I wonder about all sorts of things, but I hadn’t gotten around to wondering about this one. Too many questions, and too little time, right? Anyhow, as I was writing about a few adders for A-Z-Animals.com, I realized that the word adder gets tossed around willy-nilly at several different snakes, some of which aren’t really related to one another. So, I set out to learn why.

The interesting thing about language is that it is much like a living entity. It grows, changes, and evolves right alongside the people it serves. Adder is no different.

Old High German, Old English, Old Saxon, Proto-West-Germanic…wait, what?

Here’s what I can put together for you – Adder comes from an Old English word (nǣdre) with a run through Old Saxon (nādra), and Old High German (nātara). It also has some connections to Indo-European and Proto-North-Germanic, Welsh, Old Cornish, and Latin. Most of the words in the other languages have similar phonetic spellings, and they all mean snake or serpent. In some languages, they may have referred to water snakes; and indeed, that’s where some of our scientific names for snakes originate.

At some point around 1300-1400, the n got lost because it wasn’t split correctly. How? Try this:

Say “a nadder” really fast. Did they blur together? It’s really easy to do that, and come out the other end with “an adder.” This happens to words periodically; an apron is another example. Basically, people are lazy with language.

Sometime later, in Middle English usage, adder became restricted to use for venomous snakes. Originally, it referred to the common European adder, which is the only venomous snake native to England. It also happens to be the most common venomous snake in Europe, and the only one that can live above the Arctic Circle. It’s a pretty cool little snake, actually…

But I digress. I mentioned how people are lazy with language, right? So, they also applied this word to snakes that look like vipers. So, snakes like the Australian death adder (which is a cobra cousin), and our own hognose snakes also got saddled with the name, adding to the confusion, because the hognose isn’t venomous but the death is brutally so.

At any rate, check out Etymology Online for more, the Unabridged Meriam-Webster is a huge help, and if you really love this stuff, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology is terrific.

Nadder, adder, the history is fuzzy, but the word is clear! Images credit Image by Artur Pawlak from Pixabay

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