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’.


On Kitchens and Cooking

People agonise over what colour to paint their kitchens, how the cabinets should be, whether or not to tile the walls and so on. Opinions and tastes abound, but the one thing they all have in common is that the purpose of the kitchen is cooking.

The word ‘kitchen’ is of course inextricably bound with ‘cooking’; their history goes hand-in-hand. Let’s start with ‘kitchen’. Going back to Middle English, I have a short line that I hope will bring a smile to your face. It is from the Works of Sir Thomas Mallory, dating to 1470.

Thou smellyst all of the kychyn.

(You smell totally of the kitchen.)

One would hope that this is not a clumsy attempt at a compliment – the recipient of such praise might not be very impressed! Here, at that time, the word is very much like the term we know today, and indeed in other spellings from the period such as kicchen and kichoun, it can still be recognised. But let’s look at an earlier point. Our next quote comes from Layamon’s Brut, a Middle English poem also known as the Chronicle of Britain and dating to the late twelfth century.

Weoren in þeos kinges cuchene twa hundred cokes

(Two hundred cooks were in this king’s kitchen)

Two hundred cooks may seem a little excessive for one kitchen; after all, we say today that too many of them spoil the broth!

In this reference, the word for ‘kitchen’ is cuchene, a word that suggests a slightly different pronunciation, over 250 years before Mallory. From here, we shall go back further in time and examine the word in Old English.

This time, our reference is taken from The Homilies of Ælfric, translated by Thorpe during the 1840s, and dating to around the year 990.

Ðæt seó cycene eal forburne

(That the kitchen was all burning)

Setting aside the dangers of using real fires and flames in your kitchen, let’s turn our attention to the word. So here we have the form cycene. Still recognisable at a stretch. It is at this point that we turn our attention once again to the purpose of the room; cooking.

Our Old English term, cycene, comes from Proto-Germanic *kokina. This form gave rise to cognates such as Dutch keuken, German Küche, Danish køkken, Norwegian kjøkken and others.

You may be thinking that there is a similarity between these words and their counterparts in other European languages, such as Italian cucina, French cuisine, Portuguese cozinha, Spanish cocina and so on. Well, there is a reason for that. They all derive from Vulgar Latin *cocina, itself an alternative form of Latin coquina, meaning ‘kitchen’. Unsurprisingly, this comes from coquere, meaning ‘to cook’. This Latin word has gone into so many languages, from Modern (Demotic) Greek κουζίνα [kouzina] to Welsh cegin, Slovenian and Croatian kuhinja, Polish kuchnia and even Albanian kuzhinë, and more besides.

Latin was generous in its gifts to English, providing not only kitchen but also cook by means of coquere; the two go together in meaning, in history and etymology. And what of coquere itself? Where did it come from? It derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *pekw-, which would have meant ‘to cook’. This was the source of the Greek πέψη, πέψις [pepsi, pepsis]. And guess what we get from pepsis? Dyspepsia, of course. So the same root gave rise to words for both the method of preparation and the possible effect of the food on us.

Guest Post – on translating a Phrasal Verb article

Guest post by Anne of Translating Meaning. You can find her on twitter as @MotherGoutte. I will leave it to her to introduce herself and her fabulous article

Phrazal verbes, ouat arr phrazal verbes ? Des verbes a particules, c’est quoi des verbes a particules ?

French by birth, half English by heart, I am a mother of four and amateur translator hoping to become a professional.

I would like to address heartfelt thanks to Millie for kindly invited me on her blog. We thought it might be amusing to translate in French one of her phrasal verb posts, phrasal verbs being a concept very alien to the French language!

I chose ‘Bringing a Verb to Light’, of which Millie’s version follows.

Despite the fact that writing a blog doesn’t exactly bring home the bacon, I can’t bring myself to give it up.

Far be it from me to bring something up indelicately, but it’s time to bring to your attentionthe fact that I am soon bringing out a book, and if I can bring you round to the idea of buying it, that will bring my credit up! If I can bring it off successfully, then that will bring me into the limelight!

I can bring up the subject of my children, who I am bringing up, and who may also bring up their dinner sometimes. When they do, you might think it was brought about by a tummy bug, after all, we are not at sea, so it is not a ship being brought about. At least I’ve never needed to bring them to, or perhaps even bring them round, they are not in the habit of losing consciousness!

