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.