Swellings and Seals: On the Origins of Bill

Well, here it is. Bill. Like it or not, we all have them, we all think about paying them.

I, of course, am no exception. Several kind people have asked me recently why I have been producing fewer articles for this blog. The main reason is that I do not receive an income from here, and I have bills to pay. Much as I would like to spend my time writing more and more articles, I have to do other work that actually pays. If you would like to help enable me to produce more articles here, please support my books; fiction and non-fiction.

Now, onto the matter of the etymology of bill.

If you look in the dictionary, you will find several definitions for the word ‘bill’. It could be a bill in parliament; a duck’s bill; a bill to be paid; a slang term for the police, as well as other usages.

Here we are not looking at the duck’s bill, which has another origin, but rather at bill in the other senses, which are all related.

The meaning ‘list’ is the one that has developed to give rise to the others. If you think about a parliamentary bill, it tends to be written out as a list of points; and the same goes for a bill to be paid. So it is not hard to see how the meaning tranferred.

In this spirit, our first example is from the Rolls of Parliament from 1444, where we find the observation:

They will delyver no Billes to the Merchauntz

I scarcely need to include a translation into Modern English, and indeed I have no intention of doing so! But what does bill mean here? Is it a list or a statement of payment? The answer is it could be either. A list of goods for the merchants, that would then be priced as a statement of how much to pay.

Compare this with a quote in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale Prologue from 1395, continuing the theme with a merchant.

His bille,

in which that he ywriten hadde his wille.

(His formal document,

In which he had written his will)

The modern translation sounds a bit less poetic, and probably with a bit of effort that could be changed. But notice the meaning here. Bill is used to mean ‘formal document’. It is not because this is the starting point of the word; even at that time, it was already used with several meanings. See this reference from around the same time – in this case 1404 – from the Testamenta Eboracensia (Wills registered at York).

Ye shall fynde a bille closed wyth ynne this of alle the trewe dettes that ben aught to me.

(You shall find enclosed a list of all the debts owed to me.)

Here, the meaning is ‘list’. So we can see that the meanings were concurrent. But what of the source of bill before that time? It came via Anglo-French bille, itself probably an adaptation of anglicised Latin billa, meaning ‘list’. This form was derived from Medieval Latin bulla, which meant ‘decree, sealed document’.

I personally like the next step in our linguistic path. Classical Latin used bulla somewhat differently. It meant ’round swelling’ – and by extension bubble, a stud on a door and a type of Etruscan amulet worn around the neck. The word was probably used for the second two as they were round and perhaps stuck out like something swollen. So how on earth did this come to mean ‘list, official document’?

The answer lies with the amulet. A seal was a round thing often worn as a piece of jewellery and it didn’t take long for bulla to move from ‘Etruscan amulet’ to ‘large round official piece of jewellery’ to ‘seal’. And from the seal to the document that it was used to seal. And from there? Well, what are official documents if not lists of one kind or another?


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’.


In Modern English, field is a word of many meanings. We may think of a green, grassy field, a field of wheat, a field planted with potatoes. But equally, we talk of fielding questions, a field of academic research, an area of interest or even a field of vision. Not to mention its uses in mathematics and physics.

Fortunately for my purposes, all of these meanings come from the same place. Lets start tracing its path through the centuries by looking back at the word in Middle English. There were a variety of spellings to be found, including feild, fild feald, feeld, feld and veld. So what about our modern-day spelling? The -ie- version, field, is thought to have been the work of Anglo-French scholars, a legacy of the Norman influence on English.

If we go to Chaucer’s work, we can find a few interesting references to fields. Let’s take a look at the Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales, dating to 1385.

Alle the feeldes gliteren vp and doun.

(All the fields shone up and down).

Leaving aside for a moment what sort of light might be reflected in the fields, we can see that the word is easily recognisable. Interestingly, the same text contains another reference to field, but with a different spelling:

And foules flie the feld and fenne.

(And birds fly over field and fen.)

