Thursday 1 December 2016

Talk of the town, but which one?

A funny thing happened to me yesterday as I was making my way to Horsham from London on a Southern rail service. Now, all railway companies screw up with their services from time to time, and they occasionally have the good grace to inform their passengers of delays and cancellations. On my train, they even repeatedly put out helpful suggestions to make sure the passengers were on the right part of the train, as the front four coaches were continuing to Portsmouth after Horsham, while the rear four were off to Bognor. I mean, you wouldn't want to have Portsmouth as your intended destination, only to pull up in Bognor, uttering "Bognor? Bugger!" in surprise and disbelief at your folly.

However, I would have thought they would draw the line at the summary renaming of random stations as you approach them. I mean, this could prove quite confusing, even disconcerting, if you were to be expecting to arrive in, say, Brighton, only to be informed that it had been renamed Invercargill or Happisburgh or something. However, this is precisely what happened on my train, not once, but twice, though I must emphasise that it did not affect me personally, as the station in question was simply one I was passing through. What's more, the replacement name was not one which, to my knowledge, identifies any genuine geographical location in this country or, indeed, anywhere else in the known universe, which makes it all the more perplexing. Still, I can do no more than give you the facts and allow you, Dear Reader, to supply your own explanation for it.

The station in question is Crawley, though anyone with less than a passing acquaintance with the vicinity of Gatwick Airport may well not have been able to deduce that, given the nature of the announcements. As we left the station before Crawley, the announcer proclaimed to all and sundry: "The next station is Wouldcustomerspleasenote." A quick search on Google maps failed to turn up a settlement, large or small, of that name in the area. However, a few minutes later the next announcement seemed to have obliterated the newborn Wouldcustomerspleasenote from the face of the earth and replaced it with yet another ostensibly non-existent settlement with the same coordinates as Crawley: "We are now approaching Pleasemindthegapbetweentheplatformandthetrain." Another search failed to identify this newest of new towns in the locality, given that a few minutes previously it had been known as Wouldcustomerspleasenote. Perhaps they had reviewed the initial renaming of Crawley as a singularly inadequate attempt to truly place it on the world stage and wanted to endow it with a name to rival Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in Wales or even Taumatawhakatangihangakoayauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukypokaiwhenuakitanatahu in New Zealand. However, I think you might agree that these attempts both fall a bit short.

Well, that's my interpretation, for what it's worth. I look forward to any other simpler, more likely explanations, should you wish to supply them. Oh, and by the way, on my arrival in Crawley Station, I noticed that it still had signs for Crawley, so evidently they had not had the time to engage signwriters to amend them. If I were you though, I'd be on my guard the next time you want to travel there by train. You never know.

Thursday 13 October 2016

950 years ago today - the battle that changed our language forever

So here we are, exactly 950 years since the English language started to undergo probably its most radical change in history – the loss of its status as a national language and its transformation from an almost exclusively Germanic language into a Latinised Germanic mongrel. Vast swathes of its original vocabulary were supplanted by words from Old North French and standard Old French, with the result that some 60% of the vocabulary of our language comes either from French or from Latin, often via French. However, it's not just the vocabulary that has left a mark on our mother tongue; there have been other influences, and in commemoration of the momentous events of 950 years ago in the Battle of Hastings, I have outlined the main ones in this post. I hope you enjoy and appreciate them.

Basic vocabulary

First, let's look at some basic vocabulary changes. Among the myriad words that have arrived from French, many have ensconced themselves firmly within everyday English. Here is a selection just to give you a taste:

Old English didn't have a special word for what follows first, instead using other, so it borrowed second from Old French. It comes ultimately from Latin secundus and literally means “following”. Related words include sequence, suit and suite.

By Chaucer's time, Middle English had adopted because, which is a combination of English by and French cause, which in turn comes from Latin causa, “reason, matter”.

In modern English slang, a guv'nor, or guv, from governor, means “boss, sir, mate”. It comes ultimately from Greek kybernein, “steer”, via Latin gubernare, which produced gubernator, “ruler, director”, which French handed over as governor.

Every day we use good old English terms like “I hope so, I think so, I guess so”. To that we added “I suppose so”, or, as it's generally pronounced “s'pose so”. The Middle English supposen, “have an opinion, assume”, comes from Old French supposer and ultimately from Latin.

Old English used the word sore as an intensifier, much as Modern German uses sehr. Sore continues in its original meaning of “painful”, while sorely is old-fashioned but clearly an intensifier. However, Middle English went to Old French to borrow verai, from Latin verax, “truthful”, and turned it into very.

There are hundreds more everyday words like these which owe their existence to the Norman Conquest, including these, which you might like to follow up yourselves: chief, defeat, dress, eagle, fashion, grief, injury, judge, leisure, prison, push, quiet, reason, rest, royal, search, tax, trouble and uncle.


It is well-known that Old English names were largely unpronounceable (at least to us). Who can forget the names from the spoof school history book, 1066 And All That: Ethelbreth, Athelthrall and Thruthelthrolth? OK, so the writers were going slightly over the top, but we still have Alfred, Audrey, Cedric, Earl, Edith, Edmund, Ethel, Harold, Oswald, Wilfred and Winifred, to name but a few. However, the Normans brought over a huge swathe of new names for us to choose from, including Alice, Charles, Clement, Felicity, Gerald, Geoffrey, Henry, Janine, Lucy, Marjorie, Matilda, Nancy, Richard, Robert and, of course, William. What's particularly interesting is that many of these names originally come from German, since the Germanic Franks, who gave their name to France when they settled there, supplied many of them. Just look at modern German Heinrich (Henry) and Wilhelm (William).

The Normans were also past masters at supplying us with surnames, most notably those connected with professions. Hence we have the person who makes bows, Archer, the person who chops up your meat, Butcher, the person who makes arrows, Fletcher, as well as the person who cuts the cloth for your clothes, Taylor and Turner, the person who, well, turns. One very interesting aspect of Norman names comes from their occupation of Ireland. All over the world people traditionally take their name from their parents. In English we have a large number of names ending in -son: Johnson, Williamson, Peterson, Harrison to name but a few. The same was true of the Norman French in Ireland. The French word for "son", fils, was prefixed to the father's name and was eventually rendered as fitz, hence: Fitzgerald, Fitzmorris, Fitzpatrick, Fitzsimmons and Fitzwilliam.

