel (which was said about as we would say “yickel”), which comes from a Germanic root that also spawned Scandinavian words for ‘glacier’, such as Icelandic jökull. But a glacier is big, and an ickle is ickle. I mean little. Ickle means ‘piece of ice’ – or ‘icicle’.

So we find that icicle means ‘ice icicle’ – it’s redundant, like “watch out and careful.” It just came back around, full cycle. Bet you didn’t see that one coming!

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