Main The Story of English in 100 Words
Report a problemThis book has a different problem? Report it to us
Check Yes if Check Yes if Check Yes if Check Yes if
you were able to open the file
the file contains a book (comics are also acceptable)
the content of the book is acceptable
Title, Author and Language of the file match the book description. Ignore other fields as they are secondary!
Check No if Check No if Check No if Check No if
- the file is damaged
- the file is DRM protected
- the file is not a book (e.g. executable, xls, html, xml)
- the file is an article
- the file is a book excerpt
- the file is a magazine
- the file is a test blank
- the file is a spam
you believe the content of the book is unacceptable and should be blocked
Title, Author or Language of the file do not match the book description. Ignore other fields.
Change your answer
You may be interested in Powered by Rec2Me
Most frequent terms
The Story of English in 100 Words Also by David Crystal The Cambridge Encyclopedia of language The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language The stories of English The fight for English Think on my words: an introduction to Shakespeare’s language Txting: the gr8 db8 By hook or by crook: a journey in search of English A little book of language Evolving English: one language, many voices. Begat: the King James Bible and the English language Internet linguistics Just a phrase I’m going through: my life in language The Story of English in 100 Words David Crystal First published in Great Britain in 2011 by PROFILE BOOKS LTD 3A Exmouth House Pine Street London EC1R 0JH www.profilebooks.com Copyright © David Crystal, 2011 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays, Bungay, Suffolk The moral right of the author has been asserted. All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN 978 1 84668 427 2 eISBN 978 184765 459 5 The paper this book is printed on is certified by the © 1996 Forest Stewardship Council A.C. (FSC). It is ancient-forest friendly. The printer holds FSC chain of custody SGS-COC-2061 Contents Preface A short history of English words 1 Roe – the first word (5th century) 2 Lea – naming places (8th century) 3 And – an early abbreviation (8th century) 4 Loaf – an unexpected origin (9th century) 5 Out – changing grammar (9th century) 6 Street – a Latin loan (9th century) 7 Mead – a window into history (9th century) 8 Merry – a dialect survivor (9th century) 9 Riddle – playing with language (10th century) 10 What – ; an early exclamation (10th century) 11 Bone-house – a word-painting (10th century) 12 Brock – a Celtic arrival (10th century) 13 English – the language named (10th century) 14 Bridegroom – a popular etymology (11th century) 15 Arse – an impolite word (11th century) 16 Swain – a poetic expression (12th century) 17 Pork – an elegant word (13th century) 18 Chattels – a legal word (13th century) 19 Dame – a form of address (13th century) 20 Skirt – a word doublet (13th century) 21 Jail – competing words (13th century) 22 Take away – a phrasal verb (13th century) 23 Cuckoo – a sound-symbolic word (13th century) 24 Cunt – a taboo word (13th century) 25 Wicked – a radical alteration (13th century) 26 Wee – a Scottish contribution (14th century) 27 Grammar – a surprising link (14th century) 28 Valentine – first name into word (14th century) 29 Egg – a dialect choice (14th century) 30 Royal – word triplets (14th century) 31 Money – a productive idiom (14th century) 32 Music – a spelling in evolution (14th century) 33 Taffeta – an early trade word (14th century) 34 Information(s) – (un)countable nouns (14th century) 35 Gaggle – a collective noun (15th century) 36 Doable – a mixing of languages (15th century) 37 Matrix – a word from Tyndale (16th century) 38 Alphabet – talking about writing (16th century) 39 Potato – a European import (16th century) 40 Debt – a spelling reform (16th century) 41 Ink-horn – a classical flood (16th century) 42 Dialect – regional variation (16th century) 43 Bodgery – word-coiners (16th century) 44 Undeaf – a word from Shakespeare (16th century) 45 Skunk – an early Americanism (17th century) 46 Shibboleth – a word from King James (17th century) 47 Bloody – an emerging swear-word (17th century) 48 Lakh – a word from India (17th century) 49 Fopdoodle – a lost word (17th century) 50 Billion – a confusing ambiguity (17th century) 51 Yogurt – a choice of spelling (17th century) 52 Gazette – a taste of journalese (17th century) 53 Tea – a social word (17th century) 54 Disinterested – a confusible (17th century) 55 Polite – a matter of manners (17th century) 56 Dilly-dally – a reduplicating word (17th century) 57 Rep – a clipping (17th century) 58 Americanism – a new nation (18th century) 59 Edit – a back-formation (18th century) 60 Species – classifying things (18th century) 61 Ain’t – right and wrong (18th century) 62 Trek – a word from Africa (19th century) 63 Hello – progress through technology (19th century) 64 Dragsman – thieves’ cant (19th century) 65 Lunch – U or non-U (19th century) 66 Dude – a cool usage (19th century) 67 Brunch – a portmanteau word (19th century) 68 Dinkum – a word from Australia (19th century) 69 Mipela – pidgin English (19th century) 70 Schmooze – a Yiddishism (19th century) 71 OK – debatable origins (19th century) 72 Ology – suffix into word (19th century) 73 Y’all – a new pronoun (19th century) 74 Speech-craft – an Anglo-Saxonism (19th century) 75 DNA – scientific terminology (20th century) 76 Garage – a pronunciation problem (20th century) 77 Escalator – word into name into word (20th century) 78 Robot – a global journey (20th century) 79 UFO – alternative forms (20th century) 80 Watergate – place-name into word (20th century) 81 Doublespeak – weasel words (20th century) 82 Doobry – useful nonsense (20th century) 83 Blurb – a moment of arrival (20th century) 84 Strine – a comic effect (20th century) 85 Alzheimer’s – surname into word (20th century) 86 Grand – money slang (20th century) 87 Mega – prefix into word (20th century) 88 Gotcha – a non-standard spelling (20th century) 89 PC – being politically correct (20th century) 90 Bagonise – a nonce-word (20th century) 91 Webzine – an internet compound (20th century) 92 App – a killer abb (20th century) 93 Cherry-picking – corporate speak (20th century) 94 LOL – netspeak (20th century) 95 Jazz – word of the century (20th century) 96 Sudoku – a modern loan (21st century) 97 Muggle – a fiction word (21st century) 98 Chillax – a fashionable blend (21st century) 99 Unfriend – a new age (21st century) 100 Twittersphere – future directions? (21st century) Illustration Credits Word Index Preface How can we tell the story of the English language? There seem to be two main ways. The usual approach is to provide an overview, identifying general themes and trends within the major periods of development: Old English … Middle English … Early Modern English … Modern English. Authors give as many examples of usage within each period as space allows. It’s a method I’ve often used myself, in such books as The Stories of English. Its strength, to apply an old metaphor, is that readers obtain a clear view of the wood; its weakness is that they see very few of the trees. The opposite approach can be seen in the many popular wordbooks that present a series of interesting English words and phrases. One book on my shelves explores the origins of words in personal names, such as sandwich and frisbee. Another explores the origins of interesting idioms, such as it’s raining cats and dogs. I’ve used this method too, such as in my collection of international proverbs, As They Say in Zanzibar. Now we have the opposite strength and weakness: readers see lots of trees but do not obtain an overall picture of the wood. The present book brings together these two perspectives. It is a wordbook, as its chapter headings illustrate, but one with a difference. Every word has been selected because it tells us something about the way the English language developed. And in the course of exploring each one, I move from the particular to the general, relating the word to important themes and trends in the language as a whole. A sense of linguistic history is reinforced by the ordering of the chapters, which is broadly chronological. And the approach has its surprises. Words such as and and what are not usually included in wordbooks, but they too have a story to tell. It is, of course, a personal list. If you had to choose 100 words to represent the English language, they would certainly be different. These are mine. A short history of English words The Anglo-Saxon monk Bede, writing in his monastery in Northumbria in about the year 730, gives us an early account of those who first spoke the English language. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written in Latin, he tells us that the island ‘contains five nations, the English, Britons, Scots, Picts and Latins, each in its own peculiar dialect cultivating the sublime study of Divine truth’. And he goes on to explain how this situation came about. The first arrivals, Bede says, were Britons (we would now call them Celts), and they gave their name to the land. The Picts then arrived in the north, from Scythia via northern Ireland. The Scots arrived some time later, and secured their own settlements in the Pictish regions. Then, ‘in the year of Rome 798’ (= 43 AD), Emperor Claudius sent an expedition which rapidly established a Roman presence in the island. The Romans ruled in Britain until the early 5th century, when Rome was taken by the Goths and military garrisons were withdrawn. Attacks on the Britons by the Picts and Scots followed. The Britons appealed to Rome for help, but the Romans, preoccupied with their own wars, could do little. The attacks continued, so the Britons came to a decision. As Bede recounts: They consulted what was to be done, and where they should seek assistance to prevent or repel the cruel and frequent incursions of the northern nations; and they all agreed with their King Vortigern to call over to their aid, from the parts beyond the sea, the Saxon nation … Then the nation of the Angles, or Saxons, being invited by the aforesaid king, arrived in Britain with three long ships. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports their landing in Ebbsfleet (Pegwell Bay, near Ramsgate, Kent) in 449 AD. And within 250 years, it would seem from the earliest records, the language we now know as Old English (sometimes called Anglo-Saxon) achieved its distinctive character. English vocabulary Vocabulary is always a primary index of a language’s identity, simply because there is so much of it. Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows that the pronunciation and basic grammar can be acquired relatively quickly, but the task of word-learning seems to have no end. Vocabulary is indeed the Everest of language. And it is a mountain that has to be scaled if fluency is to be attained. In the case of English, the task has been made more complex by the range and diversity of its vocabulary – a reflection of the colourful political and cultural history of the English-speaking peoples over the centuries. To change the metaphor: English is a vacuum-cleaner of a language, whose users suck in words from other languages whenever they encounter them. And because of the way English has travelled the world, courtesy of its soldiers, sailors, traders and civil servants, several hundred languages have contributed to its lexical character. Some 80 per cent of English vocabulary is not Germanic at all. English is also a playful and innovative language, whose speakers love to use their imaginations in creating new vocabulary, and who are prepared to depart from tradition when coining words. Not all languages are like this. Some are characterised by speakers who try to stick rigidly to a single cultural tradition, resisting loanwords and trying to preserve a perceived notion of purity in their vocabulary (as with French and Icelandic). English speakers, for the most part, are quite the opposite. They delight in bending and breaking the rules when it comes to word creation. Shakespeare was one of the finest word-benders, showing everyone how to be daring in the use of words. So a wordbook about English is going to display, more than anything else, diversity and individuality. There are few generalisations that apply to the whole of its lexicon. Rather, to see how English vocabulary evolved, we must distinguish the various strands which have given the language its presentday character. Germanic origins We begin with the Germanic origins of the language, which can be seen in the early inscriptions that used a form of the runic alphabet widespread in northern Europe. Runes are found on monuments, weapons, ornaments and