When we look at place names, we can see some that the Normans changed from previous names and a few new ones. They are usually names which mix the original English name with the name of the Norman Lord who took over the town or the area. Hence we have Ashby de-laZouch, Stoke Mandeville, Theydon Bois, Beauchamp, Beaulieu and Richmond.


I've written about this already (see 21/4/16), but a few short words won't go amiss here. When the Normans took over and invited more of their countrymen into the conquered land, they only numbered about 10% of the population, but the top 10%. For anyone old enough to remember bottled milk being delivered to your door every morning, you could compare the social structure of England to the contents of a milk bottle – the Norman French cream on top of the Old English milk, accurately reflecting the provenance of these two words.

The same ran through society, most clearly exemplified by words for animals on the English farm and in the forest, and the meat served up on the Norman table: English pig/swine and French pork; English bull and French beef; English cow and French veal; English sheep and French mutton; English deer and French venison. This last one is especially interesting, as venison actually comes from the Latin venari, meaning “hunt”, while deer originally had the meaning of “animal”. Only the king and his nobles were allowed to hunt deer (transgressors did so under pain of death), so venison, literally “hunted meat” was highly prized. There are many other examples of French food from my previous blog post.


Although many Old English words were lost in the face of new vocabulary from Old French, many words which came in with the conquerors happily settled into English and still exist alongside their older neighbours to this day. The differences in meaning and use are often subtle, and you can see for yourself how each doublet plays out. The situation is, in fact, further complicated by borrowings directly from Latin (often through Old French), with the result that we often have triplets! These examples will serve to illustrate the point:

English folk and French people; English stool and French chair (see how the stool is a diminished type of chair); English brotherhood and French fraternity; English kind and French gentle; English some and French several; English smell and French odour; English loss and French defeat;

English kingly, French royal and Latin regal; English twofold, French double and Latin duplicate; English guts, French bravery and Latin valour; English end, French finish and Latin terminate; English tell (cf bank teller), French count and Latin compute.

Throughout its history, French has rendered its Latin roots almost unrecognisable in some cases. Even those words which still bear a resemblance to Latin have undergone some major changes. Another development from the introduction of French into English has been a greater receptiveness to borrowing directly from Latin, or from Latin via Old French. As a result, we have numerous doublets from the two languages, essentially the same word in two forms: French sure and Latin secure; French poignant and Latin pungent; French chieftain and Latin captain; French count and Latin compute; French search and Latin circulate; French grief and Latin gravity; French frail and Latin fragile.

French has even given English doublets from different dialects of French. The Normans spoke a form called Old North French, which became Anglo-French after they settled down. However, many other Old French speakers arrived from other parts of France, mostly speaking standard Old French. Typically, Old North French had initial c- and w- where standard Old French had ch- and gu-, hence: carry and charge, both from Latin carricare, “transport, load”; catch and chase, from Latin captiare, “take, seize”, hence “hunt, try to take”; cattle and chattel, from Latin capitale, “property”; warranty and guarantee, from Frankish warand, “authorisation”; warden and guardian, from Frankish wardon, “watch”.

Meaning change

One of the things we have to remember about the words we've inherited from French is that we've changed the meanings quite a lot. Here are a few differences we shouldn’t forget when we venture to the other side of the Channel. In France, it's perfectly normal to demand things, as it simply means “ask” in French. If someone tells you they're désolé, they're simply sorry, not desolate. And never ask a man if he's embarrassé – men can't get pregnant, at least not yet. Also don't worry if your hotel maid deranges you. She'll just say sorry for disturbing you and come back later. It may not be sensible to fall in love in England, but it certainly is in France as being sensible involves the heart, not the head.


Perhaps one of the most radical effects of French on English has been pronunciation. It's long been a running joke about how the French and the English can't pronounce each other's language properly, and there's some truth to that. English loves to weaken and chop syllables in speech even more than French does. Also, English is a stress-timed language, which means you only hear the stressed syllables clearly, with unstressed syllables swallowed up in between, while French is syllable-timed, which means that no one syllable is heavily stressed, thereby reducing the force of others. What’s more, English likes to stress the first syllable as far as possible, while French prefers the last.

Suffice it to say that there have been numerous changes in the way words of French origin in English are pronounced. Have a look at these borrowings from French, and find out how the related words are pronounced in French, Spanish and Italian: Asia, azure, leisure, pleasure, pressure, temperature, furniture, comfortable, suit, suite, precious, fusion.


Last but not least, we come to spelling. By the time the Normans arrived, Old English was a fully-fledged literary language, with its own spelling rules. The Normans had to write texts in English for the general population to read, but the scribes preferred to use French as the basis, thereby introducing letters such as q and rewriting exclusively English letters and combinations of letters in their own way. Here are a few choice examples: cwic became quick; scip became ship; bricg became bridge; ðæt became that; hwæt became what; heofon became heaven; cese became cheese.


So, I hope you've enjoyed my short account of the changes that the Normans brought to our language. We can still see many of them in action today, 950 years since they began. I would imagine they will continue for many years hence. If you're still around in fifty years' time, then I hope you can dig this out again, wherever it may be, celebrate the full thousand years, and remember that relatively small events in one place at one time can have massive consequences, not least the wholesale restructuring of so much of a language.

Wednesday 3 August 2016

More from the Normans: legal pagans and loyal peasants

This entry continues the theme of doublets – two words coming into English from the same Latin root, but with one of them radically changed in form and sometimes meaning by its passage through Old French and Norman French before nestling in the bosom of Middle English, and the other coming more directly from Latin, while preserving most of the original form and meaning. Basically, we're talking two, and occasionally three, for the price of one. It just goes to show how generous the Normans were with their vocabulary.

So, let's start with loyal and legal, for they are, indeed, essentially the same thing. Both these words come from Latin lex, “law”, and clearly, legal, arriving in the first half of the 15th C as a learned borrowing from Latin legalis via Middle French, carries the original meaning with it. Strangely enough, loyal, “faithful”, arrived almost a hundred years later directly from Middle French, having been rendered loial/leial in Old French from the original Latin form. However, Middle English had earlier borrowed leal, “faithful” from Old French and rendered it lel, and this form was supplanted by the later borrowing of loyal. The change of meaning in loyal was to do with the idea of carrying out legal requirements faithfully.

