The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 32
VI.—Spell, Gospel, Spill, Spall, &C
VI.—Spell, Gospel, Spill, Spall, &C.
The word "spell" signifies a word. It is also used for discourse, narration, and tidings. This word dropped out of use at a very early stage of the English language. I doubt whether it is to be found in any MS. later than the end of the 13th century, except in one sense, namely, a charm or exorcism. It appears in Layamon in the sense of a discourse or story, and in the Ormulum as a preaching and as tidings. These writers flourished until a few years after A.D. 1200. It is in the secondary sense of tidings that the word forms the last syllable of the word Gospel—anciently God-spel—that is, "good tidings"—in which case it is the equivalent of the Greek word from which evangelist is derived.
It has been suggested by some that the first syllable of God-spel is not good, but God, and therefore that Gospel—God-spel—means God's word, and not good tidings. But this, I think, cannot be supported, and there are several reasons against it. 1. If it had been meant to depart from the original Greek, and make it signify God's word, the first syllable should have been put in page 27 the genitive case—Goddes-spell; whereas in God-spell the first word is an adjective, and is not a noun in the genitive. 2. The o bears an accent—Gód—which would have been omitted as improper if the word had been intended to stand for God. 3. Moreover (and this seems to me to be conclusive), we find in the Saxon version the expression Goddes Gódspell—the Gospel of God—which would have been redundant, had the first syllable of Gód-spell stood for God. Goddes Gódspell, therefore, is God's good tidings, and God's God's-word is quite inadmissible. I am not aware that spell survives as a substantive in any other compound.
Bi water he sent adoun
Light linden spón,
He wrote em all with roun."
"Spell," he continues, "had and still has the same meaning as spón. It was also applied to whatever was writen on it, and came to mean a message, story, or tidings."—(Vol. I., p. 85.)
Spón was undoubtedly a chip of wood. This word spón is the ancestor of our word spoon. A chip of wood, slightly hollowed, was the primitive spoon, and although the material has varied—all available metals having been adopted—the form has never been materially changed. The peasant's wooden spoon and the prince's spoon of gold are substantially similar in form.
It may be interesting to trace the word spell farther. The vowel is of little consequence. It is the sp-l which is radical. Thus we have the words spill, speal, spawl. Spill is a shaving of wood rolled up to serve as a match. They are now in sufficiently extensive demand to be made by machinery. A case was brought before the Supreme Court a few years ago, on appeal from an inferior court, in which the word spall was used as a word well known among masons. These spalls were the fragments of stone split off by the working masons.* We have a great number of words in which the radical letters sp-l occur, and they will all be found to embody the same elementary idea. They are all derived from the word spillan—to destroy. To split is one mode of destruction, to spill (for instance, milk) is another; and although the Saxons had another word for to split—cleófan, to cleave—I page 28 have no doubt as to the etymology of both spill and split. We have numerous words of kindred origin, "split, splinter, splint, spoil, spile, and perhaps splash and explode (ec-splode)" besides the words under notice, "spell, spill, spall." They all embody the idea of destruction, whether by splitting, spilling, or any other mode of spoiling.
But why should this spell or spill (a chip) be the foundation of a written word or discourse, or of tidings? The answer is not far to seek. It is precisely that suggested by Mr. Haigh. In all the languages of Europe a similar process has prevailed. Liber, a book, signifies the inner bark of a tree; Biblos, a book, derives from a word signifying the inner bark of the papyrus; from which, again, the word "paper" is derived. On these materials books were written, for paper from rags was not invented much before A.D. 1300. And what is our word "book?" In Saxon bóc is the name of the beech-tree, on spills, chips, or slices of which books were written.
* Read r. Crawshay.—Macassey's Rep., 519).