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


Hurrah! December is here. Christmas is approaching, celebration is in the air. Time to deck those halls with boughs of holly!


But wait. What is this holly we are using to decorate the home? Where does it come from? Not the plant, of course, for that you can find a botanical site. Here we shall look at the word itself.


You may be considering its resemblance to holy and wondering if they are related. Well, wonder no longer. I can put your mind at rest. There is no connection, and today’s similarities are purely coincidental.


Holly can easily be traced to Middle English, where, as you may by now have come to expect, there was a variety of spellings, such as holin, holinge, holun, holi, holli, holie and holien. This is not just because some are later than others, and the word had evolved, it is also a reflection of the non-standardised spellings.


This can be amply demonstrated if we compare these two examples. The first is from 1475, from a collection of English carols:


Holy hat berys, as rede as any rose.


(Holly has berries as red as any rose)


You may well recognize that particular carol. But setting that aside for the time being, let’s compare the word holly in this next example. It is from 1470, from the Works of Sir Thomas Malory.


He syghe hym sytte undir a tre of hooly.


(He saw him sit under a holly tree)


These examples are only five years apart, and you can easily see that the word has been spelt differently.


Now let’s continue tracing our word on its journey through time. We are still in the period of Middle English, but some 240 years earlier, leaping back to 1230 and a mention for holly in the Ancrene Wisse, also known as the Ancrene Riwle, a sort of manual for anchoresses.


Wið holin ne wið breres


(With holly or with brambles)


In this earlier example, holly still has its final /n/. This has carried over from Old English, as we shall see here, in this brief mention in the Codex Exoniensis (the Exeter Book), which dates to the 10th century.


Holen sceal in æled


(Holly shall to the fire)


Similarly, I found it as a compound noun, Holenleáfa, meaning ‘holly leaves’ in Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of early England, a collection of writings dating to the ninth century.


Can we trace it any further back, before Old English? We can indeed. German gives us Hulst, with the same word appearing in Dutch, from Old High German we take hulis, while Old Norse has hulfr. All of these have helped to find the root in the language that gave rise to all of those, known as Proto-Germanic, and the root in question is *hulin.


Perhaps you may be surprised to learn that this is cognate, or related to Middle Irish cuilenn and Welsh celyn. Try pronouncing ‘hulin’ with a heavy aspiration, or harsh breathing on the /h/, and it may be easier to see the connection.


All of these are thought to come from Proto-Indo-European root *kel-, meaning ‘to prick’; one glance at holly leaves will tell you why!


Finally, this brings me onto my own cause for celebration this Christmas: the publication of my book Christmas in Greece.




12299888_747767018662553_712728856_oContinuing the story of Lucy the InstaExplorer, this book transports young readers, pre-teens and young teens, into a magical season of traditions and festivities, as Lucy struggles to learn the language while discovering local Christmas folklore and sampling its delicacies.

Christmas in Greece is available here:

UK Customers

International Customers


Here is a word for everyone. Everyone? I hear you ask. Yes, everyone. There is nobody that doesn’t eat; therefore food is something for us all. The only issue is what flavour it will be.

But here we are not concerned with flavours, at least not for today. We are going to look at the word itself. Where did it come from? And what is its history?

We shall start with Middle English, just a step back from our language of today. Here we can find several forms: fọ̄de, vode, foyde, fude, fudde, and also the very easily recognisable foode. In Middle English, the word meant ‘food’, much as we understand it today, but also ‘fuel’, and it could be used to refer to wood put on a fire, for example. Still today, we may talk of feeding a fire.

Now let’s take a look at the word in context. Our first example is from the Middle English Genesis and Exodus and dates to 1325.

to fode and srud, to helpen ðe lif.

[to give food and clothe, to help the life.]

Here, ‘feed’ and ‘food’ are the same word; the noun and the verb are identical. Let’s take a look at a reference from the Hali Meidenhad, which is a homily from 1225.

Þu speke þruppe of monnes help to flutunge mid fode

[you spoke to the homestead of men, help to provide with food]

In this case, although the word is exactly the same in form, it is used as a noun rather than the verb of the previous example. It is clear that it is not far removed from our word of today. But what about taking a step further back in time? Are there greater changes?

Well, changes there are indeed, but not enormous ones. Having gone through Middle English, it does not take a lot to recognise the form the word had in Old English. This time, our example comes from The Homilies of Ælfric and dates to around 990.