Moving on to pagans and peasants, these words share the same origins, at least linguistically, if not materially. In Roman times, a district in the country was delineated by fixed markers, which is why it was known as a pagus, literally a “fixed area”. From pagus came pagensis, “inhabitant of a country district”. In Vulgar Latin, pagensis came to refer to the territory that the district covered, becoming païs in Old French as well as in Spanish and Portuguese, and producing the modern word for “country” in all three languages. Old French also produced païsant, “country-dweller”, which came to us via Anglo-French paisant as peasant in the early 15th C. While peasant was busily divesting itself of its similarity to its distant ancestor, Late Latin paganus, “villager”, remained the same until it came directly into English, also in the early 15th C, but with the meaning of “heathen”.

So, why were some country-dwellers simply rustic types while others became non-believers? There are two possible reasons. When Christianity was adopted by the Roman empire, people living in country areas were less likely to take on the new religion than city dwellers, holding on to their old ways and gods, and therefore being seen as pagans. An alternative explanation is that country-dwellers were not seen as Soldiers of Christ, as the early Christians termed themselves, and were more likely to be termed non-believers. So a non-believer chewing a stalk of wheat while sitting on a farm gate could truly be called a pagan peasant.

Just as we have loyal and legal, we also have royal and regal. The Latin rex, “king”, produced regalis, “kingly”, which became roial, “royal, splendid”, in Old French. This was borrowed in the 13th C as royal, with the meaning of “fit for a king”. A century later, regal was borrowed from Latin via Old French. It's interesting that when the dust settled, we ended up with three words meaning pretty much the same thing – kingly (the original Old English root word), royal and regal, though royal has come to denote the nature of the monarch, while kingly and regal refer rather to appearance.

One thing that might happen to people if they crossed the monarch in the old days was imprisonment, which brings us to the next group – jail, cage and cave. Yes, I know they don't look very similar, but we can still see the links in the meanings. All three words came into Middle English in the 13th C. The Latin root was cavus, “hollow, hole”, which produced Old French cave, “cave, vault, cellar”, coming to us with more or less the same meaning. The other two words were fed through the French machine much more thoroughly. The Latin form cavea, “hollow area, animal enclosure, coop”, became cage in Old French, which it remained as it was handed over to Middle English with the meaning of “prison, retreat”. The form cavea also produced a diminutive form caveola in Late Latin, also with the meaning of “enclosure, coop”. This became gaviola in Vulgar Latin and then jaiole in Old French. The alternative form gaiole was used in Old North French, and both forms came into Middle English via Anglo-French, giving us both jail and gaol. So, one could say that the Birdman of Alcatraz had cages in his jail or jails in his cage. And if a caveman transgressed, was he kept in a cave or in a special cave-jail?

The last entries in this post might well get you a long time in jail if you're not careful – poison and potion. One of the Latin words for “drink” was potare, which gives us potable. However, in medieval times, people seemed to be playing around with all manner of mysterious and magical drinks. Potion came into Middle English directly from Latin potio, "drink, drinking",via Old French, replacing an earlier borrowing, with the meaning of “medicinal drink, magic drink, poisonous draught”. Nowadays, we think of it as more of a magic drink liable to turn you into a frog in a fairy story. While potion was largely unchanged by its passage through French from Latin potio, poison most certainly was not. It came into Middle English slightly earlier than potion from the Old French poison/puison, with the meaning of “deadly potion”. Clearly, it wouldn't have done to visit a medieval hostelry and ask someone “what's your poison?” You'd never know what you'd get.

Sunday 17 July 2016

What's the point?

Have you ever reached a juncture in your life where you just sit and think “What's the point?” Well, here I am to tell you what the point is, as well as the puncture, the pounce, the punch and much more besides. Plenty of Latin roots have passed on their offspring to us to enrich our language, but few have been as fecund as pungere (pronounced rather like poon-gay-ray), which has provided English with a whole family of words, the most important of which came via the Normans. You could say that the Normans have poked, pricked and stabbed us repeatedly with pungere since they first held us at the point of a sword at Hastings.

Pungere in Latin indeed meant “pierce, stab, prick”, basically the action of a sharp object making a hole. This produced punctum, “pierced, pricked”, which gave French point, “dot, mark, place”, and pointe, “sharp end”. When these came into Middle English from Old French in the 12th C, the two words fused and over time took on the numerous meanings the word point has today, including sharp end, full stop, dot, position, stage, important feature, mark, score, indicate, aim and direct, to name a few. I think you'll take my point.

Two words come to us from Old French ponchon, “piercing tool”, itself from a Latin form punctio, with the same meaning. This produced puncheon in Middle English, which was reduced to punch, a word we still use in expressions like hole punch. The verb punch, “make a hole” came from the Old French ponchonner, and was also used to mean “thrust, prod, poke”, later being extended to “hit with the fist”. Coincidentally, the Latin pugnare, which gave us pugnacious, is related to pungere, and meant “fight with fists”, so the later development of punch into fist-fighting is parallel to the earlier Latin use of pugnare. Incidentally, the drink punch is unlikely to have any connection with poking, thrusting or punching, but is said to be from the Hindi word for five, denoting the original number of ingredients. However, after a few glasses of punch, I'm sure a few other punches might ensue in the wrong circumstances.

An alternative meaning of Old French ponchon was “lance, javelin, spine”, and this produced Middle English pownse, which came to refer to the claws of a bird of prey. Even today in falconry, the front claws of a falcon are known as pounces because they pierce the body of the prey. However, over time, the action of the hunter in swooping on the prey changed the meaning of pounce from "pierce" to "seize with claws" and finally to "jump on", which is the meaning we use now.

A later borrowing in the 14th C from Middle French into Middle English was poignant, “stinging”, from the verb poindre, “prick, sting”. Originally, poignant referred to both physical and mental stinging and pain, especially sharp tastes, but over time it became reserved for feelings and other abstract ideas.

All of the above words were mediated by their passage through Old and Middle French before they reached Middle English, but words were constantly borrowed directly from Latin as well, which gives us some interesting parallel derivations alongside the French ones. Two such words, punctual from punctualis, "on point", and puncture, from punctura, "pricking", arrived in the 14th C direct from Medieval Latin. Being on point has become associated with time, hence punctual. On the other hand, getting a prick, or a puncture, in your car tyre might well affect your punctuality.

