Drill-motors, Lexicography, and the Middle English Dictionary

Drill motor caption in a newspaper

For the past three years the Text Creation Unit, a small group within the Digital Content & Collections department of LIT, has been busy revising one of the University's oldest and most famous products and projects, the Middle English Dictionary. This post will not address the now 90-year history of the project, nor the technical or design aspects of our new interface, nor even the problems attached to sustaining a project like this over nearly a century. In fact, this post will seem a little roundabout, but trust me, it will eventually end up at the work actually being carried out, and at the sort of thinking, and the sort of crazy people, that go into it.

Consider, if you will, this classified ad from a local newspaper, dating from an era when there were such things as newspapers and classified ads (Detroit News, November 28, 1946):

drill motor caption

In particular, look at these three items:

     1/2" DRILL MOTOR, Thor make; 

     2 Dixson carpenter hand saws and 

     1 Black & Decker skill saw.


Dixson saws.

Take the 'carpenter hand saws' first. At first glance it has a minor spelling abnormality: 'Dixson' instead of 'Dixon' or 'Dickson.' But for anyone who knows saws, these sale items belong neither to Dixon nor to Dickson but are almost certainly saws made by Disston, the most famous of American saw makers. "Dixson" is a mistake, but what kind of mistake? It could be orthographic, the seller (not too sure of his spelling) allowing the more common 'Dixon' (or 'Dickson') to influence his spelling of the less common 'Disston'. Or it could be an error of transmission -- a scribal error if you will --; perhaps the ad was transcribed incorrectly; perhaps it was even phoned in and what we see is what the clerk at the Detroit News heard. Or perhaps the error reveals an underlying shift of pronunciation.  Sibilant clusters are particularly subject to metathesis in English. Perhaps the /st/ of Disston had metathesized in at least this speaker's language to /ts/ and thence to the more common /ks/. I.e. perhaps 'Disston' had actually come to be pronounced 'Dixon' and the spelling we see is a clue to that development. My guess in this case is that the first explanation is the correct one, but all three are possible, and all three kinds of explanation are options for the historical lexicographer too, faced with a mysterious form in a 15th-century manuscript. Is it a simple unforced error, perhaps animated by analogy or mistaken for a more common word? Is it a scribal error, caused by similarity of sound or shape or by simple inadvertance? Is it a revelatory error, exposing changes in the spoken language which standardized spelling concealed: when a scribe spelled a word differently than was standard, does that difference perhaps represent a real change, or real variation, in the way the word was said? And of course, all of this presumes that the lexicographer recognizes an underlying identity between 'Dixson' and 'Disston'. A modern lexicographer who does not know saws, or who is misled by appearances, might be tempted to create a whole new ghost word, or rather ghost brand 'Dixon', a non-existent mid-century maker of woodworkers’ panel saws.  If that can happen to a documenter of contemporary English, it is a much more frequent pitfall of the historical lexicographer. When a word is unfamiliar -- and a lot about the Middle English period must always remain unfamiliar --, we are tempted, or even compelled, to posit a new word, demanding a new entry in the dictionary, failing to recognize an old word in its novel guise. Finally, whether to include either Disston or its byform Dixson in one's dictionary depends on one's policy with regard to names (e.g. personal and place names), and with regard to things denoted in some way by a name. Names work differently in many respects from other words and their presence in dictionaries is always a little uncomfortable.


Black & Decker skill saw

In dictionaries of modern language the issue is further complicated by the legal ramifications of trademarks and trade names, since companies do not in general like to see their expensively promoted brands converted by popular usage into generic terms.  The 'Black and Decker skill saw' listed in our 1946 ad clearly does exactly that. Though in 1946 ‘Skilsaw’ as a company and brand had been around for a couple of decades, it was only in 1937 that its iconic model 77 ‘Skilsaw’ worm-drive circular saw appeared on the market. As we see from our ad, within ten years, a saw by another company (Black & Decker) and probably different design could already be described as a ‘skill saw’ -- much to the dismay of Skil. Both the spacing as two words and the lower-case ‘skill’ suggest that the compound name had already not only been rendered generic, but was transparent enough to devolve into its component elements.  Old-timers nowadays still refer to a portable circular saw as a 'skilsaw' (or 'skill saw'), regardless of manufacturer, just as most people refer to a reciprocating saw as a 'sawzall' whether or not it was made by Milwaukee. The compound remains transparent (skill + saw), but has also remained fixed; there is no trace of ‘skill’ breaking off and productively forming new compounds like ‘skill drill’ or ‘skill grinder.’  

