On the hook.

Dear Word Detective:  Being a sport fisherman, I occasionally refer to myself (and others I respect as serious fishermen) as an “angler.”  It has recently come to my attention that I have no idea why “angler” means “fisherman.”  I have read that the word “angle” (or “angel”) simply means “fish hook” thus defining those who use them as “anglers.”  However, I have also heard that the term “angler” comes from the angle between the line and rod.  I’m sure there’s more to the story — can you shed some light on it? — Jeff.

Hmm.  Is there a gender-neutral alternative to “fisherman”?  I’m not an extremist in such matters, but “Cynthia is a crackerjack fisherman” really doesn’t sound right.  Simply “fisher” won’t work as a substitute because it’s such a common surname folks might assume you’re talking about the family down the block (“The Fishers caught flounders, but Larry just caught a cold”).  “Fisherperson” gives me the fantods.  Hey, I know.  We’ll call them “anglers.”  That was easy.

“Angler” has been used to mean “one who fishes with a hook and line” since the mid-16th century, and is based on the verb “to angle,” which has meant “to fish” since the late 15th century.  This verb “to angle” is based on the noun “angle,” meaning “hook for fishing,” which is now considered archaic but was in use until the 19th century.  It is true that this “angle” was spelled “angel” in Old English, but it is unrelated to the Biblical sort of “angel” (which is based on a Greek word for “messenger”).  This now-obsolete noun “angle” was based on a Indo-European root (“ank”) meaning “to bend” (which also gave us “ankle” and “anchor”), and was often used to refer to the rod and line as well as the hook.  But “angler” has nothing to do with the “angle” between one’s line and rod.  That’s an entirely different kind of “angle.”

This second noun “angle” is the one in common use today, meaning “the relation of one line to another at their intersection,” usually measured in degrees.  This “angle” is derived from the Latin “angulum,” meaning “corner,” but if you go far back enough, you run into our old friend, the Indo-European root “ank.”  So the two “angle” nouns are cousins, but are still considered separate words because they followed different paths into English.

Two figurative uses of “angle” illustrate, however, how close the two words are in practical use.  The verb “to angle,” in an extension of its meaning “to fish,” has long been used to mean “to use subtle or devious means to obtain something,” as in “Bob is angling for a promotion” or “I think Tim was angling for a compliment on his cooking.”  Similarly, we use the noun “angle” as slang to mean “scheme” or “devious plan” (invoking the sense of an “angle of attack”), as in “Lefty’s always looking for an angle to fleece the tourists,” as well as, more innocently, “perspective” or “approach” (“I didn’t agree with the angle the reporter took on that story”).

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