Rather later, in the 16th C, after English took in poignant, it borrowed essentially the same word directly from Latin in the form of pungent. However, this time although the pricking was originally associated with feelings, it gradually came to refer to the pricking of the nasal passages and the tongue. We could easily have ended up with pungent songs and poignant smells had the words taken different paths. Another thing we got from Latin around this time was punctuation, “marking with points”, to the eternal displeasure of schoolchildren everywhere. One final borrowing from around the same time is punctilious from Italian pontiglioso, “on point”, altered from the Italian to look as if it came directly from Latin.

So, we can see that although English started off at the sharp end of the Norman sword, it has a pointed history, punctuated by the borrowing of many different words, some pungent, many poignant, but all carrying a punch as they make their point

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Double trouble

Now. I'm going to warn you. This may be a bit boring and esoteric for some of you, so if you don't like in-depth, heavy-duty linguistic analyses, then sign off now. Only kidding! Well, OK, this post is a bit more technical, I admit, but bear with me. It's still bloody interesting (well, at least I think so).

If any of you readers are from a part of your country where the dialect of English that you normally speak is not considered “standard”, this is mainly for you. As you may well know, in the UK, we have something known as “received pronunciation”, or “the Queen's English”, which is basically a way of being very snobby. Time was all BBC presenters spoke as if they had just had a suppository shoved up a place where it hurts – and it was still hurting. This dichotomy between the “official” version of a language and the “inferior” dialects is not confined to English. Indeed, around two hundred years ago in France local dialects were flourishing all over the country, until the central government gradually imposed the supremacy of its chosen form of French over the rest.

Indeed, we can see the effects of different Old French dialects in modern English. Yes, after almost a thousand years, we still have that split with us. The Normans spoke a dialect of Old North French, while the standard Old French was spoken further over in the Paris area. The Normans brought over their dialect when they conquered England, but they and their successors also had possessions in other parts of France and brought over settlers and workers from these regions. As a result, different varieties of Old French were spoken in England, and in some cases essentially the same word would enter English at different times, with different pronunciations and different meanings.

Two differences stick out in particular. Firstly, where standard Old French had the “ch” sound, Old North French retained the “c” sound – essentially Standard Old French palatalised many words from Latin with “c”, such as chien from canis, “dog”, and chef from caput, “head”. Secondly, mainly with words borrowed from Frankish, standard French changed the “w” into “g(u)”, while Old North French kept the “w”, hence standard French guerre from Frankish werra, “war”. So, here are some of the most common words which display these differences and still remain part of our language.

In Medieval Latin, capitale was used to denote property and stock. In Old North French capitale became cattle and ended up referring to property with four hooves, two horns and loud moo sounds, while in Old French it became chattel, which came to denote moveable but inanimate property and is now rather dated.

The Latin verb capere, “take”, produced many words which we have taken into modern English. From the Vulgar Latin form captiare came the Old North French cachier, “chase, capture”, which became our catch. What's strange about this verb is that in Middle English it was treated like an Old English verb and developed the irregular past tense caught rather than catched. The same Vulgar Latin verb, captiare, produce chacier, “hunt”, in Old French, which then entered English as chase. So now we have two words, originally with the same meaning, indicating two aspects of the same process: first you chase and then you catch.

Here are two more verbs which have similar histories. Latin borrowed carrus, “chariot”, from a Celtic language, and then provided a variety of modern words from the root, including car, carriage and chariot. Late Latin created carricare, “transport by vehicle”, which became carier in Old North French and Anglo-French, ending up as carry. Meanwhile, from another meaning of carricare, “load a vehicle”, came Old French charger, which came to us as charge. So, although technically taxis charge you to carry you, they could equally do it the other way round, which would be rather interesting.

What's the difference between a castle and a château? Well, essentially they're the same, both coming from Latin castellum, “fortress”, with castle coming into Middle English from Old North French with the Normans, and château coming into modern English directly from modern standard French via posh English holidaymakers (presumably). However, that's not the whole story. Old English had already borrowed castle from Latin with the meaning of “village”, and when the Normans came, castle changed from being a village to being a stronghold, much as we understand it now. In fact, when the Anglo-Saxons first settled in England, they took the Latin castrum, “fort”, and made ceaster, applying it to a variety of places, giving us such place names as Chester, Manchester, Winchester, Lancaster, Leicester, Worcester and Exeter, to name but a few. So a wine called Château Chester would essentially be repeating itself.

Vulgar Latin triccare, “evade, cheat”, became trikier in Old North French, which gave us trick and trickery, which, of course, can range from rather innocuous to rather sinister in meaning. However, its Old French cousin from the same root, trechier, is far more serious, because treachery can see you end up in the Tower of London waiting for your head to be parted from your body.

The Frankish were a German-speaking people who settled in France during the first three centuries CE and gave the country their name while losing their own language. However, they endowed French with many of their own words, with the result that French vocabulary has a sizeable Frankish contingent, much of which is related to Old English. One Frankish word, warand, “authorisation”, took two forms when it entered French: warant in Old North French and garant in Old French. The Old North French gave us warrant, and also produced warantie, which came into Anglo-French and later to us as warranty. Much later, in the 17th century, guarantee joined us from French, thereby giving us two words which have been an endless source of headaches ever since – do you have a warranty or a guarantee, and what the hell is the difference? No answers on a postcard, please!

One last pair shows this “duality” in a way which is really a “triality”. The modern “ward” comes down directly from the Old English weard, “watchman, sentry”, though other meanings have developed over time. Frankish, being a cousin of Old English, gave Old North French the form wardein, which comes down to us via Anglo-French as warden. Of course, Old French changed the Frankish form to garde, which gives us guard. So we have three words essentially from the same root, which still refer more or less to the same thing, but which came to us via three different routes. Some other words from Frankish via Old French are: guise and guide, which are both related to the English wise and wit, ultimately from a root meaning “know” and “see”, and guile, which is related to wile.

So there we are. There's no knowing the path a word will take away from its origins before returning to the fold. Let's be happy that they came back and enriched our language even more.

Thursday 21 April 2016

Cooking up a French feast

Just as with other areas of daily life, the Normans laid much of the lexical foundation for our modern cooking and feasting. Although many Old English food words survived into modern English, with chicken, lamb, garlic and milk among the most prominent, Middle English took in a wide array of French terms, which last until today, with some fascinating insights into medieval life.

