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.


This is dedicated to Lynn

Yesterday I heard that my articles containing phrasal verbs were very much appreciated. I stepped up to the challenge straight away, barely missing a step, to write this.

In step with what has gone before, I thought to myself, it is easy, after all, to tread in one’s own steps! It is falling into step that poses more of a challenge, although once you are in step, it is simply a matter of habit to keep step, rather than breaking step.

When dancing, you must keep in step, and it is also a good idea to mind your step to avoid stepping on people’s toes. You should also mind your step in a new workplace when you are not sure how to behave, especially when you have the feeling that everyone else is one step ahead. If they give you knowing glances and raised eyebrows as you step into the room, this could make you feel out of step, but if you take a step back, you might see things differently.

You might however realise that you are in fact out of step and everyone else is thinking along different lines, perhaps stepping in a different direction. This seems to happen often in politics – the main candidate is out of step with the younger generation and has to watch her step to avoid causing offence, as, step by step, she gets closer to stepping into office.

Stepping into the shoes of the Prime Minister is not an easy task, and one can only hope you won’t be forced to step down, or indeed step aside, having climbed the steps to such a position. One you are there, it is time to step up to the plate. But take your time: there is no need to step on it!


I doubt there are many animals that drink milk from other species, but it seems that we have been doing so for a very long time. The word itself is certainly ancient.

If we go back to Middle English, we can find several different forms of the word. It was variously spelt milc, meolc, melc, melk and even the familiar milk. Not much change from that period up until the present day, it would seem.

There are still regions today where the vowel is pronounced more like /e/ than the standard /i:/ . Let’s take a look at an example from 1398. It has been taken from Trevisa’s translation from Latin into English of Bartholomaeus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum, or On the Properties of Things:

Ivy..multiplieþ melk in geet.

(Ivy increases milk in goats).

Here, it has been written as melk. This version of the word is closer to the Old English forms meoluc and meolc and occasionally meoloce. Let’s take a look at an example from Old English:

Gáte geallan meng wið cú-meoluc

(Mingle goat’s gall with cow’s milk)

This is from Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of writings published in the 1800s, dating back to the late ninth century. Another example, this time from 1072, is from the Old English text Codex Exoniensis (or Exeter Book):

Mid lytle meolc wætere gemengedre

(With a little milk mixed with water)

So you can see that the word has not changed a great deal since that time. But where did it come from? Well, it has a number of cognates in other Germanic languages, such as German Milch, Dutch and Norwegian melk, Danish mælk, Swedish mjölk (from Old Norse mjolk). These have helped to trace the word back to Proto-Germanic and *meluk, with the same meaning as today’s word.

We can take a further step back in time and trace *meluk to the Proto-Indo-European root *melg-, meaning ‘wipe, rub off, stroke’. This would have developed in sense through the hand motion needed when milking an animal. It has a modern cognate today in Greek; αρμέγω [armego], which means ‘to milk (an animal)’.

It is also cognate with Latin mulgere, which meant ‘to milk’, and this is an interesting connection, as ‘emulsion’ is derived from mulgere, via French into English. This means that milk and emulsion are distant cousins!


In the spirit of Easter, I have decided to look at the animal that has traditionally been on the table at this time. Lambs have long featured in Christian symbolism, from sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament, to Christ as the Lamb of God.

However, our focus today is on the word in English. It is an intriguing tale. Today the word is lamb, and in Old English, it was also lamb, or also lambe, as you will see in the example. Why should this be intriguing, you might wonder.

Well, the thing is that despite its ancient and modern forms being the same, if we go to the intervening period of Middle English, we will find a difference. Let’s take this example from 1398. It comes from Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De Proprietatibus RerumOn the Properties of things. I have mentioned this work before – it is a kind of early encyclopaedia.

          Among alle the bestes of þe erþe, þe lomb is þe most Innocent, softe, and mylde.

Among all the beasts of the earth, the lamb is the most innocent, soft and mild.

As you can see in this example, lamb is lomb. It also appears in Middle English as lombbe, loumbe, lomp, lomber. Occasionally, it is also lambre, lambur, lamp. Does the frequent appearance of the /r/ suggest a pronunciation that crept into Middle English, different from Old English, but that was lost again before the modern era? Read on and find out!

Now let’s look at our example from Old English. This comes from the Homilies of Aelfric, dating to around 990.

          Hé gefullode ðone wulf and geworhte tó lambe

          He baptised the wolf and made it a lamb

The word in this example looks more like what we recognize today. What does this mean? Does it suggest that either the word went through a circle in terms of pronunciation, and gradually returned to the starting point of Old English, or that it remained constant in some dialects of English, and those were the versions that prevailed?

