Dear Word Detective: I looked up the word “list” (and “listing”) to sate my curiosity regarding boating, and low and behold “list” has a lot of meanings! Obviously, there is the meaning of putting things into an order of meaningful terms/names/what have you, but what about the others? Pieces of cloth, wood, and the term which I had originally sought, a damaged boat favoring one direction or another. Any insight into the when and why the list of definitions of “list” makes such a long list? — Wordgoblin.
Y’know, I read your question and immediately thought, “Hey, didn’t I just do a column that at least mentioned ‘list’?” I then spent the next hour racking my poor befuddled brain, trying to figure out what that column might have been. It turned out that the “list” I was remembering was the term “thick-listed,” an archaic synonym for “hard of hearing,” the subject of a recent column. So the good news is that I’m not crazy, but the bad news is that I wrote that column just two weeks ago and had completely forgotten it. Anybody seen the dog lately?
The list of “lists” is indeed an unusually long one. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists (sorry) eight separate “list” nouns, five “list” verbs, and one “list” adjective. Looks like somebody went a bit overboard on the recycling.
The oldest “list” in English is the “list” in the “thick-listed” I mentioned above. This “list” as a noun means “sense of hearing,” and appeared in Old English as “hlyst,” from Germanic roots. As you may have guessed, the verb form of this “list,” now obsolete, gave us our modern verb “to listen.”
Another “list,” also now obsolete, meant “craft or cunning,” and is distantly related to both “learn” and “lore.” Yet another “list,” a verb meaning “to desire, like, wish for,” is closely related to our modern “lust” and lives on in “listless,” meaning “indifferent, passive, inert.” But wait! There’s more! There was also a “list,” of unknown origin, that meant simply “”flank of pork.” And we mustn’t forget “list” meaning “a certain quantity of thread,” possibly remotely related to “leash.”
“List” in the familiar sense of “catalog of items; roll or row of names, titles, etc.” first appeared in English in the early 17th century and was used repeatedly by Shakespeare in both Hamlet and Antony & Cleopatra (“The leuies, The lists, and full proportions are all made Out of his subiect,” Hamlet, 1604). This “list” was was, however, an outgrowth of an earlier “list,” appearing in Old English from the French “liste,” that meant “strip, border, hem of cloth, band, etc.” and, in a more general sense, “border or delineation of land.” This “list” is generally obsolete except in the use of “lists” to mean a playing field (originally for jousting) or other area of land enclosed for a specific purpose.
The connection between the old “strip” sense of “list” and our modern grocery list goes back to the time when a collection of strips of paper, each with an item written on it, was used as a catalog of books, tax debts, etc., a practice that will be familiar to anyone whose computer monitor is festooned with Post-It notes.
That leaves only “list” in the sense of “tilt” to be explained, and this one is either a complete mystery or sort of weirdly cute. This “list” first appeared in the early 17th century as a noun meaning “the tilt or inclination of a ship to one side” (“The cargo shifted giving the ship a list to port,” 1881), and, strictly speaking, its origin is, as the (OED) notes, “obscure.” But the OED also suggests that this “list” might be a figurative use of “list” in the “desire, like, wish for” sense of “list” I mentioned earlier. In this usage the implication would be that the ship is “leaning” in the fashion of a love-smitten person “leaning” toward his or her object of desire. One small but possibly significant point in favor of this theory is that “list” in this “tilt of a ship” sense was, in its earliest appearances in print, spelled “lust” (“The Ship at low water had a great lust to the offing,” 1633).