I heard that Peter brought down a bird when he was hunting – he shot at it once. I hope the same didn’t happen to the president when he was brought down! Although there are those he say he needed to be brought down a peg or two after the new trade legislation that he brought in.

Well. I doubt I’ve brought the house down, but I hope I’ve brought some smiles to your faces!

Now, the bane of a translator is literal translation. It’s a treason to meaning, form, grammar and culture, but it can be done in derision and the effect is undoubtedly funny. This is what I have done here, at least for the phrasal verbs. I have chosen to translate the rest of the text as a more meaningful translation ! I’ll come back later to the different choices I made but for now, here it is (I have written the phrasal verbs in bold as Millie had done in her text).

Malgré le fait qu’écrire un blog n’amène pas vraiment le bacon à la maison, je ne peux amener moi-même à l’abandonner.

Loin de moi l’idée d’amener quelque chose en haut de façon indélicate, mais il est temps que j’amène à votre attention le fait que je vais bientôt amener un livre dehors, et si je peux vous amener vers l’idée de l’acheter, cela amènera certainement mon statut en haut ! Si je peux amener cela à fin avec succès, alors cela m’amènera dans les lumières de la scène !

Je peux amener en haut le sujet de mes enfants, que je suis en train d’amener en haut, et qui pourraient aussi amener en haut leur repas, parfois. Lorsque cela arrive vous pourriez penser que cela a été amené à propos par une gastro, après tout, nous ne sommes pas en mer, donc ce n’est pas un navire en train d’être amené de retour. Du moins je n’ai jamais eu besoin d’amener à eux, ou peut-être même les amener de retour, ils n’ont pas l’habitude de perdre conscience !

J’ai entendu dire que Pierre avait amené un oiseau en bas alors qu’il chassait – il tira dessus une fois. J’espère que la même chose n’est pas arrivée au Président quand il a été amené en bas ! Bien qu’il y ait ceux qui disent qu’il avait besoin d’être amené en bas d’un cran ou deux après la nouvelle loi sur le commerce qu’il a amenée dedans.

Enfin, je ne pense pas avoir amené la maison en bas, mais j’espère avoir amené un sourire sur vos lèvres !

My first choice was to decide how to translate ‘bring’ which can mean amenerramener or rapporter , according to the context, and whether to use the different translations or just one. I decided for just one to be more in tune with the original text, and I chose amener (e.g. J’amènerai le dessert – I will bring the pudding).

The prepositions or adverbs presented two difficulties :

*As any other word, there isn’t just one way to translate them, according to what the writer, or speaker, wants to convey.

*In the same way that the meaning of the verb changes according to the preposition or adverb added to it, the meaning of the preposition or adverb changes according to the meaning of the verb (are you following?). For example : If I can bring you round to the idea… and Perhaps even bring them round. In the first sentence there is a sense of influencing someone’s mind, it’s round as towards (which is how I translated it : vers). In the second sentence we could say ‘bring back to consciousness’ but ‘bringing round’ is a simpler way to say it. The latter presents yet another difficulty (I know!) : whether it’s common to use stranded prepositions in English (a preposition at the end of a sentence), it doesn’t work in French. That’s why I could not use vers again for ‘Perhaps even bring them round’ – it’s always vers something –  but chose instead de retour (returning, or back).

I also used de retour for ‘it is not a ship being brought about’. In this case ‘brought about’ has got a specific meaning, particular to nautical vocabulary and means the ship makes a U-turn. I chose to use de retour also to echo an other sentence in which I use it and have, as in the original text, several times the same verb-presposition associations.

Another sentence that was quite tricky was ‘If I can bring it off successfully’ as there is no single word equivalent of ‘off” in French. I tried a lot of different combinations, none of which pleased me! Eventually I chose à fin : two words instead of just one preposition in English, but That’s what I did with de retour too.

Then I thought of something else that could be quite fun to do. I translated the article in a more conventional French ! Here it is.

Malgré le fait qu’un blog ne fasse pas vraiment bouillir la marmite, je ne peux me résoudre à l’abandonner.

Loin de moi l’idée de faire une remarque mal-à-propos, mais il est temps de porter à votre connaissance qu’un livre dont je suis l’auteur va bientôt sortir, et si je peux vous amener à l’acheter cela relèvera mon statut! Si je peux mener cela à bien, alors je serai sous les projecteurs!