One of the most striking contrasts between words of French and English origin is that between animals and the meat from those animals. Indeed, the Old French word animal itself replaced the Old English deor, but deor didn't disappear, instead becoming specialised as modern deer. A fascinating fact about both these words is that they are from different roots meaning “breathe”. The Norman kings jealously guarded their rights to hunt deer, so much so that killing a deer was a capital offence. The fact that deer were the most hunted of animals is reflected in the root of the word for deer meat, venison, which literally means “hunted meat”. So, here we have clear signs that the reference to the live animal is English, while the reference to the meat on the table is French.

We can see the same in other words contrasting the farm animal with the cooked meat. When the English swine was cooked, it became French pork, although porc in Old French also denoted the animal. Similarly, the English cow became the French veal, originally veel, “calf”, in Old French, and the English bull became the French beef. Strangely, the words cow and beef are from the same historical root. While lamb is use for the baby sheep, whether gambolling in fields or topped with mint sauce, the English sheep was transformed into the French mutton, which itself referred to the animal in French. Another pork product, Latin lar, “bacon”, gives us lard and larder, which was originally a supply of pig-meat products, and then the place to keep them.

One particularly interesting contrast is between the English milk and the French cream. Anyone who is old enough to remember the gold-top bottles of milk delivered to the front door by the milkman will recall the difference between the milk, which occupied the bulk of the bottle, and the dollop of rich cream at the top. If milk had been delivered in this way after the Norman conquest, the irony would not have been lost on the English majority, reduced to peasants and serfs in their own country.

The culinary plant world also has many examples of French borrowing. The Old English laec, which gives us leek as well as the second half of garlic, originally denoted the bulb we know as the onion, from the Old French oignon, ultimately from the Latin unionem, so called because the leaves of the bulb formed a union as opposed a clove, as with garlic. Any onion farmers reading this might be tempted to form an organisation known as the Onion Union. Presumably Lenin and Stalin ate Soviet Onions. Maybe the first train to deliver these vegetables to San Francisco was known as the Onion Pacific. OK, enough of that.

The French also managed to give us mushroom, from mousseron, as well as mustard, vinegar, from vinaigre, “sour wine”, and parsley, from Latin petroselinum, “rock parsley”, borrowed ultimately from Greek. One interesting borrowing is lettuce, which supposedly got its name from the Latin lac, "milk", because of the milky sap which can be squeezed out. You also might want to top off your meal with a bit of fruit, itself from Latin fructus, “enjoyment, delight”. A peach, from Old French pesche, might go down fine, especially as it comes all the way from Persia, as supposed by the Latin malum Persicum, “Persian apple”. In fact, peaches come from China, but, for the ancients, Persia was far enough to the east.

We can't leave this subject without paying a visit to the bakery. We think of flour as being white and dusty, but it's actually a variant spelling of flower, from Old French flor, with the idea that the finest grains came from the flower of the meal. Add water, and flour becomes dough, pasta in Latin. Old French paste gave us pasty, much to the delight of the Cornish, presumably, and also modern pâté.

Finally, we have a some words from the French for bread which no longer have anything to do with it. You would share your bread, Latin pan, with someone known as your companion, “messmate”, who you would also travel with and presumably fight alongside. Your companions would then make up your company. You would also put your bread into a basket to carry on your horse, a pannier, though I doubt if modern bikers would take kindly to you stuffing bread into their panniers.

So there you are, some of the words the Normans and the French gave us for our food. No doubt you could go out foraging for other words and find a few interesting titbits to tuck into. Happy hunting!

Tuesday 5 April 2016

Body talk

Our bodies are important to us. What I mean by that is our bodies are important in language terms. We use body words all the time with extended meanings: I've got to hand it to you; I'm heading up the team; he gave me the cold shoulder; you've got to have a heart; he hasn't got the stomach for a fight; leg it; toe the line. There are many more besides, most equally as colourful and expressive.

So, what did the Normans give us in terms of our bodies? Well, quite a lot actually, and not what you might think, as most of the words bear little relation to their bodily origins. Anyway, here's a nice selection to delight in:

brace, embrace

If you've ever had a brace on your teeth you should be grateful that they weren't the size of the original brace, whose meaning has been pretty well lost here. In fact, you'd need an embrace to remind you of what the original meaning was. Greek brakkhion, “arm”, was borrowed by Latin as bracchium, which eventually became the modern French bras. On its way, it stopped off in Middle English via Anglo-French as brace, a pair of arms, which you can use to embrace someone.

chief, chef, chieftain, captain

All these words mean basically the same thing, and indeed come from the same root, caput, in Latin, meaning “head”, and ultimately from the same root as head (heafod in Old English). The different meanings and pronunciations result from the time of their entry into standard English vocabulary. Old French tended to radically change the pronunciation of the original Latin words. It took the Latin form capum, a variant of caput, and produced chef in Old French, which came into Middle English through Anglo-French with the "ch" pronunciation. When the same word was re-borrowed in the 19th century directly from French, it carried the meaning of the "chief of cooking", hence its restricted meaning today. Like chief, chieftain, from Latin capitaneus, “leader”, came from Old French into Middle English. Strangely, captain, was borrowed directly from the same Latin word by Old French and delivered slightly later than chieftain, but with a different reference. So if you were to run a company, lead a tribe, cook and command a ship you could well be the chief, chieftain, chef and captain all at the same time. Just don't let it go to your head, though.

cattle. chattel, capital

Here we are again – that “head” word, caput, this time from the same form that gives us capital. Now, we usually think of a capital as being the main city of a country, but these words come from the money-making meaning of capital, which was used in medieval times with reference to property, especially moveable property. Old North French produced catel, which came into Anglo-French and finally Middle English as cattle. It was only later that it was applied exclusively to moveable property with a leg at each corner and a “moo” sound coming out of the front end. Around the same time, chatel, “property, goods”, came into Middle English from Old French, and gave us chattel, which still carries the idea of inanimate objects as property. What's particularly significant here is that there are often two forms of the same word which come to us from Old French. Old North French kept the “k” pronunciation of the letter “c”, while standard Old French tended to change it to “ch”, with the result that we have cattle and chattel, essentially the same thing. We do, of course, also have the original form, capital, which was also borrowed via Old French, which took it directly from Latin without any changes. So a medieval Karl Marx would have had his work cut out deciding how to distinguish between capitalism, cattleism and chattelism. Or maybe not.


