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HomeNL-2016-10 Origin Gunwale

What is the origin of the word "gunwale"?
Sept., 2016
by
John Rich

Canoeing and kayaking have a number of unusual words associated with them, such as gunwales, painters, portage, rocker, thwarts, tump and skeg, to name just a few.  
 
Let's pick one of those words and see just where it comes from, and how we came to use it for canoeing. The word I'll start with is; "gunwale".
 
"Gunwale" is defined in the dictionary as the uppermost edge of a ship's side.  That word originated in the late 15th century, when a "wale" was the name for a plank on a boat.  And going back even further to the late 13th century, "wale" came from Old English "walu", which initially meant a ridge of earth or stone, and then later was used more generally for any kind of raised ridge, even for describing ridges in fabric, like corduroy.  "Wale" is also an obsolete form of "weal", which means a ridge of swollen tissue such as that made on the flesh when struck by a rod or a whip.  Ouch!
 

   
walu       walu        weal
 
So "wale" in nautical terminology came to represent a raised ridge line, and on boats, that was the plank running around the top of the sides. 
 

Okay, so if that's what "wale" is, then why is the word "gun" on the front of it?  Well, because from the oldest days of navies, that uppermost edge of a ship's side was a really handy place to mount a gun, for defense against enemies and pirates.  The original spelling in Old English was "gonne walles", or literally "gun walls", because it was the wall of a ship used to mount a gun.  
 
 

And as often happens with the English language, words are sometimes not pronounced the way they are spelled.  With the spelling "gunwale" one is tempted to pronounce is like "gun-whale", just as it looks.  However, the proper original pronunciation is like "gunnel", as rhymes with "funnel".  So naturally, this confusion caused people to start spelling it the way it is actually pronounced, leading to the word "gunnel", which became so widespread in usage, that this corruption of the original word is now a legitimate alternative spelling for "gunwale".  If you say the original "gonne walles" in your best Old English accent, I'll bet you can make it sound like "gunnels".

With gunwale meaning the uppermost side of a boat, an expression has taken root with that concept.  For example, "to the gunwales" means as full as possible, or packed to the brim.

So there you have it.  The next time you refer to the top edges of your canoe as the gunwale, you're using a word that is 700 years old, rich in history!  Even if you don't actually have a gun mounted on your wale.




The author, John Rich