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.

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