Oboe

A little foray into music today, with a look at a woodwind instrument: the oboe.

The current version of the word, oboe, came into English in around 1724. It was adopted from the Italian, with the word taken exactly as it was in that language; oboe; and subsequently given an anglicised pronunciation. Italy is known for its music, and indeed Italian terms are used on written music, so this may seem very logical.

But in fact, the story does not end there. The Italians did not develop the word oboe by themselves. It is a rendition of the sound of the French word, an attempt to spell the French phonetically according to Italian norms. And the Middle French word is hautbois. You can see it in this charming traditional Christmas carol in the second line of the refrain:

Il est né le divin enfant,

Jouez hautbois, résonnez musettes!

Il est né le divin enfant,

Chantons tous son avènement!

The significant point about the word hautbois from the perspective of English is that it was also borrowed into English before the Italian adaptation oboe. It was rendered as hautboy, and we can see some famous examples in Shakespeare. Act 1 Scene 7 of Macbeth opens with the words:

Hautboys and torches. Enter, and pass over.

There are at least two other examples in the same play, used to create ominous effect.

Going back now to hautbois, we can easily split the word into two parts: haut and bois. The first part, haut, means ‘high’ or even ‘high-pitched’. It was the same in Old French, with the 11th century using haut, but it came from Latin altus, which meant ‘high’ or ‘tall’, as indeed alto does today in modern Italian. From Latin, we trace it back to a Proto-Indo-European root, *al-, which is thought to have meant ‘grow, nourish’. Evidence of this root can be seen in words such as adult, elder and old, to name but a few.

Now let’s examine the second part of hautbois: bois.This word meant and still means ‘wood’. It is cognate with the English word ‘bush‘, and is thought to be of Germanic origin, coming into French through Frankish. The Latin word boscus does not appear until the medieval period, and is assumed to be a Latinisation of the Germanic word.

So this means that ‘oboe‘ is actually ‘high-wood’; a reference to its musical register among other woodwind instruments.

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Cucumber

This post is dedicated to Kelly.

 

A summer salad including cucumbers is a popular addition to the table, and it seems that this has long been the case; there are references to cucumbers in some of the earliest writing in English. Before you assume, however, that this means the word comes from Old English and a Germanic route, I should point out that there are references to the vegetable in early texts, but not necessarily under the same name.

Let’s start by taking a look at Middle English. We can find a small variety of forms, such as cucomer, cocumer, cucumerber, kikombre and also the familiar-looking cucumber. I have chosen this rather intriguing reference from 1440:

Tak brok grese..& þe leues of cucumerbers.

(Take badger fat and the leaves of cucumbers).

This has been taken from the Thornton Medical Book, a fifteenth century transcription by Yorkshire landowner Robert Thornton of earlier texts from London and Lincolnshire. You may be raising your eyebrows wondering what on earth the badger fat was for, and what he concoction was supposed to heal, but I am afraid I am going to disappoint you. Our interest in this instance is in the word for the cucumber.

The word came into English in the fourteenth century. As was the case with a large number of other words adopted at a smilar time, it came from Old French. The term in French was cocombre (which can be compared with Modern French concombre; similarly very little changed). Old French took the word from  Latin cucumerem, which comes from the nominative form cucumis, meaning, guess what; ‘cucumber’. This Latin word is also the source of words in a number of other European languages, such as Italian cocomero, meaning ‘watermelon’, Spanish cohombro, which means ‘cucumber’, Portuguese and Spanish cogombro, also meaning ‘cucumber’.

We cannot trace the word any further into the past, except to say that it does not appear to have come from Proto-Indo-European, and may be from a Mediterranean language predating the Italic languages in the region.

Now, you will recall that I said that there is mention of cucumbers in some of the earliest texts in English. This of course means that they can be found before the fourteenth century and the advent of the word ‘cucumber’. In earlier forms of English, they are known by a different name. Let’s take a look.

Cúciíméres, ðæt synd eorþæppla

Cuciimeres, that are cucumbers.

This line comes from the Anglo-Saxon version of the Book of Numbers, dating to the ninth century. If you look carefully, you will notice that the English word used is eorþæppla, which literally means ‘earth-apples’. I rather like this term, and if you refer to the entry on apple, you will see that apple was a general word used for fruit and not just the specific fruit it is used for today.

On Dancing and Ballet

Dance

If there is one thing that is common to human societies around the globe, it is dance in one form or another. Jane Austen observed this in her novel Pride and Prejudice, where Mr Darcy says “Every savage can dance.”

