Keith Briggs

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Etymology of the words `network', `net', and `work'

Etymology of the words network, net, and work

© 2004 Keith Briggs


This word is rather strange - what exactly is a network? Obviously, a work or construction reminiscent of a net, but when was the word first used in this form? Although the two component words are from common Germanic stock, the juxtaposition network seems to be a uniquely English coinage, later imitated by the Germans with Netzwerk. However, we must not forget the well-known Latin term opus reticulatum, a type of brickwork with the bricks placed at π/4 to the horizontal, so that the pattern of mortar lines resembles a net. Since this term means literally `net work', perhaps it is the prototype of the English word? The earliest occurrence in print of English network is in the Geneva bible of 1560 (the 1599 edition seems to have changed the spelling to network):

And thou shalt make unto it a grate like networke of brass (Exodus xxvii 4).

Spenser wrote in his poem Muiopotmos (1590):

Not anie damzell, which her vaunteth most
In skilfull knitting of soft silken twyne;
Nor anie skil'd in workmanship embost;
Nor anie skil'd in loupes of fingring fine,
Might in their diuers cunning euer dare,
With this so curious networke to compare.

According to the OED, the word is recorded in 1658 referring to reticulate structures in animals and plants. From 1839 it is used to refer to rivers and canals, and from 1869 to railways. In 1883 a distribution network of electrical cables is first referred to, and in 1914 a wireless broadcasting network.

What about the two component words? Net is the more interesting word.


This word is first recorded in English in the writings of King Ælfréd, in his translation of Boethius from about the year 888. It was also used in Old English for a spider's web. Here are the complete nett and nette entries from the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Note that some of the æ characters should have macrons, but these cannot be represented in html, so I just left them off. The additions [in blue] are my own attempts at translation.

nett, es; n.
I. a net
(for fowling, fishing, or hunting) :--
Net rete. Wrt. Voc. i. 285, 16. Nyt, 73, 41.
Ned cassis, [net,web,trap] ii. 14, 3. Hyra net wæs tóbrocen [their net was broken], Lk. Skt. 5, 6. Úres fisceres nett nostri piscatoris rete, [Our fish-net] Ælfc. Gr. 15; Som. 19, 57. Feallaþ on nette his cadent in retiaculo ejus, [falling in his net] Ps. Spl. 140, II. Ic mín nett út læte laxabo rete, [I shall let out my net] Lk. Skt. 5, 5: Mt. Kmbl. 4,18. Lætaþ ðæt nett on ða swíðran healfe. [release the net on the right side] Jn. Skt. 21, 6. Ic bréde nett plecto, [I plait] Ælfc. Gr. 28; Som. 32, 8. Óþ ðæt ðe hig (wildeór) cuman tó ðám nettan ... Ne canst ðú huntian búton mid nettum? Coll. Monast. Th. 21,15-21: 22, II. On feala wísan ic beswíce fugelas, hwilon mid nettum, 25, II. Hí forléton hyra nett (netta, Lind.) [they were preparing their nets] relictis retibus, Mt. Kmbl. 4, 22: Homl. Th. i. 578, 21.
II. a mosquito-net:--Nette, fleógryfte conopio, Wrt. Voc. ii. 19,18.
III. net-work, web: -- Swá tedre swá swá gangewifran nett, Ps. Th. 38, 12. Donne hió (the spider) geornast biþ ðæt beo áfære fleógan on nette [that she may frighten flies into her net], 89,10. Folc gescylde hálgan nette (with a net-work of clouds), Cd. Th. 182, Ii; Exod. 74. [Goth, nati: O. Sax. netti, (fisk-)net: O. Frs. nette: Icel. net; gen. pl. netja : O. H. Ger. nezzi rete.] v. æl-, boge-, breóst-, deór-, drag-, feng-, fisc-, fleóh-, here-, bring-, inwit-, mycg-, searo-, wæl-nett, and next word.

nette, an;
f. The net-like caul :-- Nette (under the heading de membris hominum) disceptum i. reticulum (cf. hoc reticulum, pinguedo circa jecur [fat around liver], 704, 7), Wülck. Gl. 293,6. Nettae oligia, 35, 34. Nytte obligia [binding, bandage], Wrt. Voc. i. 45, 18. Nette, ii. 63, 39 : disceptum, 26,19. [Icel. netja the caul: cf. O. H. Ger. nezzi adeps [fat] intestini; pl. intestina.] v. neta.

Net has many cognates in Germanic languages and a probable one in Latin. The Germanic words are of neuter gender (except for nót which is feminine); the Latin word is feminine. Note that the normal Latin word for a net is rete, although there may have also been a Vulgar Latin word *tragina for a dragnet.