many other objects, including some very unusual ones (1 roe). The Germanic character of English is also visible in the place-names of ancient Britain (2 lea), and in the ‘little’ words that show grammatical relationships (5 out, 10 what). By the 7th century, we find the earliest surviving manuscripts in Old English, first in the form of glosses and then in texts of continuous prose, several displaying distinctive scribal abbreviations (3 and). However, the actual name of the language is not recorded until the 10th century (13 English). Loanwords English has never been a purely Germanic language. On the mainland of Europe, the Germanic languages had already incorporated words from Latin, and these arrived in Britain with the Anglo-Saxons. Latin then continued to be an important influence, introducing everyday words to do with plants and animals, food and drink, buildings, household objects and many other domains (6 street). This vocabulary continued to expand, with the growing influence of missionary activity reflected in an increase in words to do with religion and learning. Old English also contains a few Celtic words (12 brock) – not many, but enough to remind us of the earlier inhabitants of the island. Scandinavia provided another source of words in the Anglo-Saxon period, but only after a considerable passing of time. The Vikings made their presence felt in Britain in the 780s, attacking the south coast and then the monasteries in the north. Conflict continued for a century, until the Treaty of Wedmore, around the year 880, between King Alfred and the Danish leader Guthrum, established an area of eastern England which, because it was subject to Danish laws, came to be known as the Danelaw. A few Old Norse words are found in Old English writings, but the vast majority are not seen until the 13th century. The earliest Middle English literature shows hundreds of Norse words in use (20 skirt, 22 take away). But the Latin and Norse elements in English are small compared with the huge impact of French in the Middle Ages – a consequence of the dominance of French power in England after 1066 and of French cultural pre-eminence in mainland Europe. Anglo-Saxon words could not cope with the unfamiliar domains of expression introduced by the Normans, such as law, architecture, music and literature. People had no alternative but to develop new varieties of expression, adopting continental models and adapting traditional genres to cope with the French way of doing things. The early Germanic vocabulary, reflecting an Anglo-Saxon way of life (4 loaf, 7 mead), gave way to a French view of the world which affected all areas of life, from food (17 pork) to law (18 chattels), and introducing new forms of address (19 dame). The new words usually replaced the old ones, but more often the old words survived, sometimes developing a different meaning (21 jail) or stylistic use (30 royal). The international contacts made by British explorers, traders and travellers began as a trickle in the 14th century (33 taffeta) and by the 16th century had became a flood (39 potato). The renaissance of learning brought a renewal of contact with Latin and Greek, so much so that the number of classical words entering English actually generated huge controversy (41 ink-horn). Not all welcomed the change in the language’s lexical character. For some, the arrival of classical loanwords made the language elegant; for others, the effect was to make it alien. An argument in favour of keeping the Germanic character of English began in the 16th century and has been with us ever since (74 speech-craft). But nothing has ever stemmed the flow of loanwords into the language, and the range was greatly increased by the global spread of English. American English was the first major variety of the language to emerge outside of the British Isles. It did not take long before the early explorers began to use words from American Indian languages (45 skunk), and these along with many others helped to develop an American identity (58 Americanism). From the 17th century on, the geographical horizons of the language steadily expanded as the British Empire grew and English began to be adapted to meet the communicative demands of new cultures. A language soon shows the effect in its vocabulary of being in a new location, especially when we are dealing with such dramatically different parts of the world as India (48 lakh) and Africa (62 trek). A regionally distinctive English vocabulary involving thousands of items can emerge within just a few years. In addition to loanwords, the local culture will adapt native English words, giving them different forms and meanings (68 dinkum, 69 mipela). The process of borrowing continues today, largely motivated by economic and cultural factors (70 schmooze, 78 robot, 96 sudoku). New varieties The earliest records of English were inevitably formal in character, illustrating a ‘high style’ of literary expression, or reflecting such specialised domains as religion, law and politics. The linguistic creativity of the Anglo-Saxon age is seen in its riddles (9 riddle) and poetic forms (11 bone-house), and illustrates an imaginative strand of expression that continued through Middle English (16 swain, 35 gaggle) and Early Modern English, reaching a high point in the coinages of the Elizabethan era (43 bodgery, 44 undeaf). The playfulness is no less important today, as shown by invented words (82 doobry, 83 blurb, 90 bagonise), comic effects (84 strine) and the creations of modern fiction (97 muggle). Doubtless Anglo-Saxon society demonstrated the same range of everyday colloquial expression that we have today – human nature hasn’t changed so much in a thousand years – but almost all the texts that survive from the Old English period are formal or oratorical in character, and there is hardly any sign of the rhythms and vocabulary of ordinary conversation. Things begin to change in the 11th century. An informal, earthier vocabulary begins to appear in writing, and we see the origins of many modern taboo expressions (15 arse, 24 cunt, 47 bloody), as well as words reflecting everyday sounds (23 cuckoo), playful coinages (35 gaggle) and a wealth of idioms (31 money). English society in all its diversity is vividly represented in the writing of Chaucer and the other Elizabethan dramatists, notably Shakespeare, and it is not long before enthusiasts start collecting the colloquial words of their age, especially those belonging to the criminal fraternity (64 dragsman), illustrating a fascination with slang that has continued to the present day (66 dude, 86 grand). Regional vocabulary has also played its part in the increasing diversity of the language. Dialect variation can be seen from the outset (8 merry), and as English came to be established in new geographical locations we see the proliferation of local words and phrases (26 wee, 42 dialect, 73 y’all). During the Middle Ages, the need to facilitate communication between all parts of Britain led to the gradual emergence of an increasingly standardised form of written English. Several influential factors were involved, such as the arrival of printing (29 egg), the growth of a national civil service, the popularity of major authors (such as Chaucer) and the prestige of biblical translations (37 matrix, 46 shibboleth). The formation of a standard English, with an agreed spelling (32 music), grammar (34 information) and terminology (38 alphabet), took several centuries, and at times was highly controversial, especially when people argued the case for spelling reform (40 debt). Indeed, the controversies are with us still, as can be seen in words which still have variant spellings (51 yogurt), the varying reactions to non-standard spellings (88 gotcha) and debates over correctness in grammar (61 ain’t) and pronunciation (76 garage). Two views of vocabulary Vocabulary is different from other areas of language, such as grammar and spelling, in that it offers us a direct insight into the social milieu, ways of thinking and cultural innovations of a period of history. Some words inform us about the structure of society (55 polite, 65 lunch) or its social practices (49 fopdoodle, 53 tea, 95 jazz). We encounter emerging professions (52 gazette) and monitor progress in science (60 species, 75 DNA) and technology (63 hello, 99 unfriend, 100 Twittersphere). We are confronted with new attitudes and mindsets, as we see people looking critically at vocabulary (81 double speak, 89 PC, 93 cherry-picking). When we explore the history of words, we find a window into society. It is a major theme of this book. But there is a second way of looking at vocabulary: to examine the techniques the language makes available to build the words that form this history, and this strand also needs to be prominent in a wordbook. One important method, as we have already seen, is to borrow the words from other languages. But there are many other techniques of word formation. A Germanic language element can be combined with an element from another language, such as French or Latin (36 doable). Words can be reduplicated (56 dilly-dally), shortened (57 rep, 59 edit, 92 app), conflated (67 brunch, 98 chillax), compounded (91 webzine) or abbreviated (79 UFO, 94 LOL). A suffix can turn into a word (72 ology), as can a prefix (87 mega). Names can become words – first names (28 valentine), surnames (85 Alzheimer’s), place-names (80 Watergate) and product names (77 escalator). But perhaps the most interesting side to vocabulary is when the exploration of word origins (etymology) brings to light results that are unexpected or intriguing. We see people adapting the language in order to make sense of it (14 bridegroom). We see extraordinary reversals of meaning over long periods of time (25 wicked). We see confusions of meaning (50 billion) and disputes over usage (54 disinterested). And we see some totally unexpected links between words (27 grammar). Not all word origins are known, and there have been some longstanding arguments (71 OK). But every etymology at some point takes us by surprise. As I was researching each chapter of this book I learned something new about the history of English words – and you will too. Roe the first word (5th century) In the dry summer of 1929, the crew of an RAF aircraft took photographs of the site of the important Roman town of Venta Icenorum – ‘the market-place of the Iceni’. The site is about three miles south of Norwich, in Norfolk, next to the church of Caistor St Edmund. When the pictures were developed, a remarkable street-plan could be seen beneath the fields. Archaeologists began to excavate the area and discovered a large Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery on the high ground to the south-east. They found several urns containing remains, and one of them yielded an unexpected linguistic prize. Among a pile of sheep knuckle-bones, probably used as pieces for playing a game, was an ankle-bone (or astragalus) from a roe-deer. And on one side of the bone were carved six runic letters. Turning these into the Latin alphabet, we get the word RAIHAN. 