Clods say the darnedest things.
Dear Word Detective: My husband and I do spinning and weaving demonstrations at Scottish festivals in Colorado and Wyoming throughout the summer months. This year, for the first time, we have been asked, not once but several times, as we sat down at our loom if we were “looming.” I patiently explain that “looming” would entail standing menacingly over someone in an impatient or threatening manner, while we were weaving cloth to make into scarves. So why do we not “loom” at a loom? — Darla.
Hmm. And you say the tourists have begun asking this corny question just this year? I suspect you may be unfortunate victims of the current weakness of the US dollar in the global economy. Ordinarily, you see, those folks would be strolling the streets of Barcelona or Paris, photographing phone booths and demanding cheeseburgers. But sky-high airfares (as the TV newscritters love to say) and ruinous exchange rates have kept the poor dears at home this year. I can only suggest that you feign an inability to speak English.
Then again, that’s actually not a bad question they’re asking. I’m surprised that none of them has taken the next step and asked if your loom is “store bought” or an “heirloom loom.”
Meanwhile, back at your question, there are actually two entirely separate “looms” in English, drawn from two very different sources. But although both are commonly used today, there’s little chance of confusion between the two because, in modern usage, one is a noun and the other a verb.
The noun “loom,” the machine on which you weave fabric, is the older of the two. Our modern “loom” is derived from the Old English word “geloma,” which meant simply “utensil or tool.” This was its meaning for several hundred years, but today “loom” is only used in this general “tool” sense in Scotland. Over the centuries, “loom” has also been applied to such disparate items as “a bucket or tub” and “a boat,” but the only meaning in common use today is “a machine for turning yarn or thread into fabric,” which first came into use in the early 15th century. This sort of “loom” is also a verb meaning “to weave,” but that form is rarely used today.
The term “heirloom,” which first appeared in the 15th century, harks back to that general “tool or utensil” meaning of “loom,” and originally meant any tool or piece of equipment that would legally pass to the heirs upon the death of the owner. Since the early 17th century, we have used “heirloom” to mean anything passed down from generation to generation within a family.
The other sort of “loom,” used almost exclusively as a verb, has three main meanings: “to come into view as a massive and indistinct form” (“The cliffs loomed above us as our boat neared the foggy shore”), “to appear, especially in the imagination, as large and threatening” (“The specter of the Great Depression of the 1930s looms over Middle America”), and “to seem imminent” (“Although bankruptcy loomed, Larry bought yet another car”). The root of this “loom” was most likely Scandinavian, and when it first appeared in English in the early 17th century it was a nautical term meaning “to move up and down” (as a boat would rock) or “to approach or come into view slowly,” as one ship might approach another or the shoreline.