Again, it requires no special effort to see what ‘field’ means in this context. It is clearly talking about a piece of open land for the birds to fly over, although it tells us nothing about farming and cultivation. In fact, the word was used in a more general sense to refer to land than in modern English, and could mean ‘pasture, open area of land’ as well as ‘land set aside for cultivation’.

This takes us back to our next step in tracing the word; a trip into Old English. In earlier times, the word was feld, as you can see here in this quote from the Codex Exoniensis, or Exeter Book, a tenth century anthology of poetry.

Se æðela feld wrídaþ under wolcnum

(the noble field thrives under the skies)

You might be wondering what a noble field is, and obviously we are all aware that words can be used slightly differently in poetry, but our word here is still clearly recognisable; its form is very little changed. Even if we go to a slightly earlier point, the same is still true. Here is a line from King Alfred’s version of the Metres of Boethius, dating to around 886.

Weaxaþ hraðe feldes blóstman

(the flowers of the field grow quickly)

Before you point out that here the form used is feldes, I should mention that it is in the genitive form (of the field), which accounts for the -es suffix. We can still see the remnants of this genitive suffix in modern English possessive forms: the child’s hand, the bird’s nest, etc.

Returning to field, the base form in the days of Alfred was feld. There are cognates in other Germanic languages, such as in Old Saxon and Old Frisian feld, but also Old Saxon folda, meaning ‘earth’; this is also reflected in the Old English folde of the same meaning. Modern Dutch gives us veld, with an older form of velt, meaning ‘field’; German Feld also has the same meaning.

The word came from Proto-Germanic *felthuz, meaning ‘flat land’. When we realise that the land was flat, we can trace the word back further, to Proto-Indo-European *pel-tu, which is derived from the root *pele, meaning ‘flat, spread out’. It is the same root which is the source for plane and plan, as you can see here.


On the Polls

With thanks to Connor for the inspiration

As Britain prepares to go to the polls to decide on its future regarding membership of the European Union, I thought we could take a look at the word itself. Why do we call it ‘poll’? What is this word? These days, if we hear ‘poll’, we mostly think of elections, voting, ballots. We think of opinion polls, straw polls. But has that always been the case?

To find out exactly what it is, we shall go back to the past and see how it was first used in English. We shall start with a quote from John Trevisa’s translation into Middle English of Higden’s Polychronicon, a Latin work rendered into English by Trevisa in 1387.

He wolde bende his heer from þe pol toward þe foreheed.

(He would style his hair from the crown of the head towards the forehead)

Where does it mention polls in that sentence? It is not talking about casting votes or expressing opinions, but if you look carefully at the original quote and not the modern translation, you will see the word ‘pol’ in the middle, meaning the crown, or the top part of the head. Indeed, there are some dialects of English even today where the word still carries this meaning, and the word has not died out in modern English. People involved with animal husbandry, especially relating to horses, will no doubt be aware of ‘poll’ referring to a part of the animal’s head.

All very nice so far, you might think, but what has this got to do with elections and voting? To understand this question, we simply have to look at the history of how elections were conducted. Before our modern era of widespread education and literacy, a large number of people would have been unable to read a ballot paper. But they could stand where they wished to show support, and so votes could be cast and tallied by the simple means of counting people’s heads; a count of the polls.

So, it would seem that poll meant ‘head’. But we haven’t finished yet! Before it came to mean ‘head’, the word had other meanings too. It also meant ‘hair, animal fur’ and even ‘nape’. From hair to votes: think on that when you are tearing out your hair over who to vote for!

So where did it come from? The answer is that it is a Germanic word, but it did not come from Old English. There is a word in Old English that looks similar; pól, but it means ‘pool’, and has nothing to do with poll. Instead, we can trace it to Middle Dutch pol or polle, meaning ‘head, top’. Dutch, it would seem, got the word from Proto-Germanic, where the proposed root is *pullaz, meaning ‘head, top’ and posssibly also ’round object’.