Well, things are not so simple. The plural in Old English was lomberu. This provides us both with the /r/ and the /o/ vowel and it is not hard to imagine how a plural form might come to be used in the singular.

Can we trace the word further back in time? Well, we can, but not very far. A form has been proposed in Proto-Germanic*lambaz. There are cognates in other Germanic languages, such as Dutch and German, that help to reconstruct this form. But there are no known cognates outside the Germanic languages, and it doesn’t seem to be related to another recognizable root.


I was very surprised recently when someone asked me why this word is used in other languages. “Obviously,” the speaker said, “they took it from English!” I thought at first that this had to be a joke, but no. It was completely serious.

The word problem in this form is indeed English today, just as many other words that started out in other languages are also English. But it did not originate in English. We find our earliest references for it in English in the 14th century, in Middle English. This example is taken from the Wycliffite Bible, from 1382:

Þei seidyn to þe wif of Sampson, ‘fage to þi man & moeue hym þat he schewe to þee what betokneþ þe probleme (Judg.14.15)

They said to Sampson’s wife “go to your husband and get him to show you what the problem signifies.”

As you can see, its form here is more or less the same as today: probleme. But apart from its modern meaning, it could also mean a riddle, a mathematical problem, a puzzle, a difficulty or a scientific question that invited investigation. In this respect, it has changed.

The Middle English word came from Old French problème, the same form as in Modern French today. It was contributed to French by Latin, from the form problema, which in turn came from the Greek πρόβλημα – it is a bone of contention as to whether this should be pronounced /provlima/ as in Modern Greek, or /problima/. Unfortunately, there are no native speakers of Ancient Greek left around to ask!

Now, let’s examine the components of the word. It is made up of two elements: προ + βλήμα (pro + blima). The first element is seen in a number of other words, and means “front, forward, before”. Moving onto the second part of the word, we find that it comes from a verb: βάλλω. This is the source of another word that we readily recognize in English: ballistics. This might give you a clue as to what it meant, as it was ‘throw’. (In Modern Greek it means ‘put, place’.)

So in problem we have “thing that is thrown forward”. This could indeed be a problem in its modern sense! And it is one of those words that has travelled around the world, with examples such as French problème, Italian problema, Russian проблема, Welsh problem, to name but a few.


This post is dedicated to Robyn and Daz

No longer merely a humble eating or cooking implement, the spoon also has its place in the world of those suffering from chronic illnesses as the Spoon Theory becomes more popular.

Perhaps this will affect the meaning of the word in the future. But here we shall deal more with the past and the origins of the word.

In Middle English we can find it in various forms, such as spon, spoun, spun, spones and occasionally even spoon. But things are not as clear cut as you might at first think. It was not used simply to refer to an eating tool. Consider this example from 1450, taken from A Treatise on Horses, a Late Middle English text by Anne Charlotte Svinhufvud;

          Take a drie stikke of wyþi or of hasel & þwyte þer-on longe sponus

Take a stick of willow or of hazel and whittle to a long sliver

Here, the meaning is clearly nothing to do with its current counterpart! But it did also mean ‘spoon’ in the current sense in Middle English, as in this example from 1395, to be found in Chaucer’s Squire’s Prologue:

a ful long spoon That shal ete with a feend.

So the word had more than one meaning, and it seems likely that the one arose from the other. Spoons as tools for eating or cooking were made of wood, and may have originally just been seen as long slivers – perhaps the earliest ones were like long, flat spatulas. Their shape evolved, but the name for them had already become settled.

This theory gains even more weight when we see how the word was used in Old English. This quote comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Baedae Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum), which is thought to have been completed in 731:

          Monige of ðam treówe ðæs hálgan Cristes mǽles spónas and sceafþan nimaþ

Many are used to chip small slivers from the wood of the holy cross

The other theory is that the meaning in common use today may have evolved from Old Norse sponn, which also meant spoon. However, the Old Norse word was very much like the Middle English word in that it meant ‘chip, splinter, sliver’ in addition to ‘spoon’, so it is very hard to say today whether the Old English word spon evolved the extra sense independently, or whether it was influenced by Old Norse. In any case, the Old Norse and Old English words are cognates, both coming from the Proto-Germanic root *spenu-, which may have meant “wooden chip/ splinter”.

This can be further traced back to Proto-Indo-European and the root *spe-, which would have meant ‘long flat piece of wood, splinter’. Possible cognates of this can be found in Greek. The word σπαθή [spathe] which in Modern Greek means ‘sword’, but used to be ‘spade’ is one, and another possibility is σφήνα [sfina], which means ‘wedge’. However, these possible connections are not universally accepted. If correct, it would make ‘spade’ a cognate of ‘spoon’!