Here is a word that applies to all of us without exception. No matter where or how, we have all been born: we have all had a birth.

So where does the word come from? Is it a Latin root, through French, perhaps. Well, no, in French it is naissance. Is it from Greek? In Greek, birth is γεννα [genna] or τοκετός [toketos]. So we will have to look elsewhere.

Let’s start by going back to Middle English. Here we may find various spellings, including bird, burd, burth, borth and byrd as well as the much more familiar birth. We have a nice example in On the Properties of Things, John Trevisa’s translation from Latin of Bartholomaeus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum, dating to 1398.

If defnes be in birþe, it is incurable.

Deafness from birth is incurable.


The words and sentiment are all familiar and easy to understand. Some parts of the human experience have changed very little or not at all over the centuries it seems. Going back slightly earlier, to 1225, we have a quote from Old English Homilies at Trinity College:

On þe ehteðe dai efter his burþe

On the eighth day afer his birth

Does this bring us any closer to the origin of the word? Well, birþe and burþe are alternate spellings of the same word, and it derives from Old Norse *byrðr, also meaning ‘birth’. However, this is not where the tale ends. The Old Norse word was easily adopted by English speakers, as it was cognate with and similar to the word that had previously been used: Old English gebyrd. Here is an example from the Codex Exoniensis, a tenth century collection of poetry in Old English:

Bearnes þurh gebyrde

through the birth of a child

Very similar here in the Anglo Saxon Gospels, from a similar time frame:

Cennan bearn mid gebyrdum

to bring forth children by birth

The interesting thing is that both gybyrd and *byrðr derive from the same place: Proto-Germanic *gaburthis, which also gave rise to Dutch geboorte and German Geburt. This in turn came from Proto-Indo-European *bhrto, which is thought to be the past participle root of *bher, meaning ‘to bear children’ or ‘to carry’. Is this the end of our tale? Not quite. This root in Proto-Indo-European is also thought to be the source of numerous other words in Greek, including the words for mare (possibly as a horse that bears a load), bring, and coffin. Somehow it seems fitting that coffin and birth are linked, albeit in different languages: it highlights the circle of life.



Never one to pass up on the opportunity to talk about language, I was only too happy to accede to the request of one of my readers and write about ‘tongue’. This word has a double meaning as the organ in the mouth and also ‘language’. Most apt for the purposes of this blog, I feel.

On seeing the spelling of the word, with the -gue ending, you may be forgiven for wondering if it derives from French, as this continues to be a common ending in that language. But spelling, as we have seen before, may be deceptive, and it seems that in this case the spelling does not reveal the origin. Indeed, in Middle English, it may be spelt variously tung, tong, tongge, tungen, tongan, among others.

If we take a look at how the word was used in Middle English, we can compare with today’s usage:

we gladly opyn oure tonge largely forto speke

We gladly use our tongue, largely in order to speak


This is taken from A Deuout Treatyse Called the Tree and xii Frutes of the Holy Goost dating to 1460. You can see that while the turn of phrase may have moved on, the meaning of the word ‘tongue’ is the same. Going back a few hundred years, to Early Middle English in the twelfth century, we can see something similar:


Nim þisse wyrte leaf, leȝe under þa tungan

Take this leaf and place under the tongue


While I am not in the habit of placing leaves under my tongue, I can readily understand it, and it seems that the meaning of the word is unchanged. But where did it come from? Not, it would seem, from French, where the word is ‘langue‘. Instead, our answer lies in Old English, where we can find the form tunge (in the examples below it appears as ‘tungan‘ in the accusative and dative cases).


Ic hæfde ðe lætran tungan

I have a sluggish tongue

This comes from the Junius Manuscript, a collection of poetry in Old English telling the Biblical story of Exodus dating to around 930. Another example, from just a short period earlier:


mid tungan fácenfullíce dydon

they used the tongue deceitfully


This is from the Old English Psalterium, which was written some time during the late 800s. So it would appear that this word comes from a Germanic root, and indeed the theory is that it derives from Proto-Germanic *tungon, which would also be the source of Dutch tong, German Zunge, and others. The meaning remains the same – ‘tongue’ in the sense of both the organ and speech. Stepping back a little further, the proposed root in Proto-Indo-European is *dnghu, which would also have meant ‘tongue’.

A Place for Fun: On the Origins of School

Do you view school as a place of enjoyment? Is it the first place that pops into mind when you hear the word ‘fun’? This might seem like a strange question, but all will quickly become clear.

The word we use today to mean ‘place of learning/ teaching’ developed from a word in Old English, in which the word was scól. You may notice that the spelling is considerably different – they felt no need to put an H after the C. So why do we do that today, since the pronunciation would be the same without it?

The answer is that during the Renaissance, which was from the 14th to the 17th centuries, classical learning was very popular. By classical learning, people meant Latin and ancient Greek. People wanted to show off their scholarship, they wanted to display their knowledge of the origins of the word. So they put a C in ‘school’ to show their awareness that it came from Latin schola, which was borrowed originally from Greek σχολή [skhole].

The interesting thing is that in Latin, the word did not refer just to the place where people went to learn. It also meant ‘leisure time for learning’ as well as ‘debate, lecture’ and even ‘scholarly conversation’. So you can see that the meaning has narrowed down considerably over the centuries!

Let’s go now to the word in the original Greek: σχολή [skhole]. This word only came to mean what it does today by transferal, or association, if you prefer. It meant ‘spare time’ or also ‘leisure, rest, thing to do for fun’. So how on earth did it get from one meaning to the other? It is simple. In ancient Greece, learning was highly prized, and people would spend their spare time holding debates and discussions; this really was their idea of fun. Eventually, the word became associated less wih the activity and more with the place they went to carry it out. And as you can learn a lot through a discussion, especially with a knowledgeable person, the activity was seen more as learning than as ‘having fun’. Thus, the word was transferred from the activity to the place where it happened.

The word became extremely popular, and was borowed into many languages. It is used in French école, Spanish escuela, Welsh ysgol, Italian scuola, German Schule, Swedish skola as well as others. It seems a pity that it has lost its meaning of ‘leisure time activity’, but it is intriguing to note that there is still a word in Modern Greek today meaning ‘activity’ (ασχόληση [ascholisi]) which derives from σχολή. So who knows: if school is enjoyable, then perhaps this meaning will once again be associated with the word. Let’s hope the government gets the memo.


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.


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


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’.


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’.


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.