1. The runic letters carved into the surface of the roe deer’s ankle bone found in the Roman town of Caistor-by-Norwich, Norfolk. The shape of the H rune is especially interesting. It has a single cross-bar, which was characteristic of a northern style of writing. Further south, the H was written with two cross-bars. It suggests that the writer may have come from Scandinavia. What could it mean? Linguists did a lot of head-scratching. It could be someone’s name. An -n at the end of a word in the Germanic languages of the time sometimes expressed possession – much as ’s does in English today. So perhaps the inscription says Raiha’s or Raiho’s, telling everyone that this piece belonged to him (or her). But a rather more likely explanation is that it names the animal it comes from: the roe-deer, a species that was widespread in northern Europe at the time. We can plot the history of the word roe. In Old English it appears several times as raha or ra. And it’s seen in some place-names and surnames, such as Rowland (‘roe wood’) in Derbyshire and Roeburn (‘roe stream’) in Lancashire. The vowel changed to an oh sound in the Middle English period. So raihan could mean ‘from a roe’. Why would anyone write such a thing? It was actually quite a common practice. An object, such as a sheath or a pot, would often display the name of its maker or what it was made of: ‘Edric made me’. ‘Whale’s bone,’ says the runic inscription on one side of the 8th-century Franks Casket. I can’t imagine raihan could mean anything other than ‘roe’, given that it’s written on the only bone in the urn to come from a roe-deer. And if it does mean ‘roe’, then this makes it a candidate for the first discovered word to be written down in the English language. But is it an English word? The archaeologists dated the find to the 5th century, and it may even be as early as around 400. That would be well before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in 449 – the year we usually think of as marking the start of the Old English period in Britain. The Romans were still in the area then. So maybe the writer was an immigrant who spoke some other language? There’s evidence that at least some of the settlers in Caistor were from Scandinavia. Several of the urns are very similar to those found in Denmark and the nearby islands. So, imagine such a person settling in Norfolk around the year 400. He would have spoken some sort of early Germanic language, such as Old Norse. But it wouldn’t have taken him long before he started to speak like the people he met in his new surroundings. Settlers have to adapt quickly, if they want to survive. And if he wrote a word down on an object being used in a game – ‘Find the Roe’, perhaps? – then surely it would need to be in a form that the other players would understand. When we do see ‘roe’ in Old English, a couple of centuries later, it’s spelled with a, not ai. So why did the writer use an i in raihan? It might represent his original language. Or it might be an old-fashioned way of spelling the word he’d picked up in his new language. Or it might genuinely reflect the way he was pronouncing the word at the time. We’ll never know for sure, but my feeling is that the Caistor astragalus, now in the Castle Museum in Norwich, is as close as we can get to the origins of English. Lea naming places (8th century) Most people never use the word lea. It’s a poetic word, meaning a grassy meadow. I remember it especially from Thomas Gray’s poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’: The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea … I’ve never heard it used on its own outside of poetry. And yet we hear it and see it in a hidden form everywhere in daily life. Lea is one of the commonest elements to turn up in English place-names. It comes from an Old English word leah (pronounced ‘lay-ah’), meaning an open tract of land, such as a pasture or meadow, natural or man-made. England was heavily forested in Anglo-Saxon times, and it was common practice to make a new settlement by chopping the trees down and starting a farm. If Beorn made a space in this way, it would be called ‘Beorn’s clearing’ – ‘Beorn’s leah’ – modern Barnsley. The word turns up in many spellings. It’s commonest as ley, but we see it also in such forms as leigh, lee, lees, lease, ly and lay. Sometimes it provides the whole name, as in places called Lea or Leigh. More usually it is just the way the name ends. But if lea is the final element, what does the first element mean? Often it’s the name of someone, as with Beorn. Someone called Blecca lived in the clearing now covered by modern Bletchley. Dudda lived at Dudley. Wemba lived at Wembley. They are mainly men. Just occasionally we see a woman’s name: Aldgyth lived at Audley. And sometimes a whole tribe lived in the clearing. Madingley means the clearing where Mada’s people lived. The natural features of the clearing often prompted the name. In Morley the clearing was moorland; in Dingley it was in a dingle. The land must have been level in Evenley, rough in Rowley, stony in Stanley and long-shaped in Langley. Also common is a name where the first part describes the trees that used to grow there, as in Ashley, Oakleigh and Thornley. It can be tricky sometimes to work out what the tree-name is. The birch is hidden in Berkeley, the bramble in Bronley, the yew in Uley and the oak in the strange-looking Acle. Some lea names refer to what grows in the clearing. It’s obvious what this is in the case of Clover-ley; slightly less obvious in Farleigh (ferns) and Ridley (reeds). And when the farming started, the name sometimes tells us what was grown (as in Wheat-ley and Flaxley) or what animals were around (as in Durley, Gateley, Horsley and Shipley, for deer, goats, horses and sheep, respectively). Birds and insects are remembered too, in such names as Finchley, Crawley (crows) and Beeleigh. Place-names are an integral part of a language, and should always be represented in a wordbook. Lea is an example of an Anglo-Saxon place-name element. Other such elements are: ham – ‘homestead’, as in Birmingham and Nottingham ing – ‘people of’, as in Reading and Worthing ceaster – ‘Roman town, fort’, as in Chester and Lancaster tun – ‘enclosure, village’, as in places ending in -ton or -town Each wave of invaders brought its own naming practices. The Vikings settled all over the eastern side of England, establishing hundreds of villages ending in -by – the Norse word for ‘farmstead’ – as in Derby, Rugby and Grimsby. Several French names (such as Beaulieu and Devizes) arrived in the early Middle Ages. We always have to be careful, though, when exploring place-names. Often words with different origins have ended up with the same spelling. For example, rivers named Lea or Lee are hardly going to mean ‘forest clearing’. We have to look for the meaning of water names elsewhere. There was a Celtic form lug-, meaning ‘bright or light’, which was also used as the name of a deity. So River Lea may originally have meant ‘river dedicated to the god Lugus’ or simply ‘river which was bright and sparkling’. And an early abbreviation (8th century) Early in the 8th century, monks at the monastery of St Augustine in Canterbury wrote out a long list of English translations of Latin words, in roughly alphabetical order. Towards the end, in the section on words beginning with U, we find the Latin phrase ultroque citroque – in modern English we’d say ‘hither and thither’. The scribe must have been feeling tired that day, because he glosses it wrongly as hider ond hider. The second h should have been a d. But the phrase is interesting for a different reason: ond is an old way of spelling and. Doubtless the Anglo-Saxons used the word a lot in their speech, as we do today; but in these ancient glossaries we see it written down for the first time. Why get so excited over a ‘little word’ like and? In most wordbooks, it’s the ‘content words’ that attract all the attention – the words that have an easily statable meaning, like elephant and caravan and roe. The books tend not to explore the ‘grammatical words’ – those linking the units of content to make up sentences, such as in, the and and. That’s a pity, because these ‘little words’ have played a crucial role in the development of English. Apart from anything else, they’re the most frequently occurring words, so they’re in our eyes and ears all the time. In our eyes? The four commonest written words in modern English are the, of, and and a. In our ears? The four commonest spoken words are the, I, you and and. In Old English, and is there from the very beginning, and when it appears it’s often abbreviated. We tend to shorten very common words when we write them. It is becomes it’s. Very good becomes v good. You becomes u (especially in internet chat and texting). Postscript becomes PS. The shortened form of and is so common that it’s even been given its own printed symbol: &, the ‘ampersand’. The modern symbol is historically a collapsed version of the Latin word et: the bottom circle is what’s left of the e, and the rising tail on the right is what’s left of the t. The word ampersand is a collapsed form too: it was originally and per se and – a sort of shorthand for saying ‘& by itself = and’. When did people start shortening and? We find it in some of the earliest Old English manuscripts. It’s written with a symbol that looks a bit like a modern number 7, but with the vertical stroke descending below the line. In some documents, such as wills and chronicles, where strings of words are linked by ‘and’, we can see 7s all over the page. They’re especially noticeable when they appear at the beginning of a sentence. And at the beginning of a sentence? During the 19th century, some schoolteachers took against the practice of beginning a sentence with a word like but or and, presumably because they noticed the way young children often overused them in their writing. But instead of gently weaning the children away from overuse, they banned the usage altogether! Generations of children were taught they should ‘never’ begin a sentence with a conjunction. Some still are. There was never any authority behind this condemnation. It isn’t one of the rules laid down by the first prescriptive grammarians. Indeed, one of those grammarians, Bishop Lowth, uses dozens of examples of sentences beginning with and. And in the 20th century, Henry Fowler, in his famous Dictionary of Modern English Usage, went so far as to call it a ‘superstition’. He was right. There are sentences starting with And that date back to Anglo-Saxon times. We’ll find them in Chaucer, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Macaulay and in every major writer. And God said, Let there be light … Joining sentences in this way has been part of the grammatical fabric of English from the very beginning. That’s one of the lessons the story of and teaches us. Loaf an unexpected origin (9th century) Something to eat; something to drink. Words to do with nutrition always play an important part in language history. In particular, the essential role of bread in society, known since prehistoric times, is reflected in a variety of idioms. In English, it can stand for ‘food’, as in breadwinner and the plea for daily bread (in the Lord’s Prayer). It can mean ‘money’. It can identify a state of mind (knowing on which side one’s bread is buttered) or a level of achievement (the best thing since sliced bread). The surprising thing is that bread didn’t have its modern meaning in Old English. In one of the word-lists compiled by Anglo-Saxon monks, we find breadru translating Latin frustra – ‘bits, pieces, morsels’. What seems to have happened is that the word came to be applied to ‘pieces of bread’ and eventually to ‘bread’ as a substance. It’s still used in this way in some dialects: you might still hear someone in Scotland asking for a piece, meaning ‘a piece of bread’. So how did the Anglo-Saxons talk about bread? In another list we find a word from the Bible, manna, translated by the phrase heofenlic hlaf – ‘heavenly bread’. We would know hlaf today as loaf. The h stopped being pronounced at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, and the long ‘ah’ vowel gradually changed into an ‘oh’ vowel during the Middle Ages. While that was happening, hlaf came to be more restricted in meaning, eventually being used for just the undivided, shaped amount of bread that we now call a loaf. There are very few instances of the word bread in Old English, but hlaf appears frequently – and in some interesting combinations. The head of a household was seen as the person who provides bread for all, a hlaf-weard, literally a ‘bread-warden’. A servant or dependant was someone who ate his bread: a hlaf-æta, ‘bread-eater’. A steward was a hlafbrytta, a ‘bread-distributor’. A lady was originally a hlæfdige, ‘bread-kneader’. That -dige ending is related to the modern word dough. Hlaf turned up quite a lot in Christian religious settings too. Lammas was 1st August, the day when the eucharistic bread was first baked from the new harvest. That name comes from hlaf-maesse, ‘loaf-mass’. Walking to the altar to receive the host was a hlaf-gang, a ‘bread-going’. Bethlehem, where Jesus Christ was born, was a hlaf-hus, a ‘house of bread’. Hlaf-weard changed its form in the 14th century. People stopped pronouncing the f, and the two parts of the word blended into one, so that the word would have sounded something like ‘lahrd’. Eventually this developed into laird (in Scotland) and lord. It’s rather nice to think that the ‘high status’ meanings of lord in modern English – master, prince, sovereign, judge – all have their origins in humble bread. And it’s the unexpectedness of this etymology that qualifies loaf to take its place in this book. Loaf then went on new linguistic journeys. Different kinds of loaves appeared, such as white loaf and brown loaf. Several derived forms were coined, such as loaflets and mini-loafs (small loaves), loaf-shaped and loaf-tin. The shape generated a range of non-bread uses, such as meat loaf and sugar-loaf. There were technical senses too, such as the religious use of holy loaf (for bread distributed at Mass). But nobody could have predicted the 20th-century use of loaf in Cockney rhyming slang. In fact, two rhymes evolved, but only one survived. The popular usage had loaf of bread replacing head. It soon reduced to simply loaf, especially in the