Here is an interesting word, a nice example of how perceptions can change. These days, we may think of fairies and our minds go to fairytales, to cute little creatures with wings and wands, the stuff of children’s films and stories.

But this has not always been the case, and fairies have also been viewed as terrifying beings. Certainly, the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are nothing like the Tinkerbells of Disney.

The word came into English in the 1300s, from Old French. It meant both ‘supernatural being’ and ‘home/ country of supernatural beings’. There were a number of spellings in Middle English, such as fayri, faeri, feyry, fairi, and so on.

Let’s take a look at an example of it from John Lydgate‘s work King Henry VI’s Triumphal Entry into London, dating to 1435

Twoo olde men..dydde appere lyke ffolkes off ffeyrye.

(Two old men did appear, like folks of fairy).

In this case, it is the country that is referred to with the word ‘fairy’, and indeed faerie in Old French appears to have been most common with this meaning. Old French developed the word from Latin fata, which meant the Fates, or the goddesses of destiny. The English word fate obviously comes from the same source, making it a cognate of fairy.

But we can do better than this. We can trace the word back further. The Latin word fata is the plural of fatum, which literally means “utterance”. It was formed from fari, which means “utter”. Thus, fate is “that which is uttered” (the implication being that it is the gods who are doing the uttering!). This Latin meaning helps us to trace the word to its earlier source in Proto-Indo-European. It comes from the root *bha-, meaning ‘speak, say’. Cognates such as Sanskrit bhanati, ‘speaks’, Old English ben ‘prayer, request’, English ban, Greek φωνή [foni] ‘voice, sound’ and others attest to this root.

Did you notice the modern English word? Yes. Ban is a distant cognate of fairy. Make of that what you will.


This post is dedicated to Angela

The internet abounds with cute memes featuring all kinds of animals, and hedgehogs are no exception. But what of the word itself?

It consists of two elements, as I am sure you can easily see: hedge + hog. These two were put together sometime during the late 1300s, presumably because the animal is frequently to be found in or near hedges, and because its snout bears a passing resembance to a pig. Intriguing spellings such as hegge-hogge and heyghoge can be found in Late Middle English, and the two elements of the word can both be traced to Old English and Germanic roots.

But if this word only came into being in the fourteenth century, how was the animal known until that time? Certainly hedgehogs didn’t suddenly evolve out of thin air!

They were known in Old English as igil, a word with cognates in other Germanic languages, at least until Old French started to exert its influence over English, and the word yrichon came to be adopted, itself an adaptation of Old French herichon (this word has evolved into the Modern French equivalent hérisson). This is where it gets interesting: yrichon developed into the word urchin, a word which is still used to mean ‘hedgehog’ in some dialects.

Gradually, people of raggedy appearance, especially smaller people or children, came to be known as urchins, perhaps because their ragged clothes were reminiscent of a hedgehog’s spikes, and for most dialects of English, this new meaning of urchin came to dominate over the older sense.

So the modern French word for ‘hedgehog’ is a cousin of ‘urchin’, and both come an ancient Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘bristle’, a root which also gave us the word horror, a word seldom applied to a hedgehog (and one that’s worthy of a post all of its own).


These days, many people think of a cottage as a quaint old house in the countryside, perhaps with a thatched roof. But the sense of the word was once much wider, and would have included structures built to house animals, and various outbuildings that were part of the same main property.

In this form, it starts its story in English during the late 13th century. In Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, in the Nun’s Priest’s Prologue, which dates to 1390, we can find a very nice reference to it:

They ne founde as muche as a cotage

In which they bothe myghte ylogged be.

[They never found so much as a cottage

In which they both might stay.]

The word is the same here as it is today, with only a very minor spelling adjustment. And now comes a part of some intrigue in the tale of this word. The suffix -age is Anglo-French and can be seen in a number of other nouns. So does this mean that word comes from French? If we take a look at Old French, we discover the term cote, with an older form cot which is unrelated to the modern English cot, but it meant ‘hut’, and could be the source we are looking for of cottage.

Wait. Not so fast. If we dig a little deeper, we find that the Old French cot derived from Old Norse kot, also meaning ‘hut’. It is a word of Germanic origin, and Old English is known to be a Germanic language. So let’s take a look at Old English.

We witan ðæt hý ne durran hý selfe æt hám æt heora cotum werian

[We know that they dare not defend themselves at home in their own houses]

This quote is taken from King Alfred’s version of Orosius’s History, translated into Old English during the ninth centry, but there are many other references to cot in Old English, meaning ‘cottage, hut, dwelling place’.

A Proto-Germanic root of *kutan has been proposed, also meaning ‘hut, cottage’. But let’s now go back to where we were: Old French or Old English? It is in fact hard to say. The suffix is well known in Anglo-French, but the stem could well have come from both sources, its similarity meaning that it was easily adopted.

There are cognates of this word in Dutch, another Germanic language. But an interesting little note at this point is that in patois normand, or the French dialect spoken in Normandy, cottin means ‘small house’. It is worth remembering here that Anglo-French developed from the Norman dialect. The word has lived on over the centuries.

And now, while we are on the subject of cottage, what better place to take a relaxing break than in a beautiful cottage, fitted with modern conveniences but in the timeless setting of the gorgeous Welsh countryside; a little slice of the past in the present. Check out Esgair Wen near Dolgellau.


Happy New Ancient Year!

Happy new year!

Wait – isn’t it March 1st today? Surely the new year started two months ago?