This modern word for the activity appears to be similar in a number of other languages: French has danser, Spanish danzar, Italian danzare, Swedish dansa and German uses tanzen. It seems unlikely that this is coincidental, and indeed it is not. All of these words come from the same source: Old French dancier. It is thought that the strong French influence in his area of culture helped to popularise the word and cement it in people’s vocabularies.

But you would be mistaken if you thought that this was a recent phenomenon. French influence on the arts did not begin with the Renaissance, and was not a feature of the French Revolution. Let’s take a look at a quote from a Middle English text dating to 1395.

How koude I daunce to an harpe smale..

Whan I had dronke a draughte of swete wyn!

(How could I dance to a small harp,

When I had drunk a draught of sweet wine!)

This is taken from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; more specifically from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. Chaucer did not write in some arcane language or obscure dialect – this was the language of the people. So already at the end of the 14th century, this was the generally understood word in this context.

The origins of the word beyond Old French are uncertain. One theory is that it may be related to an Old Frisian word, dintje, meaning ‘tremble’, and that is probably from a Frankish root.

Before the advent of the French word in English, did people not dance? Of course they did. But previously, in Old English, they called it sealtian or saltian; a word which derived from the Latin saltare, meaning ‘jump’ or ‘dance’. Today in modern Italian, saltare means ‘jump’.

Ballet

Not to be neglected at this point is the other word associated with dancing: ballet. In modern English, ballet has come to be associated with a specific form of dance, but this has not always been the case. Indeed, in modern Italian, there is another word for dance: ballare; a word that does not refer solely to ballet.

The English version of the word, ballet, came from French. This was not, however, its starting point. Ballet derived from Italian balletto, which is the diminutive form of ballo, the noun ‘dance’. The noun is easy to trace from the verb ballare from Late Latin.

So does this mean that the word is of Latin origins? Not so fast. Latin took the word from Greek βαλλίζω [ballizo/ vallizo], which meant ‘dance, jump’. (The word means ‘put, place’ in modern or Demotic Greek). This is where we get to my favourite part: ballizo derives from βάλλω [ballo/ vallo]. This did not mean ‘dance’. Instead, it meant ‘to throw’, and it came from Proto-Indo-European root *gwel-, also meaning ‘throw’.

How did ‘throw’ come to mean ‘dance’? If you bring to mind some of the more energetic forms of dance, you can imagine how they might be seen as throwing your body around, or throwing out limbs and so forth. But that is not all.

Let’s go back to βάλλω for a moment. Ballet is not the only word to ultimately derive from here. ‘Ball‘ in the sense of ‘organised dance’ is from this root, as you might expect. Another is ‘ballad‘, the original sense of which was ‘song to be danced to’. But there is also a word with a very different meaning, which you might guess if you look at the meaning of βάλλω in Greek; ‘to throw’. The word ‘ballistics‘ is also from this source, the meaning being ‘throwing missiles’.

Finally, the second element in ‘hyperbole‘, the ‘bole‘ is also from βάλλω, making the literal meaning of hyperbole ‘to overthrow’.

Leek

There are many recipes for the humble leek; from pies to soups to risottos and much more. It is even an emblem of Wales, and its popularity has long been established.

So it is unsurprising that it should appear in many forms in Middle English in which we see lēk, lec, leike, leick, leok, lī̆k, leac and other similar spellings. The common feature to all is the presence of /l/ and /k/ phonemes.

We have an example from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from 1389:

Wel loued he garlek, oynons, and lekes

(He greatly loved garlic, onions and leeks).

In this particular quote, all the words are easily recognisable to speakers of Modern English. But let’s compare a sentence from 1150, a little earlier.

Nim piper and alewen and sealt and leaces sæd and meng eal togadere.

(Take pepper and aloe and salt and leek seed and mix it all together.)

This comes from the Peri Didaxeon, a twelfth century medical tract. The title is from Greek and means ‘On Teaching’. Already at this time, the language is harder to recognise.

Going back a little further, to Old English and the ninth century, Aelfric’s Grammar, a work designed to help students learn Latin, helpfully includes the example ðis leác hoc porrum (this leek).

Following on from that, there is a quote from Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of works in Old English also from the ninth century, but published in the eighteenth century.