Finding  Middle English relevance for ‘skill saw’ is a bit of a stretch, since the legal trademark and tradename apparatus had yet to be created. But there are certainly generic words in English that began life as names (‘denim’ from ‘de Nimes’ for example), and this process was very active in Middle English, especially with regard to trade goods and medicines (which often bore the name of their inventor or supposed inventor). There are also innumerable compounds in Middle English, some of them containing ‘productive’ elements -- elements that could recombine with other words to form new compounds -- and some of them non-productive or fixed; some of them opaque (the identity of the component elements obscured by time), others transparent. Finally, like ‘skilsaw’ (which originally referred exclusively to a worm-drive saw but was quickly re-purposed to refer to a direct-drive ‘sidewinder’ saw like that created by Black & Decker), a great many nouns persisted even when their referent had changed. A word that means one kind of bird or fish in one part of the country, or in one century, is reapplied to refer to a different bird or fish encountered later, elsewhere, or imported from abroad, based often on only superficial or functional resemblance.  A great deal of an historical lexicographer’s time is spent trying to peer past the appearances to the underlying object, for a ‘lath nail’ in Devon might be a different sort of thing from a ‘lath nail’ in Yorkshire, and the same objects might appear in both places, with different names. Often, this effort is in vain, and one is left offering guesses or queried glosses like ‘some kind of fish, perhaps cod; ?perhaps in some quotations an eel.’  

As in the 14th century, so also today, it is often the language of everyday commerce and the trades that raises this issue with particular force. No one writing an expense report for the purchase of ‘40 pounds of brads’ is likely to pause to define what is meant by ‘brad’ or specify how a ‘brad’ might differ from a ‘nail.’ No one reading the account would need to ask, and no one needing to ask would have reason to read the account. A lexicographer having only the bare account in hand is left to guess, based on comparable lists elsewhere, on likelihood as established by context and situation, and on contrasts within the same text.  For example, if the same account lists both ‘nails’ and ‘brads’ but gives a cost for the former that is ten times the cost of the latter, the lexicographer might reasonably suppose that nails are different from brads and either bigger or more difficult to make.


Thor drill motor

The third item in our 1946 ad, the ‘½” drill-motor,’ is a case in point. So far as I can tell, this is not an official or manufacturer’s term, but purely a term of and by tradesmen: a term of carpenter’s cant, if I may. Note that the ad specifies a ‘drill-motor’ made by ‘Thor’. Now the contemporary Thor Tools catalogue is readily available, nowhere mentions the term ‘drill-motor,’ and in fact names this same 1/2" tool a 'drill,' not a 'drill motor.' A ‘drill motor’ is apparently jargon for the official term ‘drill.’ This was news to me, though it should not have been.

A few weeks ago, I found myself on a Methodist mission construction team in the Keweenaw, refurbishing a 19th-century miner's house from Central Mine, one of the most successful of the mass copper mines from the heady days of the copper-mining rush in 'copper country.' That's just by background. I know my tools fairly well, and own thousands of them--but was confounded to discover that all of my fellow crew members referred to an ordinary everyday electric (cordless) drill or impact driver, not as a 'drill' but as a 'drill-motor.'  I had never heard of such a word, yet every one of my teammates used it, as in 'hand me that drill-motor, we need a coupla more screws over here.' Being a word-hound, I of course looked it up, but could find it in no dictionary--I may not have looked hard enough. Being a lexicographer, I went looking for its prevalence, range, history, semantics, register, and so forth. Being a librarian, I'll try to make the search at least a little educational.

First, I needed to know whether the word was a purely local usage, a fluke, an in-house joke, or something of the sort, so of course I asked Facebook. I asked the Home Machine Shop group on Facebook, since I happened to belong to it, and since machinists presumably have some acquaintance with tools.  Here are a few of the (as usual) conflicting responses:

[A]:  WE called them that 40 years ago.

[B]:  Not a new term

[C]:   I've lived in the south all my life and that term is rare down here. When I was in Ohio in the late 90’s it was frequently used there.

[D]:   I grew up in Mississippi and then have lived in Memphis area for nearly 50 years. I say "drill motor".

[E]:   Drill motors too in PA.

[F]:   ..never heard that terminology here in Ontario before. Might hear a guy say ' pass me that cordless' however.....  

[G]: Hear it in the South all the time ... coming from Chicago, I needed an interpreter to tell me what it was.

[H]: Screw guns in my part of Texas.

[I]: I hear it all the time from 40+ yr old tradesmen.

