Matches

Perhaps we can bum a light from Piggy.

Dear Word Detective: While watching my granddaughter play at a playground, a lady’s children said that they were building a campfire. I mentioned (jokingly) that I hope that they didn’t have any matches and would start the playground equipment on fire. She replied that her kids called them “fire sticks.” After some thought, I decided that their description was better than mine. So, why are matches called “matches”? My dictionary, besides describing them, indicates that “match” is of French origin and has a date of 1549.– Paul Schmid.

“Fire sticks”? Oh my. Perhaps I’m being an alarmist, but it sounds as if that mother has mistaken “Lord of the Flies” for a child-rearing guide. Or maybe she chose it on purpose. Lately I’ve been wondering if my life hasn’t been one long misunderstanding of the role of dystopian literature (e.g., “Animal Farm,” “Brave New World” and “1984″). I had always presumed that the whole point was to recognize and avoid that sort of thing, but apparently not.

Anyway, I suppose “fire stick” is a good name for matches, just as “horseless carriage” and “iron bird” work pretty well, but I’d argue that particular names for things, even if slightly mysterious, have their own charm. Then again, I remember antimacassars.

The first question that is likely to occur to anyone pondering the roots of “match” is whether the word in the “stick of wood (or paper) tipped with a flammable substance used to start fires” is in any way related to “match” in the “thing that fits or goes well with another thing” or “person some website says I should marry” sense. The answer, fortunately (speaking as the one who would have to explain any such connection) is no.

The “good fit” or “one of a pair” kind of “match” comes from the Old English “gemaecca,” meaning “mate or companion,” and originally meant one’s husband or wife. By about 1300, “match” meant “a person or thing able to compete with another as an equal,” a sense still found in “tennis match” and similar uses. Gradually, however, the aspect of “equal” or “good fit” overshadowed the “contention” sense, which is why “match.com” is not a boxing website.

“Match” in the “fire stick” sense comes from an entirely different root, in this case the Old French “mece,” meaning “candle wick.” Interestingly, the Old French “mece” seems to be rooted in the Greek “myxa,” which meant “wick” but also, originally, “mucus.” The connection was a likening of the wick dangling from an old-fashioned oil lamp to mucus dropping from a person’s runny nose. Though matches today are made of wood or paper, originally lamps, fires, etc. were lit with matches consisting of cord or string soaked in sulfur, making the linguistic connection to the “wick” of a candle logical.

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