Je peux soulever le sujet de mes enfants, que j’élève, et dont le dîner peut parfois remonter (note that it’s the dinner coming back up as opposed to the children bringing it up). Lorsque cela arrive, vous pourriez penser que cela a été entraîné par une gastro, après tout, nous ne sommes pas en mer, donc il ne s’agit pas d’un navire qui a changé bout pour bout. Du moins je n’ai jamais eu besoin de les ramener à eux, ni même de les ramener à la vie , ils n’ont pas l’habitude de perdre conscience !

J’ai entendu dire que Pierre a abbattu un oiseau alors qu’il chassait – un seul coup de fusil. J’espère que la même chose n’est pas arrivée au président lorsqu’il a été battu ! Bien qu’il y ait ceux qui disent qu’il avait besoin d’être rabattu d’un cran ou deux après la nouvelle loi sur le commerce qu’il avait introduite.

Enfin, je ne pense pas avoir cassé la baraque, mais j’espère que votre visage s’est fendu d’un sourire.

And back again to English with a literal translation of the bold writing !

Despite the fact that writing a blog doesn’t exactly make the cauldron boil, I can’t resolve myself to give it up.

Far be it from me to make some remarks malapropos, but it’s time to bear to your knowledge the fact that I have written a book that will soon come out, and if I can bring you to buying it, that will raise my status ! If I can bring this to good, then I will be under the spotlights !

I can raise the subject of my children, who I am raising, and whose dinner may also come back up sometimes. When it does, you might think it was brought about by a tummy bug, after all, we are not at sea, so it is not a ship being changed  end for endAt least I’ve never needed bring them back to themselvesor perhaps even bring them back to life, they are not in the habit of losing consciousness!

I heard that Peter brought down a bird when he was hunting – he shot at it once. I hope the same didn’t happen to the president when he was beaten ! Although there are those he say he needed to be brought down a peg or two after the new trade legislation that he introduced.

Well. I doubt I’ve broken down the hut, but I hope your faces have splitted into a smile !

Birds of a feather flock together

Have you ever looked up at the sky and seen a flock of birds flying overhead? It can be a magnificent sight, the more so when there is a very large number of birds. It takes no great powers of deduction to work out how this expression might have come about – simple observation tells us that birds of the same species – of the same feather, as it were – can be frequently seen together.

So, where does it come from? This is an intriguing question. It appears in a translation of Plato’s Republic by Benjamin Jowett, published in 1856. Plato’s work dates to around 380 BC, which would indeed make it an ancient proverb. In Book I of The Republic, in Jowett’s translation, I found:

“I will tell you, Socrates, he said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says”

However, I then went to the Greek text. It reads:

Εγώ σοι έφη, νη την Δία, εγώ ω Σώκρατες, γε μοι φαίνεται, πολλάκις γαρ συνερχόμεθα τίνες εις ταύτο, παραπλησίαν ηλικίαν έχοντες διασώζοντες την παλαιάν παροιμίαν

I see no reference here to either birds or feathers. It does indeed state that it is in keeping with the old proverb – διασώζοντες την παλαιάν παροιμίαν – but it does not actually state what that proverb is.Scholars generally maintain that the “old proverb” in question is: Ηλιξ ήλικα τέρπει γέρων δε τέρπει γέροντα (Skouteropoulos, commentary on Plato, Polis Publications, σχόλια του Ν. Μ. Σκουτερόπουλου στην Πολιτεία του Πλάτωνα εκδ. Πόλις). This simply means that people have need of the company of others of their own age – no mention of birds or flocks. It seems to me that Jowett simply chose a well-known English proverb for his translation, to make it clear to the reader.

This means we have to look for another source for our proverb.

There is a slightly different turn of phrase, but still essentially the same expression, in The Rescuing of Romish Fox by William Turner, which dates to 1545. At that time, it was:

Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.”

It seems likely that the expression was in use before that time, even if this is the earliest it appears in writing.

Now let’s take a look at how this is expressed in other languages. In French one might say qui se ressemble s’assemble, or literally “whoever resembles, assembles together.” Italian also has chi si assomiglia si piglia; “what is similar takes to each other”. The German expression is along similar lines: Gleich und Gleich gesellt sich gern, which means “similar and similar like to join together.” There is another German expression which is a bit more colourful: aus dem gleichen Holz geschnitzt, which translates as “carved from the same wood”.