We usually think of this word connected with good spirits, acclaim, thanks and drinking. However, it originally had nothing to do with these ideas and referred to the part of the body that expressed these feelings – the face. The Latin cara, borrowed from the Greek kara, originally meant “head, face”, and is related to the Latin cornu, which is in turn the same word historically as the English horn. Modern Spanish and Portuguese still keep the meaning of “face” in cara. So what happened in French? Well, the French pronunciation mincing machine took over, creating chiere, "face", in Old French, itself producing chere in Anglo-French. In Old French it took on the meaning of “look, countenance, expression”, and came to refer to the emotion that the face expressed in Anglo-French, hence “mood” in Middle English, both good and bad. It eventually developed its positive meaning, probably because it was more often used in the expression “good cheer”, and later became applied to the vocalisation of approval. So cheers, mine's a double vodka and tonic.


It would not surprise you that coast is the same word as côte in French and costa in Spanish and Portuguese, so beloved of British holidaymakers. They all come from Latin costa, “rib, side”, so the reference to the side of the land by the sea is clear.


As we all know, the core is, among other things, the centre of a fruit or the Earth, so it would be no surprise that it most likely came from the Old French coeur, from Latin cor, heart, which is itself from the same root as the Latin word.

coward, cue, queue

Who's going to run away in fear? Who's going to take the first shot at the pool table? Who's going to stand in line? Well, the most appropriate way to decide might be to toss a coin and see who gets tails, as that's essentially what all of these words mean, all coming from Latin cauda, “tail”. Old French coe produced couart, which came into Middle English as coward, presumably from the idea of putting the tail between the legs like a dog, or turning tail and running. Both queue and cue, which is a variation on the spelling, came in later from Middle French, with queue referring to a long line and cue referring to a long piece of wood.


Unsurprisingly, this comes the part of the body that is faces forward. Latin frons meant “forehead” and front came from Old French into Middle English with not just that meaning but also the other meanings that extended from it.

gorge, gorgeous

If you thought someone was gorgeous, you would be looking at one part of their body only. No, not that! You'd be looking at the neck, and with good reason. Late Latin produced the word gurges, “throat, gullet”, which came into Old French as gorge. We tend to use it in its geographical sense, but in Old French it also mean “bosom”. It is assumed that it was a reference to the beauty of a woman's bosom, or the beauty of the jewellery that adorned it, that produced gorgeous.


Not surprisingly, language, a variant of the Old French langage, comes from lingua, “tongue” in Latin. The Old Latin form was dingua, which is from the same root as English tongue, which we occasionally use with the meaning of language, as in “speaking in tongues”.


If you maintain something, you quite literally hold it in your hand. Latin manutenere produced Old French maintenir, which came into Middle English as maintainen. From holding in the hand, it developed the meanings of preserve, keep, sustain and support, though, of course, you no longer have to do these things with your hand. We can see the same use of hand in words like manual, manufacture and manipulate. Presumably, a medieval pop group known as "Ye Beatles" would have written a song entitled "I Wanna Maintain You". OK. I apologise for that.


Imagine you were in a medieval battle and your enemy ran you through with a sword. You would be quite sanguine, but not in the sense you would think. Latin sanguis, “blood”, produced sanguineus, “bloody”, which in turn produced Old French sanguin, “blood-red”, giving Middle English sanguyne, “blood-red cloth”. However, the use of sanguine to describe a cheerful or hopeful disposition comes from the medieval idea of an excess of blood as a humour producing good moods, presumably displayed by a ruddy face. Paradoxically, a sword through your middle would produce plenty of blood, but not necessarily an abundance of good humours.

Wednesday 23 March 2016

It's been a hard day's plight: the story of journey and travel

Who doesn't love travel? Come on! Hands up! No? Oh, all right. There's always one who thinks travel is torture, but if that's you, you're in good company. And you're quite right. At least you would have been in good company a few hundred years ago. Travel is quite literally torture, or at least it was. And how was your journey? As long as it was 24 hours, you were fine. If it took 48 hours, that would be two journeys, 72 hours - three journeys, and so on. These two words, both supplied to English courtesy of the Normans, have come a long way from their origins and much of the way, at least for travel, it wasn't very pretty. So let's start from the beginning, like all good journeys, and travel the long road to the present.

First of all, how did journey start on its journey? A few thousand years ago, a group of nomads somewhere in south-east Europe or west Asia spoke a group of dialects that we term Indo-European, ultimately the distant ancestor of both English and French, as well as most of the languages of Europe and south Asia. Although linguists cannot be certain of the exact nature of the language these peoples spoke, they can trace the origins back from the modern forms of many words as well as the forms in ancient languages like Latin, Greek and Sanskrit.

One postulated form in Indo-European is *dyeu (postulated forms are always written with an asterisk, as they can't be verified, never having been recorded), which had the meaning of “shine”. It produced the Latin dies, “day”, as well as a variety of words in other languages, most of which also meant “day”, clearly because the day is the time when the sun shines. Strangely enough, the English day is not from this root but from another root meaning “heat, hot season”. However, we do indeed have a word which descends from this root right down through Germanic and into modern English, and that word is Tiw, which was the name of the ancient Germanic sky god. Indeed, this sky god even had a day named after him – Tiwesdaeg, better known today as Tuesday. Whether it is indeed the brightest of days is beyond this discussion.

The Latin dies passed directly into modern Spanish as día and Portuguese as dia, but underwent some changes before French and Italian inherited it. Dies produced the Vulgar Latin form diurnum, which was transformed into French jour and Italian giorno. Old French also produced the word journee, which denoted either a day's work or a day's travel, so originally a journey in Middle English denoted only how far a person could travel in one day, hence a journey lasting a week was in fact seven journeys. We also have journeyman, which was originally a reference to a day worker.

So, we can see that journey quite literally travelled on a bright road to the present. Travel, however, travelled a far darker road. It actually started out as Latin trepalium, literally “three stakes”. Palus, “stake”, was formed from a Latin root pag- meaning ”fix, settle”, which is also related to the words pax, “settlement, peace” and paciscor, “settle, pay”, which, indeed, come to us as peace and pay respectively. Palus came to mean “wood”, as that was what stakes were made of, resulting in the modern Spanish palo and Portuguese pau.