Búton ðam gódspellícan fódan

[without the spiritual food]

In this example, the form is fódan. While this is not enormously different from the fode of Middle English, it may appear even closer when I point out that Old English used a grammatical case system since lost to us, and that the nominative form of the word was fóda. This may put you in mind of fodder, and indeed, this word is from the same root and as such is a cognate of food.

There are cognates in other languages in the Germanic family, such as Swedish föda, Danish föde, German Futter. All of these point the way to an earlier common form, Proto-Germanic *fodon.

As sounds develop and evolve over the centuries, one frequent adaptation is the /p/ becoming an /f/. The most obvious example of this that comes to mind is in the words father and pater, but the phenomenon can also be seen within the same language, such as with πτερά [ptera], the ancient Greek word for ‘wings’ becoming φτερά [ftera] in Modern Greek.

We see the same thing here, as the distant root of ‘food’ in Proto-Indo-European is thought to be *pat-, a /p/ sound rather than /f/. The meaning is pasture, feed, protect, guard. Cognates have been traced in words such as ‘pasture’, pastor, which would simply have meant ‘feeder’, Latin panis, meaning ‘bread’, Avestan pitu, meaning ‘food’, and others.


What images does this word call to mind? Hair styled in many different ways, perhaps. Dyed in bright colours, left naturally grey. Curly, straight, wavy. Completely shaved off, balding or thick and luxurious. There are many ways our hair can be.

But what of the word itself? Where does it come from?

We’ll start our journey with Middle English, and its enormous variety of spellings for this word: hẹ̄r, er, herre, heir, hier, hear, hær hor, har, and even the familiar hair. Our first example is from Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale, from 1375.

In his heeris al his strengthe lay.

Does it look familiar? The whole sentence is still very close to modern English. Even with the alternative spellings, the modern word is still recognizable in its predecessors.

Let’s compare it with an earlier example, this time taken from the period of the language known as Old English, some 300 years before Chaucer. This comes from The Homilies of Ælfric, an English monk and abbot.

Ne sceal eów beón forloren án hǽr of eówrum heáfde

[Not one hair of your head will be lost]

In case you are wondering where it is, the form of the word here is hǽr. I would say that it is still recognizable, and we can still see hair in this earlier form. There are cognates of the word in other Germanic languages, such as hǣr in West Saxon, hēr in other Saxon areas, har in Old Norse and Old German. Modern German and Dutch share the word Haar.

All these point to a common root in Proto Germanic, and the proposed term is *hæran or *khæran, simply meaning ‘hair’.

Sometimes it may seem odd that we are still using the same words with only minor differences that people used so many centuries ago. Personally, it makes me wonder what the language of the future will be like


I was inspired to research and write this by an article in The Miller’s Tale which I particularly enjoyed.


The quince may not be as well-known or as common in our society as the apple, but perhaps it is unfairly overlooked, as the Miller’s Tale article tells us in more detail.


But here our focus is on the word itself rather than the fruit. Where does this word come from?


It comes into English in the early 14th century. At that time there were many forms, such as coin, quoine, quin, coince, quoyn and even coven. The form quince was one version of the plural, but by no means the only one; coines, cones, and coinces could also be seen. In an age before the standardisation of spelling, these variations sometimes reflect the local dialect and pronunciation, and sometimes simply reflect the writer’s own interpretation of how the letters should be used.


We can find various references to the quince in Middle English: here is one from The Romaunt of the Rose, translated into English by Chaucer. It dates to around 1425.


Many homly trees ther were,

That peches, coynes, and apples beere.



The source for the Middle English word was Old French, in which the word was cooin. (Compare this with Modern French coing).


The word in Old French came from Vulgar Latin, from the term codoneum, a slightly altered version of the earlier Latin term cotoneum malum, which meant “quince apple” or “quince fruit”. The word for ‘apple’ was often extended in use to refer to other kinds of fruit.


Cotoneum malum most likely derived from cydonium malum, which in turn came from Greek: kydonia malon (κυδώνιον μάλον) or kydonion melon/ milon (κυδώνιον μήλον). This meant ‘apple of Kydonia’. You may very well be wondering what Kydonia is or was: the answer is simple. It was a city in ancient Crete, named for its mythical founder Kydon (Κύδων). It was located in what is modern Chania (Χανιά), and it was there that a variety of quince was grown that mainland Greeks regarded as superior: hence the adoption of the name.