Where Does the Word “Aisle” Come From and What Does It Mean?

One wonders how we acquired such the curiously formed word “aisle”. By way of answer, we shouldn’t have it.

The spelling is the result of confusion; its present common meaning, a passageway, as in a church or theater, arose from still another confusion.

The English word was originally ele, borrowed from the French in the fourteenth century; and that, in turn, came from the Latin ala, a wing, the original meaning of the word. It applied to the part on either side of the nave of a church, usually separated from the nave by a row of columns.

But, as with many other words, ele had many spellings during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, of which ile was the most common. But ile was also the common spelling for a body of land surrounded by water; so when the latter word was given the spelling isle in the seventeenth century, the term relating to church architecture followed suit and also became isle.

Changes in the French spelling of ele were taking place as well, and the French term had become aile in the meantime. English writers of the eighteenth century, in desperation, unwilling to have their readers think they were writing of “islands” in a church, threw the French and English spellings together into our present anomaly, aisle.

The French aile, however, had become confused through the centuries with allee, alley. So along with the union of isle and aile into aisle, the English word acquired, as well, an additional meaning, “passageway,” and it is this meaning that has become the more common.

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