So used are we to our modern windows, with their glass, sometimes with double glazing; a real protection from the elements while still providing the chance to look outside, that it can be easy to forget that this version of a window is so modern, so recent in our history.
However, our linguistic history and our glass making history are not the same thing, and in this case, the word existed long before modern glazing techniques and was used to refer to an opening in the wall that was empty of glass, but allowed light to come in, or a hole in the roof.
If we examine the word window, we might think that at least the first element of it can also be easily recognised in another word; wind. We shall examine it now and see that this is indeed a correct association.
If we go back about 500 years, there are many, many references to ‘window’. I have chosen one such from the Towneley Plays, a series of mystery plays based on the Bible and performed in and around Wakefield. These date to around 1500.
Oone cubite on hight
A wyndo shal thou make.
(One cubit high,
You shall make a window.)
It seems almost a shame to render these quotes into modern English and thereby lose the rhythm and metre of the original. But here we are concentrating on ‘window’ rather than literary merit. Here you may see the word ‘wyndo‘, one of a large number of spellings used for our word, including windou, wintdouwe, wendou, wendowe and windewe. In all cases, while there is a lot of variation in the second element of the word, the first part may vary from /e/ to /i/ sounds but largely remain recognisable.
Going back a little further, we can find one of the earliest examples of the word in English in Layamon’s Brut, or the Chronicle of Britain. This is a Middle English poem which was compiled by Layamon, a priest. It dates to about 1190.
Bitwxen twam windewen
(Between two windows)
But why should this be one of the earliest examples? Were there no windows before this time? Of course there were, and we can see openings in the walls on buildings constructed earlier than that. But in earlier texts, another word was used, or in fact two other words: eagþyrl and eagduru. These are rather lovely words from Old English, meaning, as they do, ‘eye-hole’ and ‘eye-door’.
So why did our linguistic forebears stop using these words from Old English, and where did ‘window’ come from?
It came from Old Norse, which means it arrived in English via the Vikings, the Danes. For them, the word was vindauga, which was made up of vindr; ‘wind’ and auga; ‘eye’. So for them, a window was an eye on to the wind. Given the weather that is so common in England, and also in Denmark and other areas settled by speakers of Old Norse, I suppose we should count ourselves lucky not to be talking of the ‘rain-eye’.