At some point in Roman times, an instrument of torture was devised, consisting of three stakes driven into the ground, hence trepalium, which seems to have become widely used and more sophisticated, giving rise to the Late Latin verb trepaliare, “torture”, from which came the Old French travailler, “torment, trouble, vex”. Now, anyone who has been in a difficult job will know how much people complain about their work, having a tyrant as a boss, or slaving away all day, and so on. So it was that travailler came to mean simply “work hard”, just as it did in Spanish trabajar and Portuguese trabalhar.

Middle English inherited travail from the Normans, but it was used for suffering and hardship rather than just work. So, how did it become travel? Well, we're so used to comfy trains, coaches and planes (at least in first class) that we tend to think of travel as a fairly relaxed and enjoyable activity, but it was far from that in the past. Imagine negotiating the rutted roads, mud, rain, snow, cold, heat, toil, tedium and danger, not to mention the sore feet and sore backsides. No wonder travel was a travail. The closest travail to that these days would be the guy sitting next to you as the plane takes off on a flight to Sydney, Australia, who says “You going to Australia? So am I!”

So there you are. A long day's journey into night is quite literally that. Yet, the idea of travel broadening the mind in the days of yore would have been far less appreciated than the idea of travel bruising the backside or fouling the feet. Just remember the next time you sink into your first class seat, press the recliner and sip your free cocktail, that travelling in the olden days would have been rather less enjoyable, and the only freebies you'd have got would have been the thumbscrews.

Saturday 19 March 2016

More from the Normans: Falling into Disrepute

English has inherited a variety of words from French, courtesy of the Normans, which are, well, not the kindest words to use about people and their habits. These words started out perfectly respectably, but over time came to denote some of the less favourable aspects of the human character. However, this blog delights in explaining the provenance of these words and celebrating their existence, because they tell us so much about the creativity and inventiveness of the people who used them in their daily language. Remember, if it hadn't been for the Normans, we wouldn't have these gems.


This word has been used so much over time to call someone out and expose their dishonesty: the footballer who dives for a penalty, the husband or wife who plays away from home, the student with the answers written on their wrist (or, in this day and age, on a smart watch) in the exam room, the poker player with a card up their sleeve - all these people stand to hear that most incriminating of cries – YOU CHEAT! But how did we get here? It's all down to the biggest cheat of all in most people's eyes – the taxman.

From the Latin verb cadere, “fall”, English has inherited numerous words. The compound verb excadere, meant literally “fall out”. This gave rise to the Old French noun eschete, literally “that which falls to someone”, and by extension “inheritance”. In mediaeval England, if there was no heir to an inheritance, it would then go to the state. The state being what it is, the meaning soon extended to “confiscation by the state”. If you owned land or property, and a state official came along and claimed it for the state for no valid reason, you would, no doubt, feel sorely cheated, and as a result, the word came to be applied to any sort of deception or trickery. So the moral of this word is – never trust government officials; they're the original cheats.


The Beatles once sang “Come Together”, and if they had lived in ancient Rome, they would have sung convenite. The Latin verb convenire gives us such words as convene and convention, where we can still see the original idea of coming together. However, there are two other words which retain the original meaning of coming together. English inherited convent from Old French with the idea of people coming together for religious reasons. This eventually became restricted to females coming together in a religious order. However, an alternative form, cuven, came to denote a rather different group of gathering females. Essentially, then, if you want to join a group of women engaged in supernatural worship, you had better check which type of worship you would like to engage in, so that you don't mix up your convents and covens. And check carefully before you sign a convention or, indeed, a covenant. Your very soul may depend on it.


If you're ever walking home one dark night and someone approaches you, pulls out a knife and threatens you with it, it won't be very pleasant, but at least your attacker is being true to the root meaning of menace. This borrowing from Old French comes from the Latin minae, which denotes sharp things which jut out, and which are therefore a threat. A related word also referring to something rather bigger which juts out, mons, and hence mountain, also a gift from the Normans.

On a stranger note, you may well feel threatened while you walk along the seafront at your favourite seaside resort. Middle French gave us promenade, and you may well wonder what that has to do with threats. Well, in Latin, the verb minari meant "threaten", and the related verb minare, denoted the act of driving animals along while shouting – in a sense threatening the animals to make them move. From this came prominare, “drive on”, but by the time it reached us, it simply meant “walk”.

So once again, the Normans have enriched our language with a variety of words, but it's not as if we didn't have our own “jutting out” word – though this one is even stranger. Yet another Latin root, mentum, denoted the chin, as that's the part of a person's face that sticks out the most. However, in the related root in the Germanic languages, it moved up the face a bit, and that's what we get mouth from.


A mess wasn't always a mess. It only became a mess because the consumption of a mess made a mess. I hope that's all clear. Latin mittere meant “send”, and became the French mettre, “put”. In the process, it also gave English message, mission and a variety of other words. So, how did sending things become a mess (leaving aside the postal service)? In Late Latin and on into Old French it referred to a portion of food that was placed on a table to be eaten, and by Middle English it had come to denote any dish, particularly one consisting of a broth of porridge. By extension, it came to refer to the people who sat down to eat, giving rise to the modern meaning of armed forces' eating quarters. It also denoted the slops given to animals, which ended up providing us with the modern meaning so beloved of parents when describing a baby's meal or a teenager's bedroom.


When were you born? Was it before or after a sibling? In the past, if you were well down the list in a big family, it was likely that you would turn out to be puny. In nature, the first-born is usually the one that gets most or all of the food, and the last-born is left to grow weak and often die. From the Latin post, “after” and natus, “born”, Old French created puisné, “born after”, and hence puny. So, if you're the first-born and a heavyweight boxer calls you puny, you could politely correct his erroneous judgement. Or maybe not.


If you go down to the woods today, prepare for a big surprise. If you go down to the woods today, you'll hardly believe your eyes. For every bear that ever there was has gathered there, slavering and ravening, ready to rip you apart and feed on your carcass. Remember, this only happens in the woods. In any other environment they're perfectly docile and friendly.

The Latin for “wood, forest” was silva, and something “from the woods” was silvaticus, which also carried the meaning of “wild”, presumably because the woods were where the wild things were. The form changed to salvaticus, becoming sauvage in Old French, which the Normans gave to us as savage, “fierce, ferocious”, later becoming “wild, untamed, bold, cruel”, and eventually “uncivilised, barbarous”. Presumably, then, people who live out on the open plain are paragons of civilisation.


