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.

 

 

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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.

Alien

In recent years, with the popularity of science fiction books and films, this word has been used more and more in the context of “extra-terrestrial, being from another planet”. In British English, it is used only extremely rarely to mean ‘foreigner’, and there are references to this in popular culture at the expense of US English, where it continues to have this meaning; such as in the song by Sting Englishman in New York, where he sings “I’m an alien, I’m an Englishman in New York” precisely because it sounds strange to the British listener.

It is interesting that it should sound strange, as that is precisely what the word once meant. You can see it in the meaning of foreigner – a person from a strange country. And what is an extra-terrestrial if not a being from a strange planet?

It came into English during the fourteenth century. We can see a few examples of it where it is used in different contexts, with differing meanings. Our first example comes from Guy de Chauliac’s medical text dating from 1425 Grande Chirurgie.

If any man..falle fro hyȝnez &..seiþ aliene or straunge þinges , it is to suppose þat þe brayne..is hurt.

If anyone falls from a height and sees alien (peculiar) or strange things, it is to suppose that the brain is hurt.

In this example, the meaning of ‘alien’ is ‘odd, strange, peculiar’. Nothing to do with anything extraterrestrial or even from other countries. But if you think of it in terms of ‘foreign to me’, you can see how the sense developed.

Another example, also from the same time period, is in the Wycliffite Bible.

Bifore me þou schalt not haue noon alien goddis.

Before me thou shalt not have any alien (foreign) gods

In this context, the word is used to mean ‘from another place, foreign’. So you can see that during the fifteenth century, it was used in several different ways.

But where did it come from? Well, it was borrowed into Middle English from Old French, where it also meant strange or foreign. But Old French is not the start of the tale: it borrowed the word from Latin alienus. In Latin it meant ‘foreign, strange’ but also ‘of someone else, belonging to someone else’ – and it is not a large stretch to see that ‘of someone else’ can become ‘of another country’. It was formed from the Latin adverb alius, which meant ‘another, other, different’.

From Latin we go back to Proto-Indo-European *al- which would have meant ‘other’ or ‘beyond’ (elsewhere). We can also see words formed from this root in Greek, such as άλλος [allos], meaning ‘other, another’ or the adverb αλλιώς [allios], meaning ‘otherwise’.

Birth

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.

Tongue

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.

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.