On Kitchens and Cooking

People agonise over what colour to paint their kitchens, how the cabinets should be, whether or not to tile the walls and so on. Opinions and tastes abound, but the one thing they all have in common is that the purpose of the kitchen is cooking.

The word ‘kitchen’ is of course inextricably bound with ‘cooking’; their history goes hand-in-hand. Let’s start with ‘kitchen’. Going back to Middle English, I have a short line that I hope will bring a smile to your face. It is from the Works of Sir Thomas Mallory, dating to 1470.

Thou smellyst all of the kychyn.

(You smell totally of the kitchen.)

One would hope that this is not a clumsy attempt at a compliment – the recipient of such praise might not be very impressed! Here, at that time, the word is very much like the term we know today, and indeed in other spellings from the period such as kicchen and kichoun, it can still be recognised. But let’s look at an earlier point. Our next quote comes from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem also known as the Chronicle of Britain and dating to the late twelfth century.

Weoren in þeos kinges cuchene twa hundred cokes

(Two hundred cooks were in this king’s kitchen)

Two hundred cooks may seem a little excessive for one kitchen; after all, we say today that too many of them spoil the broth!

In this reference, the word for ‘kitchen’ is cuchene, a word that suggests a slightly different pronunciation, over 250 years before Mallory. From here, we shall go back further in time and examine the word in Old English.

This time, our reference is taken from The Homilies of Ælfric, translated by Thorpe during the 1840s, and dating to around the year 990.

Ðæt seó cycene eal forburne

(That the kitchen was all burning)

Setting aside the dangers of using real fires and flames in your kitchen, let’s turn our attention to the word. So here we have the form cycene. Still recognisable at a stretch. It is at this point that we turn our attention once again to the purpose of the room; cooking.

Our Old English term, cycene, comes from Proto-Germanic *kokina. This form gave rise to cognates such as Dutch keuken, German Küche, Danish køkken, Norwegian kjøkken and others.

You may be thinking that there is a similarity between these words and their counterparts in other European languages, such as Italian cucina, French cuisine, Portuguese cozinha, Spanish cocina and so on. Well, there is a reason for that. They all derive from Vulgar Latin *cocina, itself an alternative form of Latin coquina, meaning ‘kitchen’. Unsurprisingly, this comes from coquere, meaning ‘to cook’. This Latin word has gone into so many languages, from Modern (Demotic) Greek κουζίνα [kouzina] to Welsh cegin, Slovenian and Croatian kuhinja, Polish kuchnia and even Albanian kuzhinë, and more besides.

Latin was generous in its gifts to English, providing not only kitchen but also cook by means of coquere; the two go together in meaning, in history and etymology. And what of coquere itself? Where did it come from? It derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *pekw-, which would have meant ‘to cook’. This was the source of the Greek πέψη, πέψις [pepsi, pepsis]. And guess what we get from pepsis? Dyspepsia, of course. So the same root gave rise to words for both the method of preparation and the possible effect of the food on us.

Cheese, the food of the gods

Cheese comes in many varieties and there are a range of flavours and aromas associated with it. It has long been part of our diets, as attested to in texts such as by Hippocrates from around 400 BC. But of course, Hippocrates spoke Greek and his writing was in Greek, which means that he used the word τύρον [tyron]. What of the English word; cheese?

What a small but smooth word this is. It flows beautifully off the tongue and onto the plate. Or perhaps indeed onto the palate!

And it too is not a modern invention. This word has been with us for a very long time. Let’s take a look at the Peterborough Chronicle from around 1160.

Þa was corn dære, & flec & cæse & butere.

(There was corn there, and meat and cheese and butter.)

At that time, in the period of our language known as Middle English, ‘cheese’ was cæse, as you can see above, but also chese, cyse, chise. There are references to it in many places, in diverse texts and it appears to have been quite popular. The only thing we cannot be sure of is the flavour!

However, the word did not arrive in English fully formed during the twelfth century. Its history goes back further than that, and can be found in Old English texts.


In West Saxon it was generally cyse, while in Anglian it was cese, both meaning cheese. Here is an example from the Anglo Saxon version of Medicina de Quadrupedis by Sextus Placitus, a fourth century work that was rendered into English during the ninth century. It was printed in Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England during the eighteenth century.