In my previous life as a feudal landowner, I decided that I needed someone to work for me in a personal capacity. So I went around all the people who had been granted permission to occupy my land, and eventually made an agreement for one of them to become my personal servant in my manor. However, little did I know that he was harbouring malevolent intentions towards my property, and one day when I awoke, I found that he had made off with my favourite horse, the scoundrel! I had engaged a vassal as a valet, but he turned out to be a varlet!

I suppose I should have seen it coming. Latin borrowed vassus, “servant”, from a Celtic source, and Medieval Latin created vassalus, “manservant, domestic, retainer” from it. From Old French it came into Middle English as vassal, denoting a person who was granted permission to occupy land by a lord in return for allegiance.

One derivation of vassalus which occurred in Gallo-Romance was vassellitus, “young nobleman, squire, page”, which was reduced to vaslet, and then valet in Old French, and was then introduced into Middle English as valette, “manservant”. An alternative form of vaslet which reached Middle French from Old French was varlet, which originally came into late Middle English as “knight's servant”, but then descended in meaning to “rascal, rogue”.

The message from this is, next time you leave your car for a car valet to clean and smarten up, if he makes off with it, he's morphed into a varlet, just like the word.

Monday 29 February 2016

950 years, and all that.

So it's 2016, quite a big year, especially if your name is Shakespeare. Don't get me wrong. The Bard truly deserves to be celebrated for the 400 years since he died. It seems like his birth/death day anniversary is the biggest thing we are going to remember this year. I mean, last year, there was the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2, the 100th anniversary of a variety of WW1 battles and the 200th anniversary of Waterloo (no, not ABBA winning the Eurovision Song contest, though, I admit, it does seem like 200 years ago), not to mention the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (Shakespeare again – O for a Muse of fire that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention…) and the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. All of them are worthy of great attention.

Yet, the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, mighty though it is, can be superseded by the anniversary of another event, one which is (or at least used to be) imprinted in the mind of every schoolchild in Britain. It's not really a sexy anniversary because the real sexy anniversary arrives in another fifty years, but as I don't think that I, and most probably you, will be around then, it seems prudent to remember it this year, especially as its effects are so pervasive in our culture.

As a way of measuring the significance of this event, let me look back at the first two paragraphs of this text and list these words: quite, especially, Shakespeare, deserves, celebrated, anniversary, remember, variety, battles, Eurovision, contest, admit, mention, ascend, invention, signing, attention, superseded, event, imprinted, school, sexy, real, arrives, probably, around, prudent, effects, pervasive, culture.

If it were not for this event, it is highly unlikely that many, if any, of the words listed would exist in our language. And the reason is this: 950 years ago, on 14th October 1066, a gentleman by the name of Duke William II of Normandy engaged in battle and defeated another gentleman by the name of King Harold Godwinson on a hill situated around seven miles from the town of Hastings on the Sussex coast in England. William was descended from a group of Vikings who had settled in Normandy some 150 years earlier. They soon discarded their native Norse language, adopting the French language and expanding their influence in the area. Harold had been crowned king of England on the death of Edward the Confessor, but both King Harald of Norway and Duke William claimed the throne, and both prepared to invade England to realise their claims. King Harold defeated King Harald in the north of England before hurrying back south to face William, as a result of which his army was not at their operational best. Harold famously died on the battlefield and is reputedly the figure depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry with the arrow in his eye.

Up to that time, Old English had been a thriving language of government, education, literature, culture and everyday use, although Latin was also used for liturgical and educational purposes. If we look at Modern German, we can see to an extent the grammar, structure and vocabulary that once characterised Old English. However, fate struck a mortal blow to Old English on that day. That one day is the reason why the words listed in italics above exist in our language. Soon after William consolidated his control of the whole country, Old English ceased to be the language of all the people and all the classes. It became submerged, downgraded, relegated and ignored. In short, it became a third-class language. Latin remained the language of the church and of education, Anglo-French became the language of law, culture, literature and the elite, and Old English belonged to the downtrodden hordes.

The Norman invaders, comprising maybe no more than 10% of the entire population, ruled over the English masses. You could say it was like the bottles of milk of yesteryear that the milkman used to leave on our doorsteps: the rich 10% at the top was cream, a French word, and the 90% under that was milk, an English word. To make it in the Norman world, you had to learn French. No king of England ever spoke English for some 200 years after the conquest. Forget Richard the Lionheart talking posh English to Robin Hood in Hollywood films – he spoke only French. For some 200 years after the Norman conquest, the English royalty controlled large parts of French territory and many people from all parts of France came and settled in England, bringing Norman French and standard French, which we can still see in our language today.

It would take until the 13th century for the nobility to start speaking English and the 14th century for Middle English to emerge as a language of culture and literature, as so wonderfully and entertainingly shown by the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. By that time, huge changes had taken place, and French words had replaced vast numbers of Old English words, transforming the face of our language forever. The vocabulary of Modern English retains only 20-30% of the original Old English vocabulary, albeit the most common words in use, but over 60% of our vocabulary comes ultimately from Latin, most of that courtesy of the French introduced by the Normans.

And that is what this blog will celebrate in the lead up to the 950th anniversary of that famous, fateful day. It will look at some of the strange phenomena, unusual journeys, fascinating coincidences and bizarre histories of some of these words and word families, and answer these and many other questions:

How did one word that originally meant “light” give rise to the word “journey”, and another word that originally meant “three stakes” give rise to “travel”?

Why are animals English when they're alive, but French when they're cooked?

Why is our spelling so confusing, and our pronunciation so ridiculous? Try explaining the pronunciation of “temperature” and “comfortable” to a Spanish or Italian native speaker.

Why is a noble “count” a completely different word from an election “count”?

Why do we have so many words for the same thing? Why do we have warranties and guarantees? Why can monarchs be kingly, royal and regal?

Over the next few months leading up to the great day. I hope you will be my companion (literally, the one who shares my bread) for the whole journey. I'll try to make it as fascinating and entertaining as I can, but I don't really have to – it does the job by itself. So, welcome to 950 years: What have the Normans ever done for us? And in answer, I think you will find – a hell of a lot!