phrase Use your loaf, meaning ‘use your common sense’. The Oxford English Dictionary has references to this expression from 1938, and it seems to have been widely used in forces slang. It has a somewhat dated feel about it today. The defunct usage had loaf of bread replacing dead. You can find it in Auden and Isherwood’s play The Dog beneath the Skin (III.iii.123): Oh how I cried when Alice died The day we were to have wed! We never had our Roasted Duck And now she’s a Loaf of Bread. Out changing grammar (9th century) An easy way of making new vocabulary is to take a word and change it into another word by using it in a different way in a sentence. We take a verb and turn it into a noun. Or turn an adjective into a verb. Any part of speech can have its grammar shifted in this way. The process is technically described as conversion or functional shift. English-speakers have been doing this with words since Anglo-Saxon times. Take a little word like out. It could be a verb: to out was to ‘expel’ or ‘dismiss’. Or an adverb, as in to draw out a sword. Or an exclamation: Out! meant ‘Alas!’, now heard only in some regional dialects. It could be a preposition, as in out the door – a usage disallowed in standard English today, though common regionally. An adjective use appears in the out edge, where today we’d say the outer edge. And from the 17th century it’s been used as a noun, as in the ins and outs (‘the complexities’) and looking for an out (‘a means of avoiding’), as well as in such games as baseball (two outs). New uses continue to emerge. The adjective got a fresh lease of life in the 1960s, when people talked about the out crowd (‘unfashionable set’). A new verb use followed: to out oneself or someone else was to make public an undeclared sexual identity. From there it was a short step to any kind of exposure of private information. Since the 1990s, people can be outed as the originator of an idea, a member of an organisation or the parent of a child. Out is one of thousands of words which have changed their grammar. Such verbs as laugh, look, push and lift have all become nouns. Adjectives have become verbs (to calm, to empty) and nouns (a nasty, a given). Nouns have become verbs (to host, to contact) and adjectives (garden chair, railway station). Shakespeare was the conversion expert. ‘I eared her language.’ ‘He words me.’ Some of his conversions seem really daring. Even the name of a person can become a verb. ‘Petruchio is Kated.’ But all he was doing was tapping into a natural everyday usage that is still with us. How many parents haven’t said something like this? Child (at bedtime): But I want to watch Mickey Mouse. Parent: I’ll Mickey Mouse you if you don’t get those pyjamas on right now! Even though changes like this are ancient and frequent, people do sometimes dislike conversions. The verb spend is known from the 12th century, and developed a new lease of life in the 20th, when businessmen started talking about advertising spends and the like. Letters began to appear in the press objecting to this ‘horrible new’ word. In fact the usage wasn’t new at all. John Bunyan used spend as a noun in the 17th century. And the same pedigree is found in noun-to-verb shifts, which are also sometimes criticised. Author has been especially disliked: She’s authored a new book. The first recorded use of author as a verb is 1596, but for some reason it continues to attract criticism. Today, nouns can become verbs in next to no time. Google was launched in September 1998 (see §77). People were googling by the end of the year. Street a Latin loan (9th century) The Romans spoke Latin. So, later, did the missionaries that arrived in Britain. As a result, quite a few words of Latin origin came into English in its early years. Street, from Latin strata, was one of the first. We find it in the earliest Old English manuscripts, written as stræt – the æ letter representing a long vowel sound a bit like the a in modern English dare. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain, they found that the Romans had already built a network of long, straight, paved roads to supplement the many paths which dated from prehistoric times. They used the Germanic word weg (‘way’) to describe these ancient tracks, which had emerged over time through repeated usage, as in hrycgweg (‘ridgeway’). They used the Latin word to describe the Roman innovations – streets. The names of the four major Roman highways reflect this difference. Watling Street (from London to near Shrewsbury) and Ermine Street (from London to the Humber) were Roman roads. Icknield Way (from Gloucestershire to south Yorkshire) was prehistoric. What we now call the Fosse Way – a Roman road running between Leicester and Axminster – seems to go against this distinction, until we realise that it was originally known as Fosse Street. The name Fosse Way dates only from the 15th century. Over 500 words came into English from Latin during the earliest period of Old English. We can never be sure exactly when they arrived. Some would have been picked up by the Celtic-speaking Britons during the Roman occupation and become familiar to the first Germanic settlers. Some would have been brought over from the continent of Europe in the Anglo-Saxon boats. And the Latin-speaking monks would certainly have added to the number. The new words expressed a wide range of notions. There were words for plants and animals, food and drink, household objects, coins, clothing, settlements and building materials, as well as to do with military, legal, medical and commercial matters. Candle and kettle, cup and kitchen, cat and dragon, are all originally Latin words. So are butter, cheese, sack, wall, mile and wine. Words from Latin continued to come into English throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, but they changed their character. The teaching of the Church had to be communicated to the people, so new vocabulary was needed to express the new concepts, personnel and organisational procedures. Words such as altar, creed, deacon, school and philosopher arrived. So did grammar. Meanwhile, street was developing its own meanings and uses. We find several old idioms, such as by sty and by street or by street and stile. If something happened ‘by sty and by street’, it was happening ‘everywhere’. Another medieval idiom was to wend one’s street, meaning ‘to go one’s own way’. And if you took the street, it meant you were setting out on a journey. These all died out in the 1500s. 2. Terry Pratchett (left), and a character from his Discworld saga, at one of the streets in Wincanton, Somerset, named after a location in the series. Why Wincanton? It had twinned with the fictional city of Ankh-Morpork in 2002. But new uses were arriving. In the 16th century the street came to be used for the money-market area of London. In the 18th century we find it referring to a locale for prostitution (on the street) as well as a description of the average person (the man on the street). In the 19th century, on the street developed the meaning of ‘homeless’. And the word continued to grow. Streetwise arrived in the 1940s. To be street – in tune with urban subculture – in the 1970s. It was followed by street credibility, soon shortened to street cred. In the 1990s street became a term for a type of skateboarding. So what happened to the original meaning of street? For a long time it was used as part of a description of the highway, as in Broad Street and Mill Street. Even today British English keeps the definite article in front of some of these names: we say I was shopping in the High Street, not … in High Street. Eventually other criteria were used, such as the name of an important person (Wellington Street) or occupation (Brewer Street). American English went in for numerals and letters: M Street, 32nd Street. Today, virtually any word in the language can be used along with street. In 2009 a new road in Wincanton, Somerset, was named after a location in a Terry Pratchett Disc-world novel: Peach Pie Street. Mead a window into history (9th century) Today we think of mead as a rather exotic alcoholic drink, made by fermenting a mixture of honey and water. In early history it was the alcoholic beverage of choice throughout ancient Europe, Asia and Africa. Some think it was the first fermented drink. It makes frequent appearances in the Germanic folk-tales of the first millennium and repeatedly appears in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, such as the epic poem Beowulf. Mead was more than just a drink. It was a symbol of power. If you had the time and luxury to sit around drinking mead, then all must have been well in your land. And conversely: if you didn’t have that opportunity, things must have been going badly. At the very beginning of Beowulf we are told that the king, Scyld Scefing, ‘from bands of enemies, from many tribes, took away mead-benches’. That settles it. They would have been victories indeed! So it’s not surprising to find that there was a large vocabulary of mead-words in Old English. Through this single word we obtain a considerable insight into Anglo-Saxon culture and society. A settlement might actually be called a medu-burh – a place renowned for its mead-drinkers. Any warrior living there would make nightly visits to the medu-heall (‘mead-hall’) or medu-seld (‘mead-house’) – the equivalent of the modern city hall – where his leader would be holding court and feasting. How would he get there? By walking along a medu-stig (‘path to the mead-hall’) through the medu-wang (‘land surrounding the mead-hall’). All roads, it seemed, led to mead. Once inside the hall, the vocabulary of mead was all around him. The place to sit was called a medubenc (‘mead-bench’) or medu-setl (‘mead-seat’). He and his fellow-warriors would engage in a lengthy bout of medu-drinc (‘mead-drinking’), taking a meduscenc (‘draught of mead’) from a medu-full (‘mead-cup’). He would soon get medu-gal (‘enthused by the mead’) and experience medu-dream (‘mead-joy’). If he had too much, he would end up medu-werig (‘mead-weary’). It’s fascinating to see a word being used in this way, permeating so many aspects of social behaviour. And it’s a feature of English which we continue to exploit today. Whisky drinkers might buy a whisky bottle from a whisky shop or (in olden days) a whisky house, and pour a whisky peg from a whisky decanter into a whisky glass. They might become whisky sodden or develop a whisky voice. On the other hand, we don’t extend the usage as much as the Anglo-Saxons did. We don’t usually talk about whisky seats, whisky paths or whisky joy. In the Middle Ages, mead changed its social standing in Britain. Wine became the drink of choice among the upper class, leaving mead, along with ale and cider, as the drink of the poor. Mead never died out as a drink, but it took second place to ale and cider, which were much easier to brew. Ale is used fifteen times in Shakespeare; mead not once. Gradually, mead came back into fashion, sometimes developing new uses and shifting its meaning. In the 17th century it could be used to mean any sweet drink. Robert Burton used the term mead-inn in 1632, referring particularly to Russian drinking practices – a tavern where mead was the main drink sold. People in Britain in the 18th century drank mead wine. In the USA, the name took on a different sense, referring to various sweet carbonated drinks sometimes flavoured with sarsaparilla. Americans continue to be strongly interested in mead today. There’s an International Mead Association, and a festival is held every year in Colorado. New mead-words continue to be coined. The occasion is a meadfest, and many meaderies and mead-lovers attend. There are meadmaking courses, meadings (tasting parties) and if you want you can read a meadzine. But beware: don’t mix up the ‘drink’ sense of the word mead with another sense which is recorded in English from a few centuries later – a shortened form of meadow. When you see such words as mead-flower, meadsweet and meadwort, these are all meadow flowers. They have nothing to do with the drink. And if you know a road called the Meadway, that’s the ‘meadow’ sense too, and a later development. It’s mead in the ‘drink’ sense that fascinates linguists, because it’s part of a window into the origins of English. Merry a dialect survivor (9th century) The first time we see the word merry is in an Old English manuscript, made by or for King Alfred, at the end of the ninth century. Except we don’t actually see merry, spelled like that. What we see is myrige, which would have been pronounced something like ‘mi-ree-yuh’. There were many words in Old English written with that letter y. It seems to have represented a vowel sound pronounced high up in the front of the mouth, a