Auger - augur

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Auger and augur form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these. Auger and augur should not be confused. They have no etymological connection. Auger is an Old English word, of Germanic origin - it was originally 'a nauger', but the split between 'a' (or 'an') and the word has been altered, as in adder, newt and orange - an example of metanalysis. Augur is a Latin word for a Roman phenomenon. It never began with an 'n-'.

  • An auger is a tool used for boring holes. There is a tendency for it to mean a tool that drills larger holes than other boring tools, like drills and bits.
    • Since Old English, carpenters have used augers. In 1677, Moxon wrote in his Mechanick exercises, or the doctrine of handy-works: "The Augre hath a handle and bit. Its office is to make great round holes" (cited in OED).
    • From the seventeenth century, it has commonly been used for a tool to bore into the ground, and bring samples of lower levels up for inspection. For this purpose, an auger characteristically has a strong spiral, like that of a screw on a large scale.
    • In the twentieth century, this spiral construction led to the extension of auger to mean a form of spiral conveyor belt, to force materials down tubes, pipes etc; and sometimes to stuff materials into objects being made (such as sausagemeat into sausage cases).
      • There is also an Auger effect studied in physics, involving electrons. This term - derived from the name of the French physicist who described it, Pierre Victor Auger (1899-1993) - should always be written with an upper case letter. Few outside physics will need to write it.
  • An augur, on the other hand, is the most likely word for students to want to use, despite its archaic origins. An augur is (or was) a priest in ancient Rome whose role was to interpret the will of the gods, or of fate, by observing the behaviour of birds. The meaning has moved from the very specific activity of watching how captive birds ate and wild birds flew, to a more general idea of 'foretelling' or prophecy.
    • The verb 'to augur' meant originally 'to foretell', 'to act as an augur'. Now it is perhaps most commonly used impersonally: "it augurs well [or ill]" means that 'the phenomenon promises good [or bad] things to come', 'it is a good [or bad] omen for the future'.
      • And the verb 'to inaugurate', 'to install [e.g.] a new person to an office', or 'to make a solemn official start to a new enterprise', was originally even more solemn: it required the services of an augur to make sure that this was a good time to begin.