Níwe gáte cýse

(new goat’s cheese)


This seems very recognisable. Little has changed in the intervening centuries, you might think, except the numbers of varieties!


But can we trace its history any further? The Old English words came from a West Germanic source; *kasjus, which itself came from the Latin word caseus, which of course also meant “cheese”. This word has spread around the continent, with Käse in German, kaas in Dutch, queso in Spanish, caws in Welsh and also càise in Scottish Gaelic, to mention just a few.

On theory suggests that it might derive from a Proto-Indo-European root *kwat, meaning “ferment, become sour”., although there seems to be some dispute about that. Whatever the truth of this theory, in my humble opinion this is where the ancient Greeks made a huge mistake. Forget nectar, forget ambrosia. The food of the gods is cheese.


In Modern English, field is a word of many meanings. We may think of a green, grassy field, a field of wheat, a field planted with potatoes. But equally, we talk of fielding questions, a field of academic research, an area of interest or even a field of vision. Not to mention its uses in mathematics and physics.

Fortunately for my purposes, all of these meanings come from the same place. Lets start tracing its path through the centuries by looking back at the word in Middle English. There were a variety of spellings to be found, including feild, fild feald, feeld, feld and veld. So what about our modern-day spelling? The -ie- version, field, is thought to have been the work of Anglo-French scholars, a legacy of the Norman influence on English.

If we go to Chaucer’s work, we can find a few interesting references to fields. Let’s take a look at the Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales, dating to 1385.

Alle the feeldes gliteren vp and doun.

(All the fields shone up and down).

Leaving aside for a moment what sort of light might be reflected in the fields, we can see that the word is easily recognisable. Interestingly, the same text contains another reference to field, but with a different spelling:

And foules flie the feld and fenne.

(And birds fly over field and fen.)

Again, it requires no special effort to see what ‘field’ means in this context. It is clearly talking about a piece of open land for the birds to fly over, although it tells us nothing about farming and cultivation. In fact, the word was used in a more general sense to refer to land than in modern English, and could mean ‘pasture, open area of land’ as well as ‘land set aside for cultivation’.

This takes us back to our next step in tracing the word; a trip into Old English. In earlier times, the word was feld, as you can see here in this quote from the Codex Exoniensis, or Exeter Book, a tenth century anthology of poetry.

Se æðela feld wrídaþ under wolcnum

(the noble field thrives under the skies)

You might be wondering what a noble field is, and obviously we are all aware that words can be used slightly differently in poetry, but our word here is still clearly recognisable; its form is very little changed. Even if we go to a slightly earlier point, the same is still true. Here is a line from King Alfred’s version of the Metres of Boethius, dating to around 886.

Weaxaþ hraðe feldes blóstman

(the flowers of the field grow quickly)

Before you point out that here the form used is feldes, I should mention that it is in the genitive form (of the field), which accounts for the -es suffix. We can still see the remnants of this genitive suffix in modern English possessive forms: the child’s hand, the bird’s nest, etc.

Returning to field, the base form in the days of Alfred was feld. There are cognates in other Germanic languages, such as in Old Saxon and Old Frisian feld, but also Old Saxon folda, meaning ‘earth’; this is also reflected in the Old English folde of the same meaning. Modern Dutch gives us veld, with an older form of velt, meaning ‘field’; German Feld also has the same meaning.

The word came from Proto-Germanic *felthuz, meaning ‘flat land’. When we realise that the land was flat, we can trace the word back further, to Proto-Indo-European *pel-tu, which is derived from the root *pele, meaning ‘flat, spread out’. It is the same root which is the source for plane and plan, as you can see here.


On the Polls

With thanks to Connor for the inspiration

As Britain prepares to go to the polls to decide on its future regarding membership of the European Union, I thought we could take a look at the word itself. Why do we call it ‘poll’? What is this word? These days, if we hear ‘poll’, we mostly think of elections, voting, ballots. We think of opinion polls, straw polls. But has that always been the case?

To find out exactly what it is, we shall go back to the past and see how it was first used in English. We shall start with a quote from John Trevisa’s translation into Middle English of Higden’s Polychronicon, a Latin work rendered into English by Trevisa in 1387.

He wolde bende his heer from þe pol toward þe foreheed.

