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Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the origin of the word “steeple.” Could it have originally been a combination of “steep” and “hill”? — RL Diehl.

That’s an interesting question. I must admit that until today I’d never given much thought to the word “steeple,” which is odd because I was, as a child, sort of fascinated by them. I grew up in New England, where it’s common for every town to have at least three or four churches of various denominations, each with its own tall, pointy steeple.

The reason I never wondered back then why such structures were called “steeples” is that the explanation for the word seemed obvious. The sides of a “steeple” are extremely “steep,” and the “le” on the end was necessary for it to rhyme with “people” so that kids could do that thing of  intertwining and then unfolding their fingers (“Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people”). If you’re wondering what the heck I’m talking about, just search for “here is the church.” The video by “MsRhymetime” is brief and clear. She also has one on “Days of the Week” that I found helpful.

Of course, I have long since put away childish things (except the plastic dinosaurs), which brings us back to your question: does “steeple” have anything to do with “steep hill”? And the answer is “yes and no.” The word “steeple” has nothing to do with a “hill” (which comes, not that you asked, from an Indo-European root meaning “elevated, projecting or prominent”).

But “steeple” does come from the adjective “steep.” In fact, “steeple” essentially is the word “steep” used in a special sense as a noun. “Steep,” which we use today primarily as an adjective meaning “having a rapidly increasing incline” or “at a great angle to level ground,” first appeared as the Old English “steap,” meaning “steep” or “high,” derived from the ancient Germanic root “staup,” also meaning “steep.” (This “steep” is unrelated to the verb “to steep” meaning “to soak,” which is of unknown origin.) The old root sense of “steep” as meaning “high” or “severe” as well as “sharply tilting” is found in the modern use of “steep” in reference to the cost of something (“Forty thousand marks … is a pretty steep price even for a royal motor carriage,” 1901).

“Steeple,” which first appeared in Old English as “stepel” or stypel,” comes from exactly the same root (“staup”) as “steep,” but had taken on its specialized meaning (in the form “staupil”) a bit further downstream. In modern English, “steeple” initially simply meant “a tall tower,” one whose height was far greater than its width. That general meaning is now obsolete, and since the 12th century “steeple” has been used to mean “A lofty tower forming part of a church, temple, or other public edifice (often serving to contain the bells); such a tower together with the spire or other superstructure by which it is surmounted” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)).

There are, of course, various figurative uses of “steeple” in English, but the one I found intriguing is “A steeple-shaped formation of the two hands, with the palms facing and the extended fingers rising to meet at the tips” (OED) (“When I put out my hand, she made a steeple with her hands, and bowed. This was my first experience with the Hindu pranam, or greeting,” Gore Vidal, 1978).

Two of the more well-known terms formed from “steeple” are “steeplejack,” a worker who climbs steeples or high towers to repair them (“jack” in this sense being a generic term for “man, worker”), and “steeplechase,” a cross-country horse race involving jumping fences, streams, etc. These races were originally held in open country with a distant church steeple set as the finish line.

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