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horns, corns and corners

Just this week we received an email from a new reader who wished to contribute an etymology.  Ben Vanderford wished to share his insight into the origin of corner

I theorized that the word corner comes from the Latin word cornu which means "horn". This origin is as follows: In the Jewish temple, one of the altars had horns at each corner. The Latin word for horns is cornu or something (depending on how you decline the word). In the Catholic rubrical books, each corner of the altar used to be called the horn of the altar. From these facts I deduce that the English word corner comes from that. I then tried to check my results on

"Middle English, from Anglo-Norman, from Old French corne, corner, horn, from Vulgar Latin *corna, from Latin cornua, pl. of corn, horn, point. See *ker- in Indo-European Roots." 

Which seems to say that I was right, except for the fact that it went through French first. 

Well, full marks for imagination, Ben, but that last sentence is a very important one.  We cannot comment on why, exactly, Catholic liturgy refers to altar corners as "horns" (perhaps a reader may know) but, unfortunately for Ben's hypothesis, the earliest uses of corner in Middle English have nothing to do with altars.  Late Latin had a word cornarium "corner".  There is no evidence we can find that it came from ecclesiastical usage but we do find a host of similar words for projections and, well, "sticky-out" kinds of things in related Indo-European languages.

If, in fact, we take the dictionary's advice and investigate the Indo-European root word *ker-, we find both corner and horn together with some rather unexpected kin.  The root means "horn" or "head". In the Germanic languages the basic consonants kr (vowels change more and aren't considered so important) acquired an n to make krn-.  Now, though they do so more slowly than vowels, consonants do change (see our Theory page) and in the Germanic languages krn- became a hrn-.  Hence our word horn and, an insect with its own special kind of "sticky-out" thing, the hornet.  In the northern Germanic languages, vowels jumped in after the r (see why they're so pesky?) to give words such as *hraina- which turns up in our reindeer (from Old Norse hreinn, "reindeer") and *hrinda- (Old High German for "cattle") which gives us rinderpest, a disease of cattle.  In Old English we find heorot, "stag", "hart" and a similar word in Dutch gave us hartebeest (a kind of antelope).

Latin held on to the k sound of *ker- in cornu "horn" which gave us cornea (a horn-like layer of the eye), cornet (a kind of trumpet), the unicorn (literally "one-horn"), the bicorn and tricorn (not multiply-horned horses but hats with two and three "horns", respectively), Capricorn (literally "goat-horn") and corn (the horny deposit on a toe or an old word for a brass instrument, not the grain). Occasionally, Latin added a v from which we derive cervine ("deer-like"), cervix (Latin "neck") and the name of an animal called the serval.  The cerebrum ("brain") takes its name from the "head" meaning of *ker- as does the cerebellum ("little brain") and, surprisingly, saveloy, a kind of sausage originally made with brains.

Greek also retained the k of *ker- which we find in such words as cranium and its derivative: migraine (from hemi-cranium "half-skull").  The ancients thought that a certain vegetable looked horn-like so they called it karoton.  Yes, that's right, our carrot comes from Greek.  Rhinoceros is, of course, "nose-horn" and the horny protein which makes our fingernails and hair is called keratin.

Even Sanskrit has a (distantly) related word in shringa "horn".  So, Ben, we see that corner is but one of many Indo-European words for things which cause pain to shins.

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Last Updated 04/17/02 10:58 PM