threshold

Quick: how many h‘s are in this word? OK, now how many h‘s do you say? If you said “three” to either, please play again, as the coffee cup rim says. We write it with two, but we only say [h] once in it – and the [h] we say isn’t written. After all, th and sh don’t have a pronounced [h] in them; the h simply pairs with the preceding letters to make fricatives for which we don’t have a single letter (in the case of the opening th, we used to have one, but then European movable type was brought in, and they didn’t have it, so we no longer had it either). OK, so next one: what has threshold to do with threshing? Answer: thresh – really the same word as thrash – referred first to trampling with the feet. This was done to grains to separate them out. Then someone got the bright idea of using flails to do the job, and the acting of threshing (or thrashing) came to be thought of as beating with the arms (with or without an implement, in the extended senses). But the door part was already named. And the hold? What hold? Do you see a hold after thresh? I don’t, just an old. It’s uncertain where the ending of this word came from – in Old English it’s scold or xold from the s onward, and Swedish and Danish make the word tröskel and tærskel – but it has nothing to do with holding. That’s just a bit of reanalysis (a.k.a. folk etymology). Now, thresh has a sound somewhat suited to threshing, with its voiceless fricatives like flails whistling through the air, but it doesn’t really sound like a doorsill to me. But the thing about a doorsill is that it’s a point of transition. Ah, you know: those points of constriction where people just love to pause, blocking the way of those behind them. Pause? Hold on a moment. Yes, that suits: it’s a place where you stop and hold. And in the more metaphorical sense of any sort of limen, hold conveys the suspension, or the point where things start to take hold. Do echoes of fresh or pressure – or threat – come into play? Perhaps they may. And with what other words does threshold often come out to play? Consciousness, device, element, logic, function, switching: all attach to make compounds. Other words often seen in its company: aerobic and lactate (ah, exercise! runners know those ones), cross and crossed, below, above, exceed, step, hearing, pain, across, low, high, certain… And quite a few more, obviously below my threshold for noting them. Below? Yes, the metaphor has become a vertical one, with no image left of the doorsill. It, too, has crossed some threshold, it seems.

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