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Spell

Your turn. Watch out for the ice weasels.

Dear Word Detective: I read an article where the writer stated that she and her friend “spelled each other off” picking up their children from school. I got the gist of it as “taking turns,” but I thought it was an interesting expression and wondered if you could shed some light on its origin. — Nancy O’Connor.

That is an interesting phrase, and new to me. But that may be because when I was a kid we had to drive ourselves to and from school. My older sister got to steer and honk the horn, while I sat on the floor and worked the pedals. Amazing enough, we never actually hit anything, although there were a few times we came very close to radically lowering the teacher-to-student ratio at our school. Just kidding, of course. We walked the entire 20 miles each way. Barefoot.

OK, back to work. There are actually eleven “spells” in English, although only three of them are biggies, usage-wise, and two of those are actually related. One of the lesser and more obscure “spells,” for instance, is “spell” meaning “a splinter, fragment or chip,” which is probably related to the German “spellen,” meaning “to split or cleave.” This “spell,” now considered a dialect word in Britain, has also been used to mean “a rail, rung of a ladder, or bar of some sort.” As a verb, this “spell” is most notable for being an archaic way of saying “to put into a splint” “The Doctor did not spell it while to-day,” 1886). Another “spell,” a verb, is a nautical term meaning “to let a sail flap loosely in the wind,” and may be simply a variant of “spill” (as in “spilling” the wind from a sail). There’s also “spell,” 19th century slang for “theater,” probably from the Dutch or Flemish word “spel.”

Most of us, however, associate “spell” in some way with the letters of the alphabet. The verb “to spell” in the sense of “name the letters of a word” was “spellian” in Old English, derived from old Germanic roots meaning “to tell, to read out.” In English, this “spell,” which is now obsolete, meant “to speak of” or “to declare.” Around 1400, another “spell” appeared in English, drawn from the same roots but borrowed from the Old French “espeller,” meaning “to read letter by letter” or “to inspect closely; to examine.” The modern sense of “to form words with letters” and the like appeared in the latter half of the 16th century.

The other sort of “spell” common in popular speech is “spell” as a noun meaning “magic incantation” or “words possessing occult powers,” and comes from that Old English “spellian” mentioned above, meaning “to speak or declare.” This spooky use of “spell” appeared in the late 16th century, and almost immediately also began to be used in a figurative sense to mean “enthralling interest or charm” (“The ordinary devices by which the novelist keeps us under his spell,” 1856).

“Spell” in the sense you’ve encountered in “spell each other off” is, thankfully, an entirely separate word, completely and refreshingly unrelated to the “spell”-tangle we just hacked our way through. This “spell” first appeared as a noun in the 16th century meaning “a group of persons taking turns at a task; one group of workers taking the place of another to provide rest for the first.” This “spell” seems to have come pretty directly from the Old English “gespelia,” meaning “substitute,” and is closely related to the English dialect word “spele,” meaning “to stand in another’s place; to represent.” This spell also appeared as a verb in the late 16th century, meaning “to take the place of another worker” or “to take (or give another worker) an interval of rest from a task” (“He tells me that the Finns recite their poems six or seven hours on the stretch, spelling one another, as we say in New England,” 1873). This is the “spell” in “spell each other off,” meaning “to take turns.”

Interestingly, this noun “spell,” carrying the sense of “a period of time” is also used to mean “a period of time of indefinite length,” which is usually specified and quantified in some fashion, e.g., “a long spell of unemployment” or “a short spell of unconsciousness.” This “spell” is often used to mean a period of time spent in a particular way (“Then came a spell of wandering, of high play, of rage for costly excitement, which … beggared him in a few years,”1885), but the US colloquial term “a spell” just means “for a time” (“He tried doctorin’ a spell,” 1884), not long, not short, and, as Pogo would say, nohow permanent.