bit like the i of sit, but with rounded lips. We can hear the same sound today in the way many Scots people pronounce you, or the way the French say tu. By the Middle Ages, people must have stopped rounding their lips, because the scribes started writing the word with an i. Middle English manuscripts show such spellings as miri and mirye. In Anglo-Saxon manuscripts we also see the word spelled as muri and meri. That suggests there were different dialect pronunciations in the country. And when we look at where the people who wrote the manuscripts were located, we can indeed begin to see a dialect pattern. The scribes who used the i spelling were based in the south, around Winchester. Those who used u came from further west. And those who used e came from the south-east, in Kent. By the Middle Ages, there was a huge tangle of spellings. Over fifty ways of spelling merry have been recorded. Versions with e, u and i turn up all over the place. And then, gradually, the spelling with e won, reflecting the pronunciation which had become the norm in London and the south-east. What could be merry, in Old English? The word originally meant ‘something that causes pleasure’, so it was used for all kinds of things and happenings. Songs, birds, harps, organs and voices could all be merry. So could the weather, the countryside, days, winds and smells. Books and stories were merry. So were clothes and jewellery. And the sun and stars. And countries. Merry England dates from around 1400. Only in the 14th century did the word come to be applied to people, and then it developed a remarkable range of uses. Merry England indeed! We see it used for any kind of animated enjoyment – and also when the animation is drink-fuelled. Anyone happily tipsy is said to be merry. That usage goes back to the Middle Ages, when people were also said to be merry-drunk. In the 16th century, strong ale was called merry-go-down. One sign of a word becoming really established is when it turns up in idioms, book titles, nicknames and compound words, and from the 14th century we see it in a whole host of phrases. Idioms? Make merry and the more the merrier. Titles? The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Merry Widow. Nicknames? The Merry Monarch (Charles II) and the Merry Men (of Robin Hood). Compounds? The supremely descriptive and merrythought. A merry-totter was a medieval name for a children’s swing or see-saw. It’s still heard today in some regional dialects, especially in Yorkshire. And in the 16th century, a merrythought was a word for a fowl’s wishbone, pulled and broken while each party made a wish. The process continued in later centuries. In the 18th century we find the arrival of the fairground carousel – a merry-go-round. In the 19th century we find people being merry and bright and going on their merry way. Merry-go-up was a slang name for snuff. The Royal Navy came to be called the Merry Andrew. In the 20th century, we find merry maids used as the name of a wide range of enterprises, from milk chocolate caramels to domestic cleaning services. And in the USA and the Caribbean, merry became popular as a verb. One could merry oneself (‘amuse oneself’). And people could merry up, such as after a drink, or merry up a room if it looked dull. The ultimate accolade was when merry came to be used, in the 16th century, as a greeting for one of the chief festivities of the year. Merry Christmas! And, for a while, Merry New Year too, until Happy took over. Not a bad career for what was originally a Kentish dialect word. Riddle playing with language (10th century) People have probably played with words as long as language has existed. They love to take a word and mess about with it, such as by saying it backwards, making an outrageous pun on it or stringing it together with other words so that it can’t be said (tongue-twisters). The playful temperament has produced innumerable word games and competitions, such as crossword puzzles and Scrabble. And one of the earliest signs of this temperament in English appears in the form of riddles. It took a while for the word riddle to develop this meaning. When it first appears in Old English, in early translations from Latin, it was in the form rædels (pronounced ‘reah-dels’), a combination of the word for ‘read’ with an -els ending. It meant a ‘reading’ or ‘opinion’ about something. Gradually the sense broadened to an ‘interpretation’ of something, and then, in an interesting switch, to a ‘saying that defies easy interpretation’ – an enigma. The modern meaning was in place by the 10th century. The form of the word changed too. That -els ending was quite common in Old English, turning up in such words as gyrdels (‘girdle’) and byrels (‘tomb’ – think buriels). But during the 14th century it evidently confused everyone. By then, the -s ending on a noun was being thought of as a plural. So when people saw the word redels (as it was usually spelled in the Middle Ages), they thought it of it as a plural form, riddles. During the 15th century, they gradually dropped the -s to make a new singular form, riddle. There’s a collection of Old English riddles in one of the finest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts: the Exeter Book. It was compiled in the late 10th century, and is so called because it was acquired by Bishop Leofric for Exeter Cathedral some time afterwards. It contains over thirty poems and over ninety verse riddles. They cover a wide range of subjects reflecting the Anglo-Saxon way of life, such as weapons, book-making, animals and everyday objects. Each riddle presents a topic in a mysterious or puzzling way and asks the reader to identify it. Some are the equivalent of the modern ‘dirty joke’. The riddle whose answer is ‘a key’ begins like this: ‘Something wondrous hangs by a man’s thigh …’ Here’s R. K. Gordon’s translation of one of the cleaner riddles: I saw a creature in the cities of men who feeds the cattle. It has many teeth. Its beak is useful. It goes pointing downward. It plunders gently and returns home. It searches through the slopes, seeks herbs. Always it finds those which are not firm. It leaves the fair ones fixed by their roots, quietly standing in their station, gleaming brightly, blowing and growing. The answer is: a rake. The story of riddle doesn’t end here. By the 14th century it had developed the general sense of a ‘difficult problem’ or ‘mystery’. It came to be applied to people: He’s a complete riddle; I don’t understand him at all! And then, in the 16th century, the noun became a verb, meaning ‘to speak in riddles’. ‘Lysander riddles very prettily,’ says Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (II.ii.59). Something very curious then took place. Some people started to use the verb and the noun together. Riddle me a riddle, says one 16th-century writer, meaning ‘Solve this riddle for me’. Others dropped the noun and used the verb twice: Riddle me, riddle me. Evidently people found the sound of the word appealing. And children did too, because eventually the phrase became part of a popular nursery rhyme: Riddle me, riddle me, ree; A little man in a tree; A stick in his hand, A stone in his throat, If you tell me this riddle I’ll give you a groat. Riddle-me-ree became a frequent title for collections of riddles, and the phrase often appeared in children’s stories. You’ll find it in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, by Beatrix Potter. What an early exclamation (10th century) Imagine the scene. You are in front of an audience, about to make an announcement or give a speech. Everyone is noisy. Some may have had too much to drink. You need to quieten people down. You’ve no hammer to bang against a table. There’s no spoon to clink against a glass. All you have is your voice. At least you can shout. But what will you say? ‘Ladies and gentlemen …’? ‘Quiet, please …’? ‘Excuse me …’? They all seem a little weak. The poet-minstrels in Anglo-Saxon mead-halls had the same problem. They were called scops (pronounced ‘shops’), and their role was to tell the heroic stories of the Germanic people to the assembled warriors. The scops must have had prodigious memories. The epic poem Beowulf is 3,182 lines long – that’s about the same length as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – and, if it was recited in one go, without interruptions, it would have taken a scop well over three hours. But first he had to call the assembly to order. And he did this with a single word, which appears as the opening word of that poem: Hwæt! It is one of the first oral exclamations in English to achieve a literary presence. Nine Old English poems begin with the word. How was hwæt pronounced? The letter æ was like the short a of modern English cat as spoken by someone from the north of England. The h shows that the w was pronounced with aspiration – a puff of air. Anyone today who makes a distinction in their speech between whales and Wales is using the old hw sound. And if we turn the whole word into modern spelling, it appears as What! Hwæt certainly packs an auditory punch. Scholars usually translate it as ‘Lo!’, or as a story-telling opener such as ‘Well now’ or ‘So’, but nothing quite captures the short sharp impact of a Hwæt! With its open vowel and high-pitched final consonant, it’s a vocal clap of the hands. We can easily imagine a hall of warriors falling silent, after such an attention-call. What! continued to have an exclamatory use throughout the Middle Ages, when the word came to be spelled in the modern way and gradually broadened its meaning. It began to express surprise or shock. It could be used to hail or greet someone, in the manner of a modern Hello! And it acted as a summons. In The Tempest (IV.i.33), Prospero uses it to call his spirit-servant to him: ‘What, Ariel! My industrious servant, Ariel!’ We don’t use what as a greeting or summons any more. The closest we get to that is in the phrase What ho!, which lasted well into the 20th century in Britain, and is still sometimes heard. Its fashionable use among the upper classes led to a neat parody by P. G. Wodehouse in My Man Jeeves (1919): ‘What ho!’, I said. ‘What ho!’ said Motty. ‘What ho! What ho!’ ‘What ho! What ho! What ho!’ After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation. What! is still used today as an exclamation of surprise or astonishment, often tinged with irritation or anger. We can expand it with an intensifying phrase: What the devil! What the dickens! What on earth! And if our emotion is so great that we’re at a real loss for words, we simply leave the sentence hanging in the air: What in the name of …! What the …! What, spelled wot, was especially visible as an exclamation in the mid-20th century, during and after the Second World War, when everything was in short supply. All over Europe appeared the drawing of a man with a small round head, a long nose and two hands, peering over the top of a wall. He was called Mr Chad, and he was always complaining about shortages, using such phrases as ‘Wot, no eggs?’ or ‘Wot, no petrol?’ In the USA he was called Kilroy, and a similar cartoon contained the caption ‘Kilroy was here’. In Australia, ‘Foo was here’. The origin of Chad is uncertain, but it’s likely to derive from the nickname of the cartoonist George Edward Chatterton, who was known to everyone as Chat. The caption became a catch-phrase, and it stayed popular long after wartime shortages disappeared. It’s still with us. In recent months I’ve seen the drawing on a wall where someone was complaining about the lack of a good mobile phone connection. The writing said simply: ‘Wot, no signal?’ 