This is a name for one of those things that need names but don’t have them – except that they do, but the average user is agnostic of them. Our daily life is certainly laced with such things; some people will call them thingies, others will make up cute nonce words (often called sniglets, a term and concept created by Rich Hall of Not Necessarily the News), while agelasts will simply describe them or say “Ag, let it go.” The capper, of course, is when we find out that there was a word for them all along.
I first saw today’s word in The Book of Lists, by Wallechinsky, Wallace, and Wallace, in a list called “16 names of things you never knew had names.” As I look again at the list now, after a couple of decades, I find that I might as well be seeing some of the words for the first time, while others are like old friends now. (I’m also surprised to see that the list does not include philtrum. Now, where did I first see that one?) And the top of the list is, yes, aglet: “The plain or ornamental covering on the end of a shoelace.” (Am I sorry for stringing you on for so long? No.)
It’s a strange little animal, this word, no? It tastes of piglet and eaglet (but not in the way an eaglet would taste a piglet). You know it’s something little thanks to the let ending, but what thing is it a little version of? It is in some ways a stringy word, its brevity nothwithstanding; it has a hint of ligate tied into a knot; the g has a look of a bow, and the l of a straight string. It’s a short word for a typically not-too-long thing, but, then, how long is a piece of string?
As long as it has to be, is the usual answer. And this word, too, has settled to a useful length – well, not quite settled: it’s also spelled aiglet. But it’s had half a millennium of erosion since we stole it into English. It used to be much longer, back when it was a French word, but why leave the speaker tongue-tied? You may find it (and its taste) ugly or elegant, but at least it’s efficient at less than half the original length. OK, I’m not stringing you along, just giving you a little needling – or rather a little needle: this word is knotted up from aiguillette, “little needle”, tracing back to Latin acus “needle” and cognate with acute. As in “That’s acute pair of shoes you have.”