"pointed instrument for piercing small holes in leather, wood, etc.," Old English æl "awl, piercer," from Proto-Germanic *ælo (source also of Old Norse alr, Dutch aal, Middle Low German al, Old High German äla, German Ahle), which is of uncertain origin.
Earliest references are to piercing of the ears, though later it was the characteristic tool of a shoemaker. Through misdivision, frequently written 15c.-17c. as nawl (for an awl; see N). Old French alesne, French alêne, Italian lesina, Old Spanish alesna, Spanish lesna are from Germanic.