(He would style his hair from the crown of the head towards the forehead)

Where does it mention polls in that sentence? It is not talking about casting votes or expressing opinions, but if you look carefully at the original quote and not the modern translation, you will see the word ‘pol’ in the middle, meaning the crown, or the top part of the head. Indeed, there are some dialects of English even today where the word still carries this meaning, and the word has not died out in modern English. People involved with animal husbandry, especially relating to horses, will no doubt be aware of ‘poll’ referring to a part of the animal’s head.

All very nice so far, you might think, but what has this got to do with elections and voting? To understand this question, we simply have to look at the history of how elections were conducted. Before our modern era of widespread education and literacy, a large number of people would have been unable to read a ballot paper. But they could stand where they wished to show support, and so votes could be cast and tallied by the simple means of counting people’s heads; a count of the polls.

So, it would seem that poll meant ‘head’. But we haven’t finished yet! Before it came to mean ‘head’, the word had other meanings too. It also meant ‘hair, animal fur’ and even ‘nape’. From hair to votes: think on that when you are tearing out your hair over who to vote for!

So where did it come from? The answer is that it is a Germanic word, but it did not come from Old English. There is a word in Old English that looks similar; pól, but it means ‘pool’, and has nothing to do with poll. Instead, we can trace it to Middle Dutch pol or polle, meaning ‘head, top’. Dutch, it would seem, got the word from Proto-Germanic, where the proposed root is *pullaz, meaning ‘head, top’ and posssibly also ’round object’.

This in turn would have come from Proto-Indo-European, and here is where there is a little twist in the tale. It derives from the root *bolno, which meant ’round object, bubble’. This root is itself derived from another Proto-Indo-European root, *bhel-, meaning ‘blow, swell’ – think of how a bubble swells to see how the sense extended. This is where there is an intriguing note. What else derives from *bhel? Among others, there are two words I shall pick out; bowl and blow. Both distant cousins of poll.



One point to consider in language is how much our pronunciation is influenced by spelling, or by other words that sound similar enough to be confusing. I often think it would be interesting to come back in three hundred years and see how far the language has gone, considerng that we are living in a time of unprecedented wideespread literacy.

In this word, dent, we have a prime example of a word that has been influenced by other lexical items that appear similar but have entirely different roots. On first glance, you might think that it looks similar to the first element in dentist, dental, denture, etc. Could it be from the Latin word for ‘tooth’?

The modern version of the word may indeed have been influenced by Latin dens (the genitive form of the word is dentis), and we can see some effects of that influence in texts from the 14th century. Let’s take a look at these two lines, that come one after the other, from Sir Degarre, a Middle English Romance dating to 1330.

In þe helm he set his dent.

In þe sscheld he set his dint.

(He struck the helm,

He struck the shield.)

But wait. What’s going on here? No one said anything about striking did they? Well, that’s just it. Around 700 years ago, that is exactly what dent meant. A blow, a strike. Think about what might happen if you strike something soft, or even something hard with enough force. You might leave a dent.

Now take a look at the Middle English lines again. You may notice that dent is expressed as dent in one, but dint in the other. This is because the early Middle English word was dint, but there were dialectal variations starting to become more popular at that time, and one of these was dent.

Not only that, but the Latin word dentis had crept into English through other words, such as endenten, ‘to make notches’ (with the appearance of teeth-marks). These new additions to the languages started to affect the early Middle English word dint, as people, taking their cues from the ever more familiar dialect words, assumed that they were really part and parcel of the same word.

Let’s take a step back into Old English to see a little more of the word’s development. This line comes from Salomon and Saturn, a series of riddles and verse written in Old English, perhaps during the ninth century and the age of King Alfred.

Ne wyrnaþ deórra dynta

(They do not spare severe blows).

You can see that here the word is dynt, or dynta in this plural form. It tends to be found in the context of fighting and combat. There is a cognate word in Old Norse, dyntr, which also meant ‘blow’ and also ‘kick’. A root has been proposed in Proto-Germanic; *duntiz, meaning ‘blow, strike’. An ultimate link with the source of the Latin word for tooth, dens, is not thought to be the case. The source for *duntiz is thought to be a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘strike, hit, blow’, and the proposal is *den- (the root for dens is *dent-). However, the Middle Englsh endenten I mentioned previously has given rise to indent in Modern English, so dens has certainly had its part to play outside of direct references to things affecting our teeth.


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).