Well yes, it did. But that was the start of the year according to our modern, Gregorian calendar. A long time in the past, things were different. The year started on March 1st.

The calendar we use today comes to us from the Romans. Various civilisations in different places have all had their own versions, and even for our linguistic forebears, the speakers of Old English, there may have been some struggle to reconcile  Hāligmōnað and Hærfestmōnað in our modern calendar.

So let’s have a look at the history of our calendar. Up to around 700 BC, the Romans used a calendar consisting of 10 months, followed by 51 days before the start of the new year. You might be wondering what on earth they needed those 51 days for. Was this a time of festival and celebration before one year and the next? No. It was, in fact, part of superstition about winter. The whole period covered the deep cold season, and these days were considered monthless, as though to allocate them would somehow render winter more powerful.

What happened? The king, Numa Pompilius, the second of the seven traditional kings of Rome, is said to have decided to break the winter period into two parts and create another two months, adding to them a few days taken from the other months for the sake of balance. He named them Ianuarius and Februarius and added them to the start of the year. This complicated matters, as the names of some of the later months were numbers related to their position in the calendar. The old calendar was like this: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. Quintilis means “fifth”, sextilis is “sixth”, and so on, but now those months were seventh and eighth.

This version of the calendar remained in place until the Julian reform – around 43 BC when Julius Caesar renamed the months Quintilis and Sextilis. He called Quintilis after himself – Julius, while Sextilis became Augustus, after his designated successor. This meant that the remaining four months of the year which were known by numbers were still not correctly numbered according to the order of months, but the names have stuck. Despite now being the ninth month, September comes from septem, meaning seven. October is eighth, November is ninth and December is tenth. This calendar is known as the Julian calendar, and remained in common use until 1582 when it was superseded by the Gregorian calendar, a subject worthy of a post all of its own.

So March, whose name comes from the ancient god of war, Mars, has lost its place of honour as the first month of the year. But happy new ancient calendar year nonetheless!

On the Origins of Write

Education for a much wider section of the population has meant that more people than ever before are able to write. We might write differently today from the way we did in the past, whether because the shape of the letters have changed, some have been lost, or because we now write by tapping keys as well as by hand. Even our handwritten work is not the same – when was the last time you reached for a quill and pot of ink? Or even a chisel to engrave your words?

But what of the word itself? You can read about its history in my post for the Conclave of Sappho: On the Origins of the Word Write


If I talk of a plan, then probably there will be certain things that come to mind. You may wonder if I am scheduling something, perhaps I have the intention to do something, you may think in terms of Plan A, Plan B.


But that is not how it started out. In fact, the first recorded instance of plan meaning ‘scheme of action’ was in 1706. Before that, it was generally used to mean ‘drawing, sketch, diagram’. Its modern sense may have developed out of the idea of drawing a diagram of what one intended to do.


Going back to the late 1600s, plan was a technical term in perspective drawing; it didn’t take long for that sense to expand to include other forms of drawing. But originally it didn’t have anything to do with drawing at all.


It came into English from French plan, where it meant ‘map’ and also ‘ground plan’. But the word does not stop there in its passage through time. French adapted it from planum, a Latin term meaning ‘level, flat surface’. And how did this come to mean map or drawing?


If we think of our action when drawing, we can easily find the answer. We put our paper down on a flat surface and draw. And what is a map if not a flat representation of the ground?


Can we find an earlier source for planum? We can indeed! It comes from Proto-Indo-European root *pla-no, itself a form of the root *pele, meaning ‘broad, flat’ and also ‘spread out’ – it is flatter to spread things out than to heap them in piles.


There are a number of descendants of this word in various Indo-European languages, ranging from Lithuanian plonas, meaning ‘thin’, Old Slavonic polje, which translates as ‘flat land, field’, to Old English and Old High German feld, meaning field, among others.

While we are on the subject of planning, let’s look at something that combines our sense of drawing, putting things down on paper, with the modern sense of schedule and intend to do something.


jump parent planner2

Jump Mag has produced a fabulous new planner for 2016, and I have had a sneak preview and the chance to test it out. It contains useful features that personally I’ve always wanted on a planner or diary, such as a specially designated place to write your shopping list. I don’t know about you, but I have often thought of something that I need to buy while I’m out, but not shopping, and then forgotten it. Not only that, but the planner has a mealplan section, so you can make your shopping list as you decide on each meal.


jump parent planner3I’ve also found the budget planning section very helpful: you can write down a bill that needs to be paid by a particular date, or note down any money that is due to you.

Each day has a separate box marked ‘kids’ – it usually ends up filled with their various activities, things going on at school, or that have to be remembered for school, like “Take in gauzy material” or “trip to olive mill, need bus money”.

But for me, one feature that I really love is the space to note down special memories. How often have things happened that have left a mark, and you really wish you had somewhere to note them down? It’s a great idea.

The Jump Parent Planner is available here

On the Origins of ‘book’

I am very pleased to announce that from now on I shall also be writing for the Conclave of Sappho, a writers’ collective.

Writing of course does not mean only journalism or novels, and articles on etymology are very welcome at the Conclave. So it seemed fitting that the first one should be on book.

The origins of book

These days, we may more frequently be found reading e-books, rather than using traditional paper means. But one thing which I rather like is that, although there is no paper and no leaves to be turned over, it is lovely to still be calling it a book, still using this word. This is especially heart-warming when you consider the origins of the word ‘book’.

Continue reading here on the Conclave of Sappho