Fairy, Faerie and Sylva Fae

In today’s blog, we are highlighting a wonderful children’s author, whose name and work reflect the word we are looking at. Sylva Fae writes for young children, and there are many examples of fairy, or indeed faerie, folk in her latest book, Elfabet.

Fairy

 

Here is an interesting word, a nice example of how perceptions can change. These days, we may think of fairies and our minds go to fairytales, to cute little creatures with wings and wands, the stuff of children’s films and stories, such as in Sylva Fae’s books.

But this has not always been the case, and fairies have also been viewed as terrifying beings. Certainly, the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are nothing like the Tinkerbells of Disney.

So what of the origin of the word? Even though people have believed in supernatural beings for centuries, fairy was not the original word preferred to refer to such beings in English, and does not trace its origins back to Old English, as prior to adopting fairy, people used other words, such as elf.

 

The word came into English in the 1300s, from Old French. It meant both ‘supernatural being’ and ‘home/ country of supernatural beings’. There were a number of spellings in Middle English, such as fayri, faeri, feyry, fairi, and so on.

Let’s take a look at an example of it from John Lydgate‘s work King Henry VI’s Triumphal Entry into London, dating to 1435

Twoo olde men..dydde appere lyke ffolkes off ffeyrye.

(Two old men did appear, like folks of fairy).

In this case, it is the country that is referred to with the word ‘fairy’, and indeed faerie in Old French appears to have been most common with this meaning. Old French developed the word from Latin fata, which meant the Fates, or the goddesses of destiny. The English word fate obviously comes from the same source, making it a cognate of fairy.

But we can do better than this. We can trace the word back further. The Latin word fata is the plural of fatum, which literally means “utterance”. It was formed from fari, which means “utter”. Thus, fate is “that which is uttered” (the implication being that it is the gods who are doing the uttering!). This Latin meaning helps us to trace the word to its earlier source in Proto-Indo-European. It comes from the root *bha-, meaning ‘speak, say’. Cognates such as Sanskrit bhanati, ‘speaks’, Old English ben ‘prayer, request’, English ban, Greek φωνή [foni] ‘voice, sound’ and others attest to this root.

Did you notice the modern English word? Yes. Ban is a distant cognate of fairy. Make of that what you will.

One final note: what of elf? Well, this is the word that was used previously, before fairy entered the language, and continued alongside it. Elf comes from Old English elf, which in some dialects of Old English was aelf. It referred to a powerful supernatural being. It derives from Proto Germanic *albiz, and there are cognates in several other Germanic languages. We can’t be sure of the origins, but one theory is that it derives from Proto-Indo-European *albho, meaning ‘white’, and developed in reference to the pale or shining skin these beings were supposed to have. This theory is supported by the Old English word for ‘swan’ – elfet, meaning ‘white bird’.

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Rainbow

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Continuing to feature the etymology of book titles: this article is in association with Mom’s Favorite Reads.

Mom’s Favorite Reads is an international community of readers and authors. Check out their web page above! Today’s author spotlight is on: Sylva Fae.

rainbow

What a marvellous image is conjured by this word: rainbow. We think of colour and light, and it is a cheerful thought, despite the rain.

Given the miserable weather on the island where English arose, it comes as no suprise that this word has been in the language for a very long time. Let’s take a look at its passage through the centuries. We shall go first to 1450, to that stage of our language known as Middle English. At a distance of so many centuries, you might reasonably expect the word to be different, so you will be disappointed in our quote from the Middle English translation of Macer Floridus de Viribus Herbarum, originally a hexameter poem in Latin.

for his floures hauyn colour like þe reinbowe.

[For his flowers have colour like the rainbow.]

Aside from the very small difference in spelling, the word is very familiar and easily recognisable. But we won’t stop there. Let’s take a small leap a little further back into Middle English, to 1387, where we find John Trevisa’s Translation of the ‘Polychronicon‘ of Ranulph Higden.

if þat stoon is i-holde aʒenst þe sonne, it schal schape a reynbowe

[If that stone is held against the sun, it shall shape a rainbow.]

