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shameless pleading






It’s here somewhere.

Dear Word Detective:  I realized recently how diverse the word “file” is, in terms of  definition.  I can think of several: “file” meaning a line of (typically) soldiers, one in front of the other; “file,” the tool that is used to rasp or polish all kinds of materials; “file” in terms of a folder or holder of documentation, and the verb forms of all the above definitions.  That’s a pretty wide landscape — do they have a common source? — Chris, Kansas City.

That’s not only a good question, but also an admirably lucid exposition of the question.  You’d be surprised how many questions I receive that consist of just a word or two (frequently misspelled) followed by a string of random punctuation (“brass monkies?!!”).  Maybe I should institute a “reverse-Twitter” rule and accept only questions consisting of more than 140 characters.

The simple answer to your question is “no.”  The “file” tool used to smooth rough metal bears no relation to the “file” that Big Brother keeps on you, and that “file” of soldiers, while it may be related to the “folder” kind of “file,” is probably only a distant cousin.  But wait, it gets better.  The Oxford English Dictionary lists eight separate “file” nouns, including the now-obsolete “file” meaning “girl or woman” (from the Latin “filia,” daughter), “file” meaning “a worthless person” (from the Old Norse “fyla,” foul, also the source of “defile”), and “file,” an old slang term for a pickpocket, whose origin is a mystery.

“File” meaning “a metal instrument covered with tiny teeth or cutting edges, used for grinding down or smoothing materials” is the oldest of the “files” in English, dating back to Old English (as “feol”), and is probably derived from an ancient Indo-European root meaning “to cut.”  Most uses of this “file” have been directly related to this main meaning, although “file” was also used in the 19th century as slang for “a cunning or shrewd person” (“All the old files of the Ring were in it,” 1848, Thackeray, Vanity Fair).

“File” in the “collection of documents” sense is truly fascinating.  This “file” comes from the French “fil,” meaning “thread” (based on the Latin “filum,” thread, also the source of “filament”).  One of the earliest uses of this “file” in the 16th century was to mean a string or wire strung between two points, from which papers were hung in order to keep them organized and easily available.  As storage technology improved (it’s hard to imagine it getting any worse, after all), “file” was applied to folders, cabinets, and eventually clusters of data on computers.  The related verb “to file” appeared at the beginning of the 17th century, first meaning to place documents upon such a wire, but eventually acquiring the broader sense of “to submit a document to be held in the records of an official agency, etc.”

The use of “file” to mean a line of soldiers or other people standing in a queue, one behind the other, appeared in the late 16th century and comes from the same French “fil,” meaning “thread” (from the resemblance of such a line to a long thread), but this “file” was apparently borrowed separately from the French and is not a further development of “file” in the “documents” sense.  This “file,” incidentally, is the same word found in “rank and file,” originally referring to soldiers in parade formation, arrayed in neat “ranks” (side-to-side rows) and “files.”

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