[J]: In industrial catalogs, what many folks call “drill bits” are actually “drills” & what many call “drills” are referred to as “drill drivers” or “drill motors” in the catalogs. So, I think the ones you were referring to probably are more accurate that the general population.  [pfs: this seems not to be true: catalogues describe both the bits and the tools as 'drills'; I have not been able to find any catalogue that labels the tools as 'drill motors'.]

[K]: I agree with [J]. I’ve been corrected more than once at my work. A drill is a bit, a drill motor is the handheld tool that turns that bit. 

[L]: Simply a “drill” in my world. Central Alabama. It’s the yellow things I get for Christmas and my crew always ends up losing so I buy more. Then my old ones turn back up. A vicious cycle really.


Some people had heard of it, some not; for some it was standard. Some people thought it northern, absent from the south, others southern and absent from the north. And some advanced a theory that its use was essential to the disambiguation of the word 'drill,' implying that its origin lay in an attempt at clarification. 'Drill' can mean both the cutting tool and the machine that drives it, so one or the other (or both) need to be qualified in order to distinguish one from the other. If a 'drill' was properly the cutting tool, then another term ('drill motor') was needed for the machine; for some, this kind of unambiguous usage had achieved the status of correct, even to the extent that calling a drill a drill was incorrect. The phenomenon is common -- it is why a 'pen' is called an 'ink pen' in some dialects, in order to distinguish it from 'pin' --  in those southern dialects in which 'pin' and 'pen' are pronounced the same; it’s why hockey is called ‘ice hockey’ in Britain (while the Brits would say that hockey is called ‘field hockey’ in North America). That theory may have some validity, but in any case it was clear that the term was not purely local -- nor likely even regional.

What about its history? Here I turned to a few of the more easily searchable databases, Google books and a database of local Michigan newspapers, just to get a sense of where, when, and how often it showed up in print. This search is of course what led me to the 1946 ad with which I started this piece.

Google Books had only a few clear examples, but there were enough to show a trend that I expect a more extensive search would confirm. Google Books’ examples were recent, were more popular or educational than professional or technical, and were in some cases 'defining quotes' -- whose authors evidently felt the need to explain a perhaps unfamiliar term.

Here, for example is Tim Gilles, Automotive Chassis: Brakes, Suspension and Steering (2005), p. 46:

Other times a portable drill motor is best. There are a variety of sizes of handheld drill motors. You will need to consider the speed of a drill press or portable motor depending on the type of metal and the size of hole being drilled.

And here is Jay Webster, Outdoor Power Equipment (2000), p. 9:

A drill motor is an electrically powered, hand-held motor that drives a drill bit used to drill holes. There are two general types of drill motors. Some are powered by a battery pack that fits in the handle... The other type is powered by an electrical cord plugged into a wall outlet.

And here, finally is Steven J. Filippini in a more narrative mode in Fix it or Pull it: Confessions of a Former Field Technician (2004), p. 11:

About halfway to the window, the drill motor stopped. Actually, the drill bit stopped and the motor kept going. The drill motor spun out of my hands only for a moment before I regained control. If the trigger button on the drill motor had been locked in, I would be telling you a different story complete with a black eye and fractured wrist. I tried to back the drill bit out of the wall but it would not budge. I reversed the direction of the drill motor and still couldn't get the bit to move... This isn't a good sign.

In all three cases, it is clear that the term refers to the tool (complete with trigger, chuck, etc.), not just to the 'motor' per se.  It also appears from the first and third examples that the compound is loose and transparent: that the item, once identified as a 'drill motor' can thereafter be called simply a 'motor.'  The same is true of most of the examples from newspapers. Excluding ambiguous examples, there were plenty of clear ones from the late 1920s on. In fact, the term seems to have been born at roughly the same time that powered hand drills were becoming widely available.  The first examples I found were from the classified ads. 

  • A 3/8 ELECTRIC drill motor, cheap. (-- Detroit News, June 19, 1927.)
  • AUTO MECHANIC tool cabinet..complete, including 1/4" standard electric drill motor, Snapon and Blue Pointe. (-- Detroit News, February 6, 1938).
  • DRILL motor, 1/4" capacity, $12. (-- Detroit News, April 13, 1941).
  • Drills, taps, dies, tool bits.., drill motors, chain fall, various tools (--Detroit News, Sept 13 1942).
  • Vega tenor banjo, trade for electric drill motor. (-- Detroit News, December 3, 1944).
  • 5/16" Black & Decker drill motor, sell or trade. (Detroit News, January 27, 1946).
  • ONE electric drill motor, 1/4" chuck, guaranteed in good condition. (Detroit News, February 10, 1946).
  • WANTED--Springfield M-1903 gun as issued, in exchange for 3/8"-chuck heavy-duty drill motor. (Detroit News, November 12, 1950).