3. The name may vary, but the face remains the same – one of the most widely travelled pieces of 20th-century graffiti. Theories abound as to the origins of the names Chad, Foo and Kilroy, with several real-life candidates suggested. The character has been given other names too. In the British army, for example, he was called ‘Private Snoops’. Bone-house a word-painting (10th century) What comes into your mind when you hear the word bone-house? It sounds like a building where someone has put a number of bones – animal bones, perhaps. Or maybe human. I once visited an ancient monastery church in Belgium, and in the crypt, on shelf after shelf, were the skulls of innumerable generations of monks. That felt like a bone-house. But whichever way you look at it, bone-houses are for the dead. Charnel-houses, we would call them these days – from the Latin word for ‘flesh’, carnis. Flesh-houses. The Anglo-Saxons used the word. Ban-hus (pronounced ‘bahn-hoos’) it was then. But they used it to talk about something very different: the human body while still alive. It paints a wonderful picture. That’s what we all are, at the end of the day. Bone-houses. Evidently the picture was an appealing one, for the poets coined several words for the same idea. They also describe the body as a ‘bone-hall’ (bansele, pronounced ‘bahn-selluh’), a ‘bone-vessel’ (ban-fæt, ‘bahn-fat’), a ‘bone-dwelling’ (ban-cofa, ‘bahn-cohvuh’) and a ‘bone-enclosure’ (ban-loca, ‘bahn-lockuh’). The human mind, or spirit, was a banhuses weard – ‘guardian, or ward, of the bone-house’. This sort of vivid description is found throughout Anglo-Saxon poetry. It’s one of the earliest signs of an impulse to create figures of speech in English literature. It was an impulse that extended well beyond English, for similar word creations appear in the early poetry of other Germanic languages, such as the Viking tongue, Old Norse. But the Anglo-Saxon poets really took it to heart. There are over a thousand such descriptions in the great Old English saga Beowulf. The coinages are called kennings, a word adapted from the Old Icelandic language. Kenning is from the verb kenna, ‘to know’, and it captures the idea that these coinages have a meaning that is more insightful than can be expressed by a single word. Ken is still used as a verb in Scots English and in some northern dialects of England. And we still hear it as a noun in the phrase beyond our ken. The poets loved kennings, because they were opportunities to vary their descriptions when they told long stories of heroes and battles. Stories of this kind repeatedly refer to the same kinds of events, such as a battle, or a banquet or an army crossing the sea. We can easily imagine how a story could get boring if the storyteller said ‘And he crossed the sea in a boat’ a third, fourth or tenth time. How much more appealing would be fresh, vivid descriptions – especially ones that would suit the rhythm of the verse and echo the sounds of other words in his lines. So, what could a ship be? A wave floater, sea goer, sea-house or sea steed. And the sea? A seal bath, fish home, swan road or whale way. Anything could be described using a kenning. A woman is a peace-weaver, a traveller is an earth-walker, a sword is a wolf of wounds, the sun is a sky candle, the sky is the curtain of the gods, blood is battle sweat or battle icicle. There are hundreds more. Kennings don’t seem to have been much used outside of poetry, and they fell out of use after the Anglo-Saxon period. But the same poetic impulse lies behind many compound words. We hear it still when a scientist is described as an egghead, or a criminal as a lawbreaker or a boxer as a prize-fighter. But we don’t seem to take the same joy in creating vivid alternative descriptions as the Anglo-Saxons did. Perhaps we should. Imagine a football sports commentary, for example, in which the commentators used kennings. They’d be talking about net-aimers and ball-strikers and perhaps, when things got exciting, score-cuddles, card-offs and ref-haters. Am I misremembering, or have I sometimes heard the occasional off-the-cuff kenning in a commentary? If so, without realising it, the bone-house is tapping into a tradition that is a thousand years old. Brock a Celtic arrival (10th century) During the 11th century, several books were written which listed the names of plants and animals, especially in relation to their medicinal properties. In one of the first, around the year 1000, we read this: ‘Sum fyðerfete nyten is, ðæt we nemnaþ taxonem, ðæt ys broc on Englisc.’ Translation: ‘There is a four-footed animal, which we call taxonem, that is brock in English.’ Brock, the Old English name for a badger. It was the everyday name until the 16th century, when badger took over in standard English. Why the change? Probably because brock had developed a number of unpleasant associations: people would talk about a stinking brock, and by 1600 the word had come to be applied to people who were dirty or who behaved in an underhand way – much as someone might use the word skunk today. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (II.v.102), Sir Toby Belch sees Malvolio puzzling over the meaning of a letter and says Marry, hang thee, brock! Malvolio is indeed, badger-like, rooting out the sense. But Toby is also calling him a stinker. Badger, by contrast, had positive associations in the 16th century. The word probably comes from badge, the white mark on the animal’s head being its most striking feature. Badges had strongly positive associations, being chiefly associated with the ‘badges of arms’ used by knights. The word was also being used, in the sense of a ‘distinguishing sign’, in the 16th-century translations of the Bible. So if people wanted an unemotional way of talking about the animal, badger would be more appealing. But brock didn’t disappear. It stayed as the everyday name for the animal in regional dialects all over the British Isles and was especially popular in the north of England. Then it started to creep back into standard English – as a name. Brock the badger. It has appeared in countless sympathetic accounts of badgers by naturalists, and is the regular name used in children’s stories, most famously by Alison Uttley. Few other dialect words have achieved quite the same press. Brock feels so English – so it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that it isn’t Anglo-Saxon at all. It’s Celtic. We find it in Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx as broc, in Welsh and Cornish as broch, in Breton as broc’h. The animal goes under a quite different name in the Germanic languages, such as grævling in Danish and Dachs in German (dachsunds were bred to be badger hounds). It didn’t come over with the Anglo-Saxons. That’s what makes it linguistically interesting. It’s one of the very few words to have come into Old English from the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Britons. Hardly any Old English words have a clear Celtic connection. There are a large number of place-names in England of definite Celtic origin, such as Avon, Exe and Severn, and all the names beginning with pen (‘hill’), such as Penzance and Penrith. But if we restrict the search to everyday words, in addition to brock, we find crag, wan, dun (‘grey-brown’), bannock (‘piece of a loaf or cake’) and a dozen or so others. A few more might have had a Celtic origin, such as puck (‘malicious spirit’) and crock (‘pot’), but similar-looking words appear in the Scandinavian languages, so we can’t be sure. Why did the Anglo-Saxons ignore the Celtic words they would have heard all around them? There are many conflicting explanations. Perhaps the two ways of life were so similar that the Anglo-Saxons already had all the words they needed. Or perhaps there was so little in common between the Celtic way of life as it had developed in Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxon way of life as it had developed on the continent that there was no motivation to borrow Celtic words. There might even have been a conscious avoidance of them. If the Celts were forced out of England by the invaders, as some people believe, then one of the consequences would be a distaste for all things Celtic, especially the language. On the other hand, some Anglo-Saxon noblemen gave their children British names, such as Cerdic and Cedd. Cædwalla, for instance, was king of Wessex in 685, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and his is a distinctly Welsh name. Whatever the reasons, Celtic words are conspicuous by their absence in Old English. Brock, crag and the others remain as an intriguing reminder of what might have been. English the language named (10th century) Much of what we know about the early history of Britain comes from The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written in Latin around 730 by the Northumbrian monk Bede. He tells us how, in the 5th century, ‘three of the most powerful nations of Germany – Saxons, Angles and Jutes’, arrived in the British Isles. It isn’t possible to say exactly where they came from, or even whether they were as nationally distinct from each other as Bede suggests. But one thing is clear: two of those nations gave us the name Anglo-Saxon. It’s first found in 8th-century Latin writers, who used the phrase Angli Saxones to mean the ‘English Saxons’ (of Britain) as opposed to the ‘Old Saxons’ (of the continent). The Angli part was the important bit, in their mind. It was the crucial, contrastive element – the English Saxons, as opposed to other kinds. Only later did the phrase come to mean the combined Germanic people of Britain. In the 9th century, the name broadened its meaning. In the Treaty of Wedmore, made between King Alfred and the Danish leader Guthrum around the year 880, we see English opposed to Danish, and it plainly refers to all of the non-Danish population, not just the Angles. Also, at around the same time, English is used for the language. When Bede’s book was translated into Old English, we find several passages which take a Latin name, and then say ‘… this place is called in English …’, giving the English equivalent. English came first; England came later. It took over a century before we find the phrase Engla lande referring to the whole country. There was then a long period of varied usage, and we find such forms as Engle land, Englene londe, Engle lond, Engelond and Ingland. The spelling England emerged in the 14th century, and soon after became established as the norm. 4. This scribe at work is probably Bede. The picture is in a 12th-century book from the north-east of England, The Life and Miracles of St Cuthburt. Some strange things happened to English as the centuries passed. As the language spread to other countries, such as the USA, Australia and South Africa, people started talking about American English, Australian English and so on. This meant that, whenever anyone wanted to talk about the language as it was used in England (as opposed to Britain), they had to use the curious repeated form: English English. And since the early 20th century the word has had a plural, Englishes, referring to the kind of English used in a particular region of the world. People talk of the new Englishes developing in such countries as Singapore and Nigeria – dialects of English, but on a grand scale. Anything associated with England attracted the adjective. In the 15th and 16th centuries, an often fatal sweating sickness (probably a type of influenza) was called the English sweat. In the 18th century, foreigners would describe people who were feeling especially low or depressed as having the English malady or melancholy. At roughly the same time, we see the emergence of the English breakfast – a substantial meal consisting of hot cooked food, such as bacon, eggs, sausages and suchlike. It was the contrast with the rest of Europe which was being noted: they just had continental breakfasts. And a similar contrast appeared during the 19th century: an English Sunday, with everything closed, was contrasted with a continental Sunday. In the USA, an interesting use developed in billiards and pool when a player hits a ball on one side so that it spins, affecting the way it bounces off another ball. It must have been an originally British technique, because the idiom is put English on the ball. People never seemed quite sure how to handle the word English. In the 17th century, translating something into the language was said to Englify or Anglify it. In the early 18th century it was Anglicised – a usage that evidently didn’t please everyone, for later in the century we find both Englishified and Englishised. Today it seems to have settled down as Anglicise, but there’s still some variation in usage. Anglo- and its derivatives have come to dominate, but there’s still some room in the language for Saxon. Celtic speakers sometimes refer to English people as Saxons and their language as Saxon, and the word is hidden within the Scots Gaelic (usually) jocular term Sassenach. Words in English that are of Germanic origin (as opposed to those from Latin and the Romance languages) are often called Saxon words. So there’s some life in the old word yet. Bridegroom a popular etymology (11th century) What has a man about to be married got to do with someone who looks after horses? People have come up with some crazy explanations. Perhaps, in a male-dominated society, the man was thought to be ‘grooming’ his bride, or giving her the value of a horse? Or perhaps, more romantically, he was going to carry her off on his horse? The truth is less exciting, but linguistically more illuminating. The word for a man about to be married, or just married, is first found in an Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospel of St John, but it turns up in an unfamiliar form: brydguma. This is a compound of bride and guma, which was a somewhat poetic Old English word for ‘man’. Half