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.

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