Again, the only major difference is in the spelling. I find it rather reassuring that this sentence, written so long ago, could easily be heard today. Underneath all our modern technology, we are still the same, and can still enjoy the pretty patterns caused by the sun striking a stone. But let’s return to our word. We shall now track it back into Old English, where we have two quotes from the 7th century. The first is from the Anglo Saxon version of Genesis:

Ic sette mínne rénbogan on wolcnum

[I set my rainbow on the clouds]

Here the word is renboga, here used in the accusative form as renbogan. You can see it in the nominative in our final quote, from a work by Caedmon:

rénboga cymþ of ðam sunbeáme and of wǽtum wolcne

[The rainbow comes of the sunbeams and of wet clouds.]

The language is now much less familiar, and more difficult for your average speaker of Modern English to understand, especially when compared with the Middle English version. But the word ‘rainbow‘ is not radically different. We can find cognates of it in other Germanic languages: Swedish regenbåge, Dutch regenboog, German Regenbogen. Having established that this is a Germanic word, we shall now split it easily into two parts: rain + bow.

The first part means, you’ve guessed it, rain. It derives from the Proto-Germanic root *regna, also meaning rain, and, as with the compound word, there are cognates in many other Germanic languages. The second part, bow, comes from Old English boga, the second element in renboga in the quotes above. This word meant bow, as in the weapon used for archery, but also anything bent or curved or arched: hence its use for rainbow, in reference to the shape. It derives from Proto-Germanic *bugon, which in turn is from the Proto-Indo-European root *bheug-, meaing ‘to bend’. And here comes the final twist in our tale: a word that also derives ultimately from *bheug-, and is thus a cognate of ‘bow’ is something you might find on your plate: bagel.

rainbow monsters

The inspiration for today’s article comes from Sylva Fae with her book Rainbow Monsters, available here.

 

 

Saving Grace

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A new feature on the blog: this article is in association with Mom’s Favorite Reads.

Mom’s Favorite Reads is an international community of readers and authors. Check out their web page above! Today’s author spotlight is on: Hannah Howe

Saving Grace

I expect you have all heard this expression at one time or another; it means “the thing that in some way mitigates all the negative points”. But where does it come from?

It’s actually quite simple to get to the origin of this phrase. But we like things to be a little more challenging. So, we are going to go first to the etymology of the word ‘grace’, and from there to the expression.

If you speak a Romance language, or even if you have just heard the Italian or Spanish words for ‘thank you’, then it may come as no surprise that ‘grace’ derives from Latin. Specifically, it comes from gratia, which meant ‘favour, positive quality, gratitude’. You can see how in Italian and Spanish it has developed to mean ‘thank you’. Gratia derives from gratus, which, unsurprisingly, meant ‘pleasing, nice’ and other similar things. It came into Middle English via Old French some time during the 12th century, and in Old French, Latin gratia had already become grace, and had taken on a religious significance; the grace of God, the positive favour granted by God to human beings.

Now you will understand why we looked first at ‘grace‘. Our expression, saving grace, derives from the religious usage of the word. According to Christianity, it is by God’s grace that we are saved, God’s special favour redeems us despite all our faults and flaws. And that, of course, is exactly how the expression is used: something becomes acceptable despite its flaws; it has a grace that saves it.

If we step back in time, we find that originally, when the expression was used in a non-religious context, people spoke of a ‘helping grace’, as only God could save. Thus we find:

oure helpyng grace muste… be seid to be ij qualitees of which oon schal be in oure resoun to tech

[Our helping grace must be said to be in qualities, of which one is our mental capacity to teach.]

(Reginald Pecock, The Rule of Christian Religion, 1443)

On an interesting note, gratus is thought to have evolved from Proto-Indo-European root *gwreto, itself from *gwere, ‘to favour, to be pleasing’. This is also the source of the word ‘agree’, coming from the sense ‘something pleasing’, which makes us sound rather smug when we agree!

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Saving Grace is also the title of a fabulous thriller by Hannah Howe, which exploits the expression for a marvellous pun. Available here.