Gothic nati
Old English net(t), netti
Middle English net
Modern English net
Modern Dutch net
Old High Germannezzi
Middle High Germannetze
Modern High GermanNetz
Old Frisian nette
Old Saxon netti
Old Norse net (netja v.), nót
Modern Icelandic net
Modern Swedish nät
Latin nassa
Germanic `net'

The Gothic word occurs exactly seven times in the bible. It takes the form natja in the dative. Because Gothic is the earliest record of Germanic (from about 350), it is worth looking at all these occurrences:

Marcus 1, 16: Jah hvarbonds faur marein Galeilaias gasahv Seimonu jah Andraian broþar is, þis Seimonis, vairpandans nati in marein; vesun auk fiskjans. [And going to the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net in the sea; they were also fishermen.]

Marcus 1, 18: Jah suns afletandans þo natja seina laistdidedun afar imma. [And soon they left their net and followed him.]

Marcus 1, 19: Jah jainþro inn gaggands framis leitil gasahv Iakobu þana Zaibaidaias jah Iohanne broþar is, jah þans in skipa manvjandans natja. [And going on a little, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in their ship mending nets.]

Lucas 5, 2: jah gasahv tva skipa standandona at þamma saiva, iþ fiskjans afgaggandans af im usþvohun natja. [and he saw two ships at the lake; but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their net.]

Lucas 5, 4: Biþeh þan gananþida rodjands, qaþ du Seimonau: brigg ana diupiþa jah athahid þo natja izvara du fiskon. [When he had spoken, he said to Simon, "go to the deep and release the net for fishing." ]

Lucas 5, 5: Jah andhafjands Seimon qaþ du imma: talzjand, alla naht þairharbaidjandans vaiht ni nemum: iþ afar vaurda þeinamma vairpam natja. [And Simon said to him, "We worked all night for nothing: but at your word I will throw down the net."]

Lucas 5, 6: Jah þata taujandans galukan managein fiske filu, sve natja dishnupnodedun ize. [And when they had done this they had many fish, as their net was breaking.]

The Latin word meant a creel or wicker fish-basket. It was used by Pliny (in the ablative plural nassis `with nets') in book 9 of his Natural History:

92: mire omnibus marinis expetentibus odorem quoque eorum, qua de causa et nassis inlinuntur . [amazingly all marine creatures desire this smell, for which reason nets are smeared with it]

132: capiuntur autem purpurae parvulis rarique textu veluti nassis in alto iactis. [purpurs [molluscs yielding purple dye] are caught with small delicate nets, thrown into the deep.]

Nassa might be derived from a root nad-. Some people think that this might be related to the word nodus, a knot. Others relate it to the verb necto, `I weave' (which seems to be not related to the German nähen, `to sew').


The component work is another widespread Germanic word. It has a cognate in Greek εργον.



Bosworth, Joseph: (Northcote Toller, T. ed.) An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Dictionary, Supplement and Addenda Oxford University Press, 1st ed. n.d., reprinted 1983, 1966, 1972. [Abbreviations: Wrt. Voc. i: T. Wright, A volume of vocabularies, 1857. Quoted by page and number of gloss. Wrt. Voc. ii: T. Wright, A second volume of vocabularies, 1873. Quoted by page and line. Ælfc. Gr: Ælfric's Grammar. Ps. Spl.: Psalterium Davidis Latino-Saxonicum vetus. Lk. Skt.: The gospel according to St. Luke. Mt. Kmbl.: The gospel according to St. Matthew in Anglo-Saxon and Northumbrian versions. ed. J. M. Kemble. Jn. Skt.: The gospel according to St. John. Som.: Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum, by E. Somner, Oxford 1659. Coll. Monast. Th.: Colloquium ad pueros linguae Latinae locutione exercendos ad Ælfrico compilatum. Homl. Th.: The homilies of Ælfric. Wülck. Gl.: Anglo-Saxon and Old English vocabularies, by Thomas Wright, edited by R. P. Wülcker, London 1884. Cd. Th.: Cædmon's metrical paraphrase, by B. Thorpe, London 1832.]

Stamm, Friedrich Ludwig: Friedrich Ludwig Stamm's Ulfilas oder die uns erhaltenen Denkmäler der gotischen Sprache: Text, Wörterbuch und Grammatik Ungekürzte Neuauflage, Nachdruck der Ausgabe aus dem Jahre 1872 [Essen]: Magnus-Verlag, [1984]. ISBN: 3884001655

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