a millennium later, in William Tyndale’s translation of the same Gospel, it appears as brydegrome. Why the change? During the Middle English period, the word guma fell out of use. Probably most people never used it at all, for the recorded instances are all very literary. It must have been an odd experience, hearing the word brideguma when someone got married. Everyone knew what bride meant, but guma was a mystery. And so people, unconsciously, turned it into something more familiar. The change seems to have taken over a century. The latest example of brideguma – spelled bredgome – recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1340; the earliest example of bridegroom – spelled brydegrome – is 1526. Why did people replace gome with groom? Because the sound and the meaning of the two words were very close. When groom first arrived in English, in the 13th century, it meant simply ‘man-child’, ‘boy’. It then broadened its meaning to apply to adults, and soon seems to have been restricted to a particular kind of adult male – someone who had an inferior position in a household. By the 16th century, this sense of ‘servant’ had narrowed further to mean an attendant who looks after horses, and this is the primary sense today – though the older use is still seen in the titles of some members of the British royal household, such as Groom of the Chamber. So, at the end of the Middle English period, when guma was disappearing, groom, meaning ‘man’, would have been a natural replacement. And thus we have the modern form, which basically means nothing more than ‘bride’s man’. The history of English has many examples of this kind of development – what is called ‘popular’ or ‘folk’ etymology. When people encounter an unfamiliar word, they often try to make sense of it by relating it to a word they already know. And if enough people make the same guess, the new formation can become part of the language. We see popular etymology operating again when we button-hole people: we’ve quite forgotten that originally what we were doing was ‘button-holding’ them. And it’s there when we jocularly call asparagus ‘sparrow-grass’. Arse an impolite word (11th century) Arse wasn’t an impolite word when it first arrived in English. It simply meant an animal’s rump, and we see it recorded in writing, from around the year 1000, in all kinds of straight-faced settings, such as glossaries, poems and scholarly works. A 14th-century writer tells us solemnly that ‘haemorrhoids are fine veins that stretch out at the arse’. And in the 16th century the word even turns up as part of a sermon: ‘How arseward [i.e., perverse] a thing it is for every man to be given to his own profit,’ says the preacher. No hint of vulgarity here. But things didn’t stay that way. It was inevitable that, as soon as the word began to be used for the human posterior, the association with animals and with excrement would turn it into a ‘dirty word’. We can sense this when we see people searching for a more polite expression. We find bum and buttock in the 14th century, the latter soon shortened to butt, which later became popular in the USA. Backside appeared in the 16th century and posterior soon after. The high regard for politeness in 18th-century society led to several alternatives – bottom and behind, as well as the scientific gluteus maximus and the fastidious derrière. In the USA, the 19th century introduced a genteel pronunciation, ass. And as the politer terms increased, so did the rudeness level of arse. An early development was the application of the word to a whole person. Heavy arse, meaning a lazy fellow, is recorded in the 1500s. In Britain and Ireland it became a slang name for a fool – a usage which proved very popular in the 20th century, when comments such as I made a right arse of myself were increasingly heard. The verb also became widespread: to arse about/around is a ruder version of fool about/around. The last century also saw the word becoming popular in the British Isles as an exclamation. On its own (Arse!), it’s used as an expression of annoyance, a little stronger than Damn! and very much stronger than Oh no! In the form my arse! it’s a scornful rejection of opinion – a ruder version of Nonsense! and more focused, as it’s usually attached to words that the other person has said. ‘You seem a bit nervous,’ says A. ‘Nervous my arse!’ ripostes B. That’s quite a strong comment. Anyone wanting to retain the force but avoid the rudeness could substitute My foot! Arse is one of the ‘taboo words’ of English, whose role is so important in everyday speech that, despite the controversy they arouse, they need to be well represented in any word-list. But it’s important to appreciate that attitudes to taboo words vary greatly over time and place. There are huge differences of opinion over just how rude a word like arse is. Several expressions have retained their force, such as when a person is described as being pretentious (He’s up his own arse) or is given a contemptuous rejection (Kiss my ass!, Up your ass!), and compounds such as arse-licking and arsehole are widely accepted as pretty rude. On the other hand, intensifying expressions such as boring the arse off someone (being extremely boring) or working my arse off (working extremely hard) are less so. The younger you are, of course, the less these usages will make you turn the slightest hair. Many people find the force of arse reduced when used in phrases, and may not consider such 20th-century expressions as arse-over-tip (‘head over heels’) or arse about face (‘back to front’) as being rude at all. The same applies to some of its uses as a verb, such as I arsed up my essay. And the word almost loses its identity in arsie-versie or arsy-varsy (‘upside down’, ‘backside foremost’), which was popular in the 1500s and still heard today. It was a jocular adaptaton of vice versa (versa being pronounced ‘varsa’ in the 16th century). Part of the uncertainty is that usage varies around the English-speaking world. The replacement of arse by ass in American English, universally encountered through US films and television programmes, has resulted in both forms becoming used in British English. A Brit who would never say arse in polite conversation might well use the intensifying I was working my ass off or talk about someone as being a smart-ass. And the unusual expression ass-backward(s), meaning ‘completely wrong, back-to-front’, has achieved a wider presence too, especially after Thomas Pynchon played around with it in Gravity’s Rainbow (1974). What’s unusual about it, as one of his characters says, is that the ass already faces backwards, so if the expression means ‘wrong way round’ it should really be ass-forwards. But what seems to be happening here is the development of a new, intensifying usage, meaning ‘very’, heard also in some other slang phrases, such as ass o’clock (as in I gotta get up at ass o’clock tomorrow, i.e. ‘very very early’). We have to be especially careful when it comes to the adjective arsy. In Britain, the word means ‘bad-tempered’ or ‘arrogant’, as in We get the occasional arsy customer in here. In Australia, the word has developed a positive meaning, ‘lucky’: That was an arsy goal. It’s wise to pay special attention to who’s speaking before deciding what to make of You’re an arsy bastard! Swain a poetic expression (12th century) It’s strange how some words end up only in poetry. Sometimes the reason is to do with the need to keep a particular rhythm in a line – so, if you’re looking for a word with a single beat, you can turn over into o’er, ever into e’er and often into oft. But with such words as lea (§2), dewy, dusky and darksome, which would be highly unlikely to be heard in everyday speech, it’s not at all clear why poets fell in love with them. The story of swain, meaning ‘lover’ or ‘sweetheart’, is one of the strangest, for there’s nothing in its origins to suggest that one day it would become a poet’s word. On the contrary. In Old English, a swan (pronounced ‘swahn’) looked after pigs (swine). The word began its journey towards a more refined life in the early Middle Ages. Any young man who held a low social position could be called a swain – but, as today, some low positions were higher than others. In particular, the word was used for one of the servants of a knight – the lowest level, below a squire and a groom, but still a desirable career for a young lad. Gradually, swain came to be applied to any man who was an attendant or follower, and then it broadened in meaning. When Chaucer describes Sir Thopas as a doughty swayn, he means simply ‘valiant man’, and when in one of the York Mystery plays Jesus is described as a litill swayne, the writer means only ‘little boy’. But then another association developed, with shepherds and farm labourers, and this is the one that appealed greatly to poets. In Spenser’s Fairy Queen (Book III, Canto VI, Stanza 15) we can see the romantic countryside associations beginning to build up: ‘the gentle shepherd swains, which sat / Keeping their fleecy flocks’. By the end of the 16th century, a swain had become a country wooer. There was even a short-lived derived form, swainling, which was sometimes also used for women. Poetic diction is an important element in the history of vocabulary, but it isn’t as popular now as it once was. Today the language of the streets provides most of the lexicon of poetry. We won’t find many modern poets using such words as swain. But Modern English does retain a couple of echoes of the early ‘dogsbody’ meaning of the word, in an unexpected place – the world of boats. The original pronunciation has been lost, but the old word is there in the spelling of boatswain and coxswain. Pork an elegant word (13th century) Why does foie gras sound so much more palatable than goose liver, or boeuf bourguignon more romantic than beef stew? The tradition of preferring French words to English ones in menus has a history which dates from the Middle Ages. The Anglo-Saxons would have eaten sheep, pig, cow and calf; but these words were evidently too crude to satisfy the fastidious manners of the newly arrived French court. During the early Middle English period, a new set of words became established as the gourmet’s norm. People now ate mutton, pork, beef and veal. The recipe books of the period are full of French words. Here is the beginning of one of them – a 14th-century recipe for fig tartlets. The French words are underlined: Tourteletes in fryture. Take figus & grynde hem smal; do þerin saffron & powdur fort. Close hem in foyles of dowe, & frye hem in oyle. Tartlets in fritter (batter). Take figs and grind them small; put therein saffron and strong powder (spice). Wrap them in foils (layers) of dough and fry them in oil. You wouldn’t get far in the kitchen without French. The only cookery words that are Old English are grind and dough. Although pork started out within the language of elegant cuisine, its subsequent history was less salubrious. Already in the Middle English period the adjective porkish was being used as a rude description of fat (‘piglike’) people. An obese or greedy person might be called a porkling. Porky came later, in the 18th century, for anything or anyone resembling a pig, and it became the normal insult for someone noticeably overweight. Warner Bros reclaimed the phrase somewhat when the stuttering cartoon character Porky Pig was introduced in the Looney Tunes series in the 1930s. But the general trend was in the opposite direction. Pork continued to pick up negative associations. In the 20th century, the process continued when Cockney rhyming slang made pork pie a substitute for lie. Porky pie was used in the same way, and by the 1980s this had been shortened to porky. ‘Don’t tell such porkies,’ someone might say. It is a euphemism, humorously softening the force of lie. But the ultimate fall from grace came when pork began to be used for the penis in American slang of the 1930s. How did that change come about? The origin seems to lie in the 17th century. The implements used by pig slaughtermen were colloquially called pigstickers, and this term soon became slang for any kind of sharp implement, especially when used as a weapon. The association with pigs led to porker becoming a slang term for a sword. And the obvious parallels in shape and language (such as sword thrusts) led to both pork and pork sword being used for the male appendage. The French courtiers would have been horrified. Chattels a legal word (13th century) It must have been quite hard, being a lawyer in the Middle Ages in England. Originally, all your law books would have been in Latin. Then, in the 13th century, they start being written in French. Then along comes English. Lawyers had a problem. When they wanted to talk