This in turn would have come from Proto-Indo-European, and here is where there is a little twist in the tale. It derives from the root *bolno, which meant ’round object, bubble’. This root is itself derived from another Proto-Indo-European root, *bhel-, meaning ‘blow, swell’ – think of how a bubble swells to see how the sense extended. This is where there is an intriguing note. What else derives from *bhel? Among others, there are two words I shall pick out; bowl and blow. Both distant cousins of poll.



This post is dedicated to Angela

The internet abounds with cute memes featuring all kinds of animals, and hedgehogs are no exception. But what of the word itself?

It consists of two elements, as I am sure you can easily see: hedge + hog. These two were put together sometime during the late 1300s, presumably because the animal is frequently to be found in or near hedges, and because its snout bears a passing resembance to a pig. Intriguing spellings such as hegge-hogge and heyghoge can be found in Late Middle English, and the two elements of the word can both be traced to Old English and Germanic roots.

But if this word only came into being in the fourteenth century, how was the animal known until that time? Certainly hedgehogs didn’t suddenly evolve out of thin air!

They were known in Old English as igil, a word with cognates in other Germanic languages, at least until Old French started to exert its influence over English, and the word yrichon came to be adopted, itself an adaptation of Old French herichon (this word has evolved into the Modern French equivalent hérisson). This is where it gets interesting: yrichon developed into the word urchin, a word which is still used to mean ‘hedgehog’ in some dialects.

Gradually, people of raggedy appearance, especially smaller people or children, came to be known as urchins, perhaps because their ragged clothes were reminiscent of a hedgehog’s spikes, and for most dialects of English, this new meaning of urchin came to dominate over the older sense.

So the modern French word for ‘hedgehog’ is a cousin of ‘urchin’, and both come an ancient Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘bristle’, a root which also gave us the word horror, a word seldom applied to a hedgehog (and one that’s worthy of a post all of its own).


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.


Happy New Ancient Year!

Happy new year!

Wait – isn’t it March 1st today? Surely the new year started two months ago?

Well yes, it did. But that was the start of the year according to our modern, Gregorian calendar. A long time in the past, things were different. The year started on March 1st.

The calendar we use today comes to us from the Romans. Various civilisations in different places have all had their own versions, and even for our linguistic forebears, the speakers of Old English, there may have been some struggle to reconcile  Hāligmōnað and Hærfestmōnað in our modern calendar.

So let’s have a look at the history of our calendar. Up to around 700 BC, the Romans used a calendar consisting of 10 months, followed by 51 days before the start of the new year. You might be wondering what on earth they needed those 51 days for. Was this a time of festival and celebration before one year and the next? No. It was, in fact, part of superstition about winter. The whole period covered the deep cold season, and these days were considered monthless, as though to allocate them would somehow render winter more powerful.

What happened? The king, Numa Pompilius, the second of the seven traditional kings of Rome, is said to have decided to break the winter period into two parts and create another two months, adding to them a few days taken from the other months for the sake of balance. He named them Ianuarius and Februarius and added them to the start of the year. This complicated matters, as the names of some of the later months were numbers related to their position in the calendar. The old calendar was like this: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. Quintilis means “fifth”, sextilis is “sixth”, and so on, but now those months were seventh and eighth.

This version of the calendar remained in place until the Julian reform – around 43 BC when Julius Caesar renamed the months Quintilis and Sextilis. He called Quintilis after himself – Julius, while Sextilis became Augustus, after his designated successor. This meant that the remaining four months of the year which were known by numbers were still not correctly numbered according to the order of months, but the names have stuck. Despite now being the ninth month, September comes from septem, meaning seven. October is eighth, November is ninth and December is tenth. This calendar is known as the Julian calendar, and remained in common use until 1582 when it was superseded by the Gregorian calendar, a subject worthy of a post all of its own.

So March, whose name comes from the ancient god of war, Mars, has lost its place of honour as the first month of the year. But happy new ancient calendar year nonetheless!