Some examples show that any powered portable drill could be referred to as a drill motor, not just electrically powered ones:

  • One pneumatic drill motor, 3/4-inch capacity. (Detroit News, July 25, 1948)
  • AIRCRAFT EQUIPMENT. 16 Chi. Pnu. Rivet Guns.., 38 Chi. Pnu Hand Drill Motors. (Detroit News, March 14, 1943)

By the 1940s, the term has begun to appear in news stories and informative articles:

Albert Metayer, 53, of 327 Grove Avenue, Highland Park, was fined $50 and placed on probation for one year for taking a drill motor from a war plant in which he was employed. Metayer said he had borrowed the motor for a friend. (-- Detroit News, March 8, 1945).

NEW VERSATILE TOOL. A new tool [pfs: ?an electric version of the popular pneumatic impact wrench], no bigger than a common electric drill motor, said to result in easier tightening or loosening of nuts and bolts, was introduced at the Detroit-Leland Hotel today by Dirkes Industries.  (-- Detroit News, August 5, 1947)

Kenneth Flitch..went from Plant 8 at the north end..to the tool crib at the south end to check out a heavy-duty drill motor, not realizing it was too heavy to carry. (--Flint Journal, November 8, 1953).

It was apparently not till the 50s and 60s that 'drill motor' began to appear in commercial ads. The first I have found is an ad for Rayl's Hardware (Detroit News, November 8, 1953) for a drill kit that included "36 pieces, including powerful 3-amp. drill motor." A similar ad the next year for Inkster Lumber advertised a 40-piece drill kit that included a "metal carrying case, 1/4" drill motor, saw attachment, [etc.]" (Detroit News, Dec. 3, 1954). 

The word seems to have fallen out of commercial use more recently, but is still part of many people’s active vocabulary, as my crew can attest; just today a Facebook post on another matter entirely happened to say, “Some people call them [electric drills] ‘drill motors’.” The term has been around for nearly a hundred years and belongs in the standard dictionaries as an established compound of precise meaning (distinct from the sum of its parts), relatively clear dates of occurrence, very clear derivation, and identifiable register.  Based on my limited evidence, this term appears to be in 'common' use, i.e., it is a term of workingman's jargon more than a term of technical engineering. Most examples are from popularizing works, from the personal testimony of tradesmen, and from ads, especially classified ads where people tend to write as they speak and call things by the names that they actually use. As a minor but additional point of interest, since there is some evidence for the reversed form with similar meaning (‘motor drill’), ‘drill motor’ might even be classed among those rare compounds in English that mean the same thing regardless of order (e.g. jack screw = screw jack).


Dictionary-making for the curious

These same questions, and these same methods, more or less, are our daily pursuit in revision of the MED. It is work, above all, for the observant and the curious--for the kind of people who would pick up on an odd ad from 1946 and pursue its oddities to the ends of the earth, or the end of Google search results, whichever came first. Like our conclusions drawn from that one 1946 ad, it is always inductive in principle: we work from evidence of actual use, not from any suppositions about what the language should look like, though of course drawing on our expectations of how languages change and words evolve. When we meet a word or phrase or sense in a Middle English text that appears anomalous (perhaps not previously recognized or described), if possible we seek additional information from context, from source, from intrinsic likelihood, from earlier and later use, and from a search of relevant corpora. Unfortunately, the social media postings of the 14th century are not available to us, but we do what we can to establish meaning, semantic field, history, and social register. We look to see what terms are linked together, and what terms form opposing pairs, all in pursuit of understanding everything we read. 

Here, for example, is a passage from a late 15th-century abbreviated Middle English version of the encyclopedic text known as the Elucidarium

The gentill writyng of youre subtile sentens hathe geve me a superabundable swetenesse to conduse...breuely all these commendable queriblis to my memorable mynde, which is clepte the cloyster of connyng.

Everything about this suggests an author in over his head, attempting an elevated, alliterative, and Latinate style without quite the chops to pull it off.  “Superabundable” is found nowhere else in Middle English; the same is true of “querible,” which seems to be a nonce word based on mangled Latin, much like modern “quibble.” And the phrase “memorable mind” as a synonym for “memory” is similarly unique to this text. In short, this one sentence produced two new entries, and at least one new sense, but no confidence that the words in question had any life beyond the would-be eloquence of this one author.

