What is a billhook?? continued (Page 2)


On the author’s original web site* it was erroneously stated that:

 A billhook is a short cutting tool (bill) with a curved nose (hook), and the majority of billhooks, english or foreign, are easily recognisable as being of this shape.


* www.heytesbury.freeserve.co.uk


Even Professor White in his scholarly work on roman agricultural tools (K.D. White – Agricultural Implements of the Roman World, CUP, 1967) fell into a similar trap, stating:


The term billhook indicates that the blades are ‘hooked’ (i.e. curved) in profile and that in addition they have the characteristic projection at the top of the curved blade, known as the ‘beak’ (Lat: rostrum, a bird’s beak).


This is not correct, and while many billhooks are of this shape, others have straight blades (e.g. the Rodding or Block hook patterns in the UK) or even convex blades (e.g. the Hertfordshire pattern).

Looking at the etymology of the world for billhook in other languages gives a different interpretation:


German: hackbeil (also hackmesser, haumesser, hippe, häpe, heep etc)


Dutch: hakbijl (also hakmes, snoeimes, etc)


Hook would thus appear to derive from hack (German) or hak (Dutch) and bill from beil (German) or bijl (Dutch) thus also giving some clues as to the origins of the Anglo Saxon invaders of Britain as well as the origin as of the name.


Thus bill does not refer to the shape of the tool resembling the beak (or bill) of a bird, nor does hook relate to the shape of the blade with a hooked end. Bill, beil or bijl go back to the OED definition giving its origin as axe or short sword. Hook, hack or hak also refer to the action of the tool for cutting or chopping. In German the word for the verb ‘to chop’ is hacken (noun hacke or hacker) and in Dutch it is hakken (noun hakker). The word for hook is haken (German) or haak (Dutch).


Thus billhook (hackbeil also hackebeil or hakbijl) describes the function of the tool as a chopping tool (sword, axe or short knife), rather than its ‘hooked’ shape (further confirmed by the alternative names of hackmesser (German) and hakmes (Dutch) where messer/mes mean knife, hence chopping knife. In both languages (and also in Italian, Hungarian and Polish) the word for a billhook can also be synonymous with a meat cleaver.