Cills or Sills? Time to End the Debate
Across the length and breadth of this country a great debate rages. It crosses every divide, splitting families in two, dividing households and couples – it seethes beneath the surface of polite conversation, boiling up to the surface to ruin dinner parties, sour days out and make visiting your family at Christmas just that little bit more terrible. What is this canker eating at the heart of our society; religion, politics, Brexit? No! Rather, it is the question that our ancestors have been asking themselves ever since they could first look up to the sky and wonder…
Is it spelt cill or sill?
Now if you were sitting next to me as I type this you would see that a little red squiggly red line has just appeared underneath the word “cill” whereas “sill” has been left alone; argument over, right? Au contraire.
If you read the paragraph above and thought “well that’s stupid, of course, it’s cill” read no further – go forth and spread the truth, let no one turn you from your holy mission. If however, you thought “what’s a cill?” then I am here to persuade you that you have been wrong all your life.
Perhaps at this point, it is important to establish first principles. Cill is one of those wonderful multipurpose words that we have in English that is used for all number of things. The most common use is for windows – It’s the bit that goes underneath the frame and sticks out a little bit proud of the wall and generally has a splay to the front so that water runs off it when it rains. It also finds use occasionally in other walks of life, generally for something horizontal and slablike. In geology, it used to refer to a layer of harder rock that finds its way between layers of softer, sedimentary rocks, whilst in relation to canals it is the projecting bit of rock or stone at the mouth of a lock which you occasionally, and hilariously, see people stuck on in the midst of particularly ill-fated canal boating holidays.
We get our modern English word from the old English syll, which washed up on our shores with the Saxons and Angles, though was probably responsible for a good deal less rape and pillage.
Its roots are a good deal older, coming ultimately from the Proto Indo-European (or PIE if you’re really cool) word swel meaning a board or post, which some of the earliest Europeans would have whispered under their breath so the sabre-tooth tiger hiding over in the bushes didn’t hear them. This became suljo in Proto-Germanic, which is the ancestral form of modern English, German, Danish, basically all of the unsexy languages. Eventually, this root word evolved into recognisable modern words such as schwelle (German for threshold) or syll/syld (Swedish and Danish words for framing timbers in buildings). In English the first attested, i.e. written, examples of the word “sille” meaning a horizontal slab or support under a window come from the 1400’s and the meaning has changed very little, if at all, since then.
So far so good you might think, but there’s nary a word starting with a “c” up there and I was going to change your life. Well, it’s fair to say that I stretched the truth a little bit; even a true “cill” believer like me can’t find a single compelling reason why I’m right – and Google agrees. Between 1900-2000, for every thousand uses of “sill” there were only six (six!) uses of “cill”. Even at the height of its popularity a couple of hundred or so years ago “cill” was only used about a third as often as “sill”. Yet, a quick straw poll in the office revealed that about half of us use what the Oxford English Dictionary has the barefaced temerity to suggest is an obsolete “historical variant”…
Origin of “cill”
So why do some people use “cill” at all? Well sometime in the 1800’s, some amazingly clever people, true visionaries, basically just decided that they were going to spell it differently. It stuck as a sort of peculiarly British variant of the “normal” spelling, particularly in the booming industry of digging canals, which down to this day is the only place where “cill” is by far and away the most readily accepted spelling. In the building industry too “cill” seems to be holding on with remarkable tenacity, a testament to the bulldog spirit of this plucky British word, like a kind of linguistic red squirrel.
Now the cynical amongst you will assume that I have only written this article to boost “cill’s” profile on Google, but that’s only partially true. The debate over “sill” or “cill” shows how much variation there is in the language we use in the timber industry. Given how confusing it is with just a little word like “cill”, consider for a moment that you can go into most timber merchants and use the words “pine”, “deal”, “redwood”, “softwood” and even just “timber” to mean simultaneously exactly the same and completely different things.
What about the fact that there are about 6 species of timber routinely sold in the UK as “cedar”, which are about as closely related as horses and cows? If the scandal with Findus crispy pancakes in 2013 was anything to go by you don’t want to get them confused… with things so convoluted it pays to deal with the experts, people like the sales team at Thorogood who can guide you through the sometimes confusing labyrinth of timber terms to make sure you get exactly what you want.
Blog | 9 months AGO