Ðæt greáta cráuleác; nim ðes leáces heáfda

(the great crow-garlic, to take the chief of leeks)

There are cognates of the word in other Germanic languages, such as Old Norse laukr, meaning leek or garlic; Modern Icelandic leki – ‘leek’; Danish løg, Swedish lök, meaning ‘onion’; Dutch look, meaning ‘leek’. Old Saxon had lok; Modern German gives us Lauch. All of these point to a root in Proto-Germanic: *lauka.

Unfortunately, this is where our trail ends. There are no indications of another source, and words in Finnish (laukka), Russian (luk) and other Slavic sources appear to have been borrowed from Germanic. Suggestions that it may be related to ‘lick’ cannot be supported.

Swellings and Seals: On the Origins of Bill

Well, here it is. Bill. Like it or not, we all have them, we all think about paying them.

I, of course, am no exception. Several kind people have asked me recently why I have been producing fewer articles for this blog. The main reason is that I do not receive an income from here, and I have bills to pay. Much as I would like to spend my time writing more and more articles, I have to do other work that actually pays. If you would like to help enable me to produce more articles here, please support my books; fiction and non-fiction.

Now, onto the matter of the etymology of bill.

If you look in the dictionary, you will find several definitions for the word ‘bill’. It could be a bill in parliament; a duck’s bill; a bill to be paid; a slang term for the police, as well as other usages.

Here we are not looking at the duck’s bill, which has another origin, but rather at bill in the other senses, which are all related.

The meaning ‘list’ is the one that has developed to give rise to the others. If you think about a parliamentary bill, it tends to be written out as a list of points; and the same goes for a bill to be paid. So it is not hard to see how the meaning tranferred.

In this spirit, our first example is from the Rolls of Parliament from 1444, where we find the observation:

They will delyver no Billes to the Merchauntz

I scarcely need to include a translation into Modern English, and indeed I have no intention of doing so! But what does bill mean here? Is it a list or a statement of payment? The answer is it could be either. A list of goods for the merchants, that would then be priced as a statement of how much to pay.

Compare this with a quote in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale Prologue from 1395, continuing the theme with a merchant.

His bille,

in which that he ywriten hadde his wille.

(His formal document,

In which he had written his will)

The modern translation sounds a bit less poetic, and probably with a bit of effort that could be changed. But notice the meaning here. Bill is used to mean ‘formal document’. It is not because this is the starting point of the word; even at that time, it was already used with several meanings. See this reference from around the same time – in this case 1404 – from the Testamenta Eboracensia (Wills registered at York).

Ye shall fynde a bille closed wyth ynne this of alle the trewe dettes that ben aught to me.

(You shall find enclosed a list of all the debts owed to me.)

Here, the meaning is ‘list’. So we can see that the meanings were concurrent. But what of the source of bill before that time? It came via Anglo-French bille, itself probably an adaptation of anglicised Latin billa, meaning ‘list’. This form was derived from Medieval Latin bulla, which meant ‘decree, sealed document’.

I personally like the next step in our linguistic path. Classical Latin used bulla somewhat differently. It meant ’round swelling’ – and by extension bubble, a stud on a door and a type of Etruscan amulet worn around the neck. The word was probably used for the second two as they were round and perhaps stuck out like something swollen. So how on earth did this come to mean ‘list, official document’?

The answer lies with the amulet. A seal was a round thing often worn as a piece of jewellery and it didn’t take long for bulla to move from ‘Etruscan amulet’ to ‘large round official piece of jewellery’ to ‘seal’. And from the seal to the document that it was used to seal. And from there? Well, what are official documents if not lists of one kind or another?

Three Quotes for Three Days Part 2

Thanks to Sharon Brownlie and Eric Lahti for nominating me for the “Three Quotes for Three Days” challenge.
The rules of the challenge are:
Three quotes for three days.
Three nominees each day (no repetition).
Thank the person who nominated you.
Inform the nominees.

 

Today’s quote comes from a figure who has been applauded and shunned, feted and faced controversy. It is of course Germaine Greer. But in this case, there is no controversy.

“Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit; reminders of order, calm and continuity; lakes of mental energy; neither warm nor cold; light nor dark.”

I nominate:

Max Power

Rebecca Pintre

Nathan G K

Three Quotes for Three Days

Thanks to Sharon Brownlie and Eric Lahti for nominating me for the “Three Quotes for Three Days” challenge.
The rules of the challenge are:
Three quotes for three days.
Three nominees each day (no repetition).
Thank the person who nominated you.
Inform the nominees.

This is a language blog, and so the quotes have to reflect that. Today’s quote is from George Orwell.

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

I nominate:

Lynn Schreiber

Liz Doran

Samantha Gouldson