A very different example emerges from a set of London church-wardens’ accounts:

  • Payed for tyling of the Chirche..for ij Dayes..; item, for ij C Tyle, xvj d.; item, for iiij rose Tyles, iiij d.
  • Payde for ij Ml tyle for the Chirche, xj s.; item for a Ml of Rose nayle, viij d.; .. for a quarter & di. of Rose tyle, xij d
  • First, paid for Ml tile, price v s. vj d.; item, paid for a quartron rose tyle, xvj d
  • Paid to the tiler for rose naile and sprig, ij d

The question here is like the question of “Dixson” saws. Is there indeed such a thing as ‘rose tile’ and ‘rose nail’? These can all be easily explained as errors (because of the similarity of -f- and -s- ) for ‘rofe’ (i.e. ‘roof’) tile and roof nail. But there are problems with that explanation, too, because (comparing similar accounts), these nail and these tiles are very expensive for ordinary roof nails and roof tiles. In the end, these appear to be common items, purchased as part of an ordinary maintenance schedule. But we do not know what they are, and if they are actually ‘rose’ tile and ‘rose’ nail, why they might be called that. Those who wrote, and those who read, those mundane accounts certainly knew, but our reconstruction has so far fallen short.

The same accounts provide examples of a word that (like our friend the drill-motor) may simply have flown under the lexicographers’ radar, namely ‘nil’ (straightforwardly borrowed from the Latin) in the sense of ‘an amount of zero’, as in “a score of six to nil”. There seems no reason not to take at least the first and third of these examples, both of which are accounts of rental receipts, as genuinely English (the middle example is perhaps better regarded as Latin):

  • Resceyued for the said hous..of the leue called the late wyf of Gerard Morcys, for the termes of midsomer & Mighelmesse..nil, for hit was geven & perdoned hir for the Costs the said Gerard did in the said hows.
  • Pro holy et ivy nil.
  • Resceyued for the Rent of the seid Tenement for A yere & di..vnto the fest of Cristemasse.., nil.

On a similarly mundane level, we’ve added more than a thousand quotations from one recent edition of painters’ and artists’ recipes. Nothing could be more practical, or more rooted in actual usage, which for us, as for the original writers, constitutes much of their value. Here’s a single example, which bears comparison with the ‘skill saw’ : a noun phrase, based on a proper name: 

Blank de Spayne. Forsothe hit ys mad on the same wyse, save the platys of blank de Spayne mote ben often yscrapyd.

“Blank de Spayne” is evidently a kind of white pigment, probably white lead. But whether it actually comes from Spain, or always does, is unknown to us. We gave it a new entry, as a phrase, while remaining somewhat ignorant of its actual history as a substance.

Finally, thinking again of those ‘Dixson’ saws, and reading this time another work very productive of new information, we find in Henry Daniel’s Treatise on Uroscopy, a pioneering medical work dating to the year 1400, a pair of words, ‘to skorkle’ and ‘to skolker’. The former is found elsewhere, is related to the word ‘scorch,’ and means something like ‘to burn or alter by heating’; but the latter word is found nowhere else, has the same meaning, and is evidently simply a metathesized form of ‘skorkle’ (-rkl- changed to -lkr-).  An error? An authorial idiosyncrasy? A new word? Since it is found more than once, it is evidently not a simple error, and we have seen fit to accord it its own entry, confined for the moment to the semantic field of ‘pathology’ and defined as ‘to alter the nature of (a humor) by unnatural heat.’ Here are the examples we worked from:

  • Al that that is gros and terrestre, i. thik and erthisshe, bleuith stil, and hete scaldith it and scolkerith it and brenneth it, and so causeth swarthede and blakhede in the vryn.
  • It is verray tokne that tho .. humores that causen the ydropisi ar smyt & taken &t scolcret with vnkynde hete of the febre.
  • Colre is citrin or elles redissh of his owen kynd, but when it is so that the colre is al fully aduste, i. al forschalt and brent and scolcrid, throgh exces of vnkynde hete, than it taketh a vile swart derk dymhede with a maner of grenehed.

Of such is our daily adventure.

In short, like all librarianship, our Middle English lexicographic enterprise, hidden away in the University Library, consists of sorting order out of chaos, not only to satisfy our craving for sense but for the benefit of others. It rewards the same sort of breadth of interest and omnivorous curiosity that find equal happiness in odd classified ads from the 40s and treatises on the examination of urine from the 14th century. It inculcates habits of observation that apply themselves willy-nilly to everything they meet. And it proceeds by piling detail upon detail into a shaky but real and genuinely useful edifice of knowledge, ever correcting itself and ever in need of correction.


Explore the Middle English Dictionary, and contact us if you have any questions.