I was doing some yardwork yesterday when a splinter did some work of its own on my finger. I headed back to the house for my tweezers, and I began to wonder about the history of tweezers; these useful little instruments. Who made them up? What were people doing before tweezers? And how in the world did this useful tool get that crazy name? I can’t help but wonder about the brainstorm session that landed on the name “tweezer”
I had a feeling that tweezers had been around for a very long time – before the advent of medical forceps. Thinking back to ancient societies that had both advanced art in things like beadwork and jewlery techniques and really unnatural, exaggerated beauty practices, ancient Egypt sprang to mind. Small beads require precision handling, and all those bald Egyptian heads and stylized eyebrows might require a lot of plucking (and/or waxing and shaving). Wikipedia confirmed my guess. Tweezers were in use in pre-Dynastic Egypt, as well as in Mesopotamia and India by 3000 B.C. The Romans also used them.
So far, so good. But what about the word itself, which is pretty bizarre when you come to think of it? Who would come up with a name like “tweezers” for a small, precise gripping instrument?
I typed in “etymology of word tweezers” and got this: “Origin 1645-55; plural of tweezer, equivalent to obsolete tweeze, case of surgical instuments.” Tweeze apparently derived from etweese, an English corruption of the French etuis, from Old French etuier, to keep, ultimately from the Latin studiare, to care for.
Tweezers” are, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “small pincers or nippers (originally as included in the contents of an etui) used for plucking out hairs from the face or for grasping minute objects.” That curious word “etui” is the key to “tweezers.” An “etui” (or “etwee,” from the Old French “estuier,” to hold or keep safe) was a small case that was often carried by folks in the 17th and 18th centuries containing personal instruments such as toothpicks, pins and what we now call “tweezers.” Over time the name for the case came to be applied to one particular instrument itself, that useful set of pincers, which was known as a “tweeze” and eventually “tweezers.” The verb “to tweeze,” meaning to use tweezers on something, is actually what linguists call a “back-formation” from “tweezers,” and didn’t appear until the 1930s.
”Scissors” is a bit more straightforward, and is rooted in the Latin “cisorium,” or “cutting instrument,” based in turn on “caedere,” meaning “to cut.” Our English word “scissors” was adopted from the Old French “cisoires” as “sisoures” in the 14th century, but by the 16th century we had changed the spelling to the modern “sc” form, probably because many people assumed it was connected to the Latin “scindere,” to cut.
“‘Tweezers’ are, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘small pincers or nippers (originally as included in the contents of an etui) used for plucking out hairs from the face or for grasping minute objects.’ That curious word ‘etui’ is the key to ‘tweezers’. An ‘etui’ (or ‘etwee’, from the Old French ‘estuier’, to hold or keep safe) was a small case that was often carried by folks in the 17th and 18th centuries containing personal instruments such as toothpicks, pins and what we now call ‘tweezers’. Over time the name for the case came to be applied to one particular instrument itself, that useful set of pincers, which was known as a ‘tweeze’ and eventually ‘tweezers’. The verb ‘to tweeze’, meaning to use tweezers on something, is actually what linguists call a ‘back-formation’ from ‘tweezers’, and didn’t appear until the 1930s.”
Isn’t etymology (the study of the history and development of words) fun? Well, our friend Ben certainly thinks so. And now we know that, though they didn’t invent them, we have the fashion-forward French to thank for inflicting the word “tweezers” (and its equally twisted sister, “scissors,” for that matter) on us.
However weird the word itself, I’m certainly grateful to the ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Indians, and whoever else devised such a handy little tool. One yank, no more splinter. It sure beats having to cut it out with a knife, the pre-tweezers method of removing embedded objects. But now that I think about it, who’d have come up with a word like “splinter”?!