about a legal issue, which words should they use? Should they describe the issue using an English word or opt for the equivalent word in French or Latin? And would the words be equivalent anyway? There might be subtle differences of meaning between an English word and a French one which could make all the difference in a court of law. How to choose? If someone decided to leave all his property and possessions to a relative, should the legal document talk about his goods, using the Old English word, or his chattels, using the Old French word? The lawyers thought up an ingenious solution. They would use both. If the document said goods and chattels, they would be covered against all eventualities. So that’s what they did. And the phrase goods and chattels is still used in legal English. A large number of legal doublets were created in this way, and some of them became so widely known that they entered everyday English. Every time we say fit and proper or wrack and ruin we are recalling a legal mix of English and French. Peace and quiet combines French and Latin. Will and testament combines English and Latin. The pattern caught on. After a while, lawyers began to bring together pairs of words from the same language. To avoid a dispute over whether cease meant the same as desist (both words are from French), they simply said that someone should cease and desist. That’s also why we talk about a situation being null and void or someone being aided and abetted. English words were combined too – hence have and hold, each and every and let or hindrance. Lawyers sometimes went in for even longer sequences, such as give, devise and bequeath. This is one of the reasons legal English seems so wordy. (Another is that lawyers were often paid by the word.) Chattels has some interesting linguistic relatives. The French word is a development from Latin capitalis, and this has given us the word capital. It has, less obviously, given us cattle. Today we think of cattle as cows, bulls, calves and other bovine animals. But until the 16th century it had a much more general sense. Any group of live animals held as property, or farmed for food or produce, could be called cattle. So we find the word being used for horses, sheep, goats, pigs, fowls (‘feathered cattle’) and even camels. ‘Take heed,’ says a writer in 1589, ‘thine own cattle sting thee not.’ He was talking about bees. Dame a form of address (13th century) People are very sensitive about how others address them. The reason is that there are several choices, and each choice carries a nuance. We could guess a great deal about the relationship between the parties if we heard: Hello, Mrs Jones Hello, Jane Hello, Janey Hello, Mrs J Hello, chick Hello, Didi Very few people know that Jane was called Didi by her family when she was little. Our preference for using – or not using – titles can alter over quite short periods of time. Young people these days are much readier to use first names on initial acquaintance than are their seniors, and don’t so often get irritated when a cold-caller greets them over the phone with a breezy intimacy. It’s hardly surprising, then, to find that the use of titles has changed over the course of centuries. But few have had such a chequered history as Dame. Today, the use of Dame is very restricted. It’s the female equivalent of a knight of an order of chivalry, in the British honours system, and people notice it when someone well known receives it, such as Dame Judi Dench. It also has a limited use elsewhere. Lady baronets and some retired female judges can be called Dame. These are the last vestiges of a title which was originally widespread in English society. When dame arrived from French in the 13th century, it was immediately used for ladies of high rank, and for any woman in charge of a community, such as an abbess or prioress. But it quickly went downmarket. By the 16th century, any woman married to a person with social standing, even if relatively low in rank (such as a squire or a yeoman), could be called Dame. At the same time, the word was being used in a general way to describe ‘the lady of the house’ – a housewife. From there it was a short step to find it used for any mother, whatever her social position. And in the 14th century, a mother tongue was often referred to as a dame’s tongue. The original vowel in dame, coming from French, was pronounced more like the one we hear in modern English dam, and this spelling, along with damme, was soon used. But dam, perceived to be a different word, began to attract negative connotations. It was used for female animals as well, and when used for a human mother it usually had a tone of ridicule or contempt. The emergence of the phrase the devil and his dam didn’t help. In the early 20th century dame went further downmarket, especially in the United States, where it became the usual slang word for a woman. ‘There is nothin’ like a dame’ went the refrain (in South Pacific). Then a most curious development took place in Britain. In pantomimes it came to be used for a comic middle-aged female character, traditionally played by a man. And the comic overtones spilled over into other comic roles, as in the famous case of Dame Edna Everage (aka Barry Humphries). This is as far away from the upper strata of society as it’s possible to imagine. The higher up the social scale we go, the more strictly the address rules are imposed. At the highest levels, whole books have been devoted to how we should address a prince, a duke, a baroness, a president, a professor, a cardinal, a judge, a mayor … It can get very complicated, especially in Britain. Is a duke called Your Grace or My Lord? What about an earl, a marquess or a baron? Most people would have to look up the answer. (All are My Lord, except the duke.) Is the sovereign’s son called Your Royal Highness? Yes. What about the sovereign’s son’s son? Yes. And the sovereign’s son’s son’s son? No. Getting it wrong would be a terrible faux pas, in some circles. Skirt a word doublet (13th century) When two cultures come together, the words of their languages compete for survival. We can see the process taking place early on in the history of English, following the Danish invasions of Britain. The Danes spoke a language known as Old Norse, and this had many words that had a related form in Old English. What would people end up saying? Would the Danish settlers adopt the Old English words? Or would the Anglo-Saxons adopt the Old Norse ones? In the event, people went in both directions. During the Middle English period we find Norse egg and sister ousting Old English ey and sweoster. And Old English path and swell ousted reike and bolnen. But there was a third solution: the Old English and Old Norse words both survived, because people gave them different meanings. This is what happened to skirt and shirt. Shirt is found occasionally in late Old English (spelled scyrte), with the meaning of a short garment worn by both men and women. Skirt, from Old Norse, is known from the 1300s, and seems to have been used chiefly for the female garment – the lower part of a dress or gown. But the word could also be used for the lower part of a man’s robe or coat too. And it is this notion of ‘lower part of something’ which led to the later sense of skirt meaning an edge or boundary – hence such words as outskirts and skirting board. Shirt and skirt went different ways during the Middle English period. Shirt became increasingly used only for the male garment, and skirt for the female. But the distinction has never been complete. Today, women’s fashion includes shirts, and skirts are normal wear for men in many countries (though, kilts aside, rarely encountered in Western culture). Clothing such as the T-shirt is gender-neutral. And most of the idioms using shirt are too. Both men and women can bet their shirt, give away the shirt off their back and keep their shirt on. Cases like shirt/skirt, where both words survive, are known as doublets, and there are many of them in English. From the Danish period, we find Old Norse dike alongside Old English ditch, and similarly hale and whole, scrub and shrub, sick and ill and many more. There are even more in regional dialects, where the Old English word has become the standard form and the Old Norse word remains local, as in church vs kirk, yard vs garth, write vs scrive and – of especial interest because of its widespread dialect use – no vs nay. Jail competing words (13th century) One of the most noticeable features of English vocabulary is the large number of words that entered the language as borrowings from French, especially in the period after the Norman invasion of 1066. Some of them are illustrated by the cooking and legal terms that form part of the story of pork and chattels (§§17, 18). The vast majority of French loans were borrowed just once – which is what one would expect. But on a few occasions, a word got borrowed twice. Why borrow a word twice? If English speakers were already using it, what would be the point? The answer lies in the fact that the people who introduced these words had different social and linguistic backgrounds. In the early part of the period, they were usually speakers of the dialect of French spoken in Normandy; in the later part, they were people who had learned the French of Paris – the ‘posh’ dialect that was becoming the standard. Several words had different forms in these two dialects. The Norman version was borrowed first; a Parisian version came along later. And English sometimes kept both of them. That’s why we have both gaol and jail. The g-spellings are recorded first, in the 13th century: we read about a gayhol and a gayll. The j-spellings, such as iaiole and iayll come long later (i and j weren’t distinguished as separate letters in the Middle English period). It must have been quite confusing. Which form should one use? Even as late as the 17th century, people were scratching their heads. The point was noted by the political author Roger L’Estrange, writing in 1668: he talks about the ‘rage’ some people feel because they can’t decide ‘whether they shall say [write] Jayl or Gaol’. 5. In Monopoly, one goes directly to jail, not gaol. Over a hundred local variants of the game have now been licensed. A spin-off dice-game was called ‘Don’t Go To Jail’. But at least the meaning stayed the same in this instance. In many other cases of ‘double borrowing’, the two words developed different meanings. Today, convey (from Norman French) doesn’t have the same meaning as convoy (from Parisian French). Nor are Norman reward, warden, warrant and wile the same as Parisian regard, guardian, guarantee and guile. Three hundred and fifty years on, the problem of gaol and jail is still there in British English. The Americans sorted it out in the 18th century, opting for jail, and that’s the only form found in the USA today. But Britain kept both. Official legal documents preferred the gaol spelling. British and Irish prisons were originally spelled Gaol. Oscar Wilde wrote a ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’. In speech, of course, there’s no difference: both words are pronounced ‘jail’. Gaol seems to be disappearing from everyday writing nowadays in Britain, though lawyers still use it. And it’s still popular in some other countries, such as Australia. Overall it’s definitely the junior partner: a mere 2 million hits on Google in 2010, compared with 52 million for jail. It’s difficult to say just when the replacement trend started. Some people put it down to the influence of the popular board game Monopoly, invented in the USA. When the game was ‘translated’ into Britain in the 1930s, the non-London squares weren’t changed. That’s why there is a distinctly American-looking policeman on the ‘Go To Jail’ square. And suddenly British players were being sent ‘directly to jail’. Take away a phrasal verb (13th century) It must have come as quite a shock to Samuel Johnson, slowly working his way through the alphabet for his Dictionary of the English Language in the early 1750s, when he reached the letter T. The end of his great project was in sight, and then he encountered the verb take, with its remarkable number of senses. He had had to deal with complicated verbs before: come had ended up with 56 senses, go had 68 and put had 80. But take was going to require an unprecedented 124. The high total was caused by a large number of combined forms, where take was used along with another word, such as in, off, up and out, or two words, as seen in take up with. These are called phrasal verbs in modern grammatical parlance. The combination of words expresses new senses. Take off, for example, has such meanings as ‘become airborne’, ‘be successful’ and ‘remove’. Aircraft and projects can take off.