I have a fascination with words, odd words, funny little words, words which seem to mean something but don’t and whose origin seems apparent but isn’t. here are some thoughts I had a while ago on inklings and gimlets – of course the Inklings were a literary club at Oxford with members including Tolkien and C.S. Lewis… but that’s another story…:
I thought it might be something to do with printing, from the early days maybe where there was an actual ink put on actual plates, and the people using it might get inky, or be called inklings… But no, I’m wrong.
Apparently the word is older than printing, and comes from Old English, from inca, meaning a suspicion or a doubt; inca progressed into Middle English and became a verb, inclen, which is to hint or to speak in an undertone. However, before Old English there was a root which went back much further and was much older, to a Proto-Indo-European word yenǵ which meant illness; the word travelled forward in time to Proto-Germanic inkô, to ache or to regret… I had never thought of a connection between ache and regret, but doesn’t aching just describe how you feel when you really, really regret something, and almost physical not merely mental or emotional sensation? Inkling can also be compared to the ‘lost twin’ language of Old Frisian, to the word jinc which means angered; English’s other cousin, Old Norse, has the word ekki which means pain or grief – and again, aren’t those two emotions so closely connected? Ekki has moved into modern Norwegian as ekkje which means lack and/or pity.
Now gimlet, I’m not sure I exactly knew what it was or its origin, thinking it might be something sharp and pointed, possibly like a needle, and maybe it referred to the hole in the needle… but then I thought maybe I was thinking the eye of a needle and a gimlet eye and blurring the two.
Apparently a gimlet is a tool, a boring tool, with a shaft and a cross handle at one end and a pointed screw at the other, a little like a corkscrew as I understand it. A gimlet eye, therefore, is a piercing look, someone who is sharp-eyed or observant to the nth degree; this use of the word was first noted in the mid 1750’s. The actual word comes from Old French which transferred into Anglo-French, the original word being something like guimbelet or guibelet; this Old French came in turn from Old Dutch wimmelkijn which meant a little wimmel which was the word for an auger or drill; an auger doesn’t just make a hole by being sharp and pointed, it has a screwing action to drill into something. Coincidentally, proabably from a similar origin, Middle English had a wimble.
Gimlet was used as a verb, meaning to piece something, but it could also be used in a nautical sense, to swivel an anchor round to get it in the right position – an extra ‘b’ was added in this sense and it became to gimblet – which is very like the French guimbelet. Another naval connection is the cocktail called the gimlet, made from gin or vodka and lime juice sweetened or not, and an optional splash of soda.
There is story that the cocktail was invented by a British naval officer, Surgeon Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette. Gimlette was born in 1857 and was certainly in the navy when cocktails became popular. Naval officers drank gin (I know this because my father-in-law was a naval officer; he drank gin, the ranks drank rum) Gimlette, apparently, thought it healthier to dilute gin with lime juice and soda water; there is actually no evidence at all that he did this, but on the other hand there is no evidence that he didn’t! Other sources mention that the cocktail was invented in 1928 and was so named because of its piercing quality and penetrating effect.