After three blogs about the Essex Wills that gently critique the Oxford English Dictionary’s treatment of three extremely obscure words, it is time to reaffirm the good philological thinking of its first editors.
Names of tools are particularly common in early wills and inventories. In some cases we can’t identify the tool denoted. Other occurrences cast welcome additional light on tools we know about. This is one of these happy instances.
In the OED froe, frow, n. 1 is defined as ‘a wedge-shaped tool used for cleaving and riving staves, shingles, etc.’ This is not an everyday term among DIY enthusiasts in Britain, but ask an American with rural connections and they will recognize it.
I couldn’t find an uncopyrighted image of a froe, so here’s a link to the Wikipedia article ‘Froe’.
In the OED’s earliest example (1573 Tusser) the word is spelt frower, with an extra syllable. OED’s etymological explanation runs as follows:
‘the synonymous FROMWARD n. suggests that the earliest form frower represents a substantival use of FROWARD a. in the literal sense “turned away”, the reference being to the position of the handle’.
To explain: the synonymous noun fromward is presumed to be derived in its turn from the adjective and adverb fromward, which means ‘turned from or away’. fromward could also be used as a preposition; Thomas Hobbes, in the Leviathan, wrote ‘When the Endeavour is fromward something, it is generally called Aversion.’
So the OED guessed, without evidence, that frower is from froward, the idea behind the name being that the handle is turned away.
The Essex Wills provide us with the missing link, just a few years older than OED’s first example:
‘a shovel, 2 “frawwardes”, a little wimble, a pickaxe’ (1567 VIII. 185)
This word frawwardes is in a very suitable context, together with other rather heavy tools: shovel, wimble, pickaxe. It could easily denote this tool, the froe. It has the right spelling to be a form of the word froward. And if it is, it confirms OED’s surmise that the name of the tool was originally a noun use of froward ‘turned away’.