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.