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shameless pleading






Bang a gong.

Dear Word Detective:¬† Can you shine your light on the many sides of “forge”? It seems that the various usages (creating something by a process of applying heat and pressure, or the very tool kit that is used to do the same, versus the illegal duplication or replication of something for illicit gain) seem to be rather at odds. Is the third usage that implies motion (to “forge ahead”) derived from yet another source, or is it related to one of the other two? Hoping you’ll go at it with hammer and tongs, (ha!). — Chris Schultz.

Funny you should mention “going at it with hammer and tongs,” which originally, back in the 18th century, referred to a blacksmith working hard to shape metal in a forge using those tools. Coincidentally, I just spent five full days attempting to fix the mowing deck on My Little Tractor (a period now known among neighbors up to a half-mile away as “the Week of Him Swearing at Inanimate Objects”), and my best friend turned out to be my trusty rubber mallet. I truly believe that there are very few problems in life that can’t be solved with a rubber mallet. And lots of WD-40, of course.

There are actually two verbs “to forge” in English, which are considered separate words although they may actually be the same word. Hey, I don’t make the rules.

The first sense of “forge” that you mention, that of “to shape metal by the use of heat and pressure,” appeared in English at the end of the 13th century. The root of this “forge,” which we adopted from Old French, was the Latin “fabricare,” meaning “to make,” which also gave us “fabricate,” another word that, like “forge,” can carry connotations of fraud. When “to forge” first appeared in English, however, it simply meant “to make or build,” so one could be said to “forge” a house or a pair of shoes. “Forge” soon, however, came to be associated primarily with the work of blacksmiths, whose ovens (and shops) became known as “forges.” (A “blacksmith,” incidentally, is one who works in heavy metals such as iron, versus a “whitesmith,” who works in more ornamental mediums such as gold or tin.)

“Forge” rapidly acquired figurative senses centered on the general meaning of “create or fashion,” as in “forging a career.” The use of “forge” to mean “create a fraudulent imitation of something and pass it off as genuine” arose in the early 14th century, derived from a slightly¬† less nefarious use of “forge” to mean “to invent a tale, make up a story.” It’s a tribute to the importance of context in our speech and writing that today we can use “forge” in both the positive “create” sense (e.g., “forging an alliance”) and the very negative “forge a passport” sense. (There is, however, no modern positive use of the noun “forgery.”)

The use of “forge” to mean “push on through resistance or difficulty” (“The store was a crowded madhouse of Christmas shoppers, but Leonard forged ahead, his eye fixed on the perfume counter twenty yards ahead.”) arose in the early 17th century, and was originally a naval term describing a ship making difficult headway. There are two possible sources for this “forge.” It may have arisen as a mutation of “force,” perhaps via simple mispronunciation. Or, as I think is more likely, this “forge” is a metaphorical invocation of the repeated, powerful blows of a blacksmith’s hammer. If so, then these two “forges” are actually the same word.

1 comment to Forge

  • Larry Israel

    Your comment about a rubber mallet and WD-40 reminds me of the old joke:

    All a home handyman needs is duct tape and WD-40. If it moves but shouldn’t, use duct tape; if it doesn’t move but should, use WD-40.

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