This brings me now to Slovenian. There are two expressions of note. The first is very much like the German mentioned above: Podobno se s podobnim druži, meaning “similar keeps company with similar.” But it is intriguing to note that this language, geographically far from English, in a separate language family, also has this expression: Enake sorte ptiči skup letijo. This literally means “the same birds fly together”.

Another idiom in French is de même farine, or “from the same flour”. Similarly, in Portuguese, they say farinha do mesmo saco, meaning “flour from the same bag”, meaning that something looks and behaves similar and can be found in the same place, much as we might use the English expression.

In Spanish there are several expressions. We will start with pájaros del mismo plumaje vuelan juntos, which means the same as the English expression. Then there is also Dios los cría y ellos se juntan, meaning “God calls them and they gather together”.

In Polish we find a simple but succinct expression: Ciągnie swój do swego, which translates assimilar people are pulled to each other”. Japanese, too, would say “like draws to like”; Rui wa tomo wo yobu (類は友を呼ぶ).

Welsh also uses a similar phrasing to the English: adar o’r unlliw a hedan i’r unlle – “birds of the same colour fly to the same place”.

Geographically further away, but with the same concept, in Finnish we find: Samanlaiset linnut aina yhdessä lentävät, meaning literally “similar birds always fly together”.

Moving on now to Swedish, there are two lovely expressions to express this idea: Lika barn leka bäst, which means “similar children play best together”, a nice peaceful image, or, my personal preference: Kaka söker maka, an expression that literally translates as “cake looks for partner”.

Having looked at ancient Greek in the first part of the post, here is the modern expression: γυρίζει ο τέντζερης και βρίσκει και το καπάκι του [yirizei o tentzeris kai vriskei kai to kapaki tou] – “the pot turns round and finds its lid”. With more or less the same imagery is the Turkish idiom: tencere yuvarlanmış kapağını bulmuş – “the saucepan rolled away and found its lid”. Bulgarian, a neighbouring language to both of the previous two, has търкулнало се гърнето, та си намерило похлупак [tarkulnalo se garneto ta si namerilo pohlupak]. This means exactly the same as the Greek expression – “the pot turns and finds its lid”.

But Bulgarian does not stop there. We can also find които си приличат, се привличат [koito si prilichat se privlichat], meaning “those who look alike attract each other”. And, my personal favourite, краставите магарета през девет баира се подушват [krastavite magareta prez devet baira se podushvat] , which translates as “Mangy donkeys smell themselves from nine mountains afar”.

This next expression was a close contender to be my favourite: Ta enney ec muc er muc elley. It is from Manx, and translates as “a pig knows another pig”

Finally, I rather like the expression in Russian: рыбак рыбака видит издалека [rybák rybaká vídit izdaleká], which means “a fisherman sees a fisherman from afar”. Last, but by no means least, an honourable mention goes to Belarus, where they use the expression Чорт чарта пазнаў i на пiва пазваў [Chort chorta paznau i na piva pazvau]. This translates as “An imp got acquainted with another imp and called him to have a beer together.” But of course. What else could an imp be expected to do?!

Bolt from the Blue

On the face of it, this might seem like a fairly obvious expression to trace. The “bolt” is of course a bolt of lightning, and the “blue” is the sky – the idea being that when the sky is blue and clear we don’t generally expect bolts of lightning!

The idiom has been linked with ancient mythology, where an angry god, such as Zeus or Jupiter, could be imagined hurling bolts of lightning from a clear sky to show his displeasure. Indeed, this idea has carried on today, with people joking that they may be “struck down” if they enter a church, and so on.

Let’s take a look at the earliest known example in writing:

cogor relictos: namque Diespiter
igni corusco nubila diuidens
plerumque, per purum tonantis
egit equos uolucremque currum

For Jupiter, Father of all the gods,

Who splits the clouds with his lightning,

Flashing away, drove thundering horses,

And his swift chariot, through the clear sky

This comes from Roman lyric poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), in his Ode XXXIV dating to around 23 BC.

The first translation into English of Horace’s Odes was in 1566 by Thomas Drant. As people became more and more familiar with the imagery, the idiom spread.

It first appears in its current form in English in The French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle from 1837, where he says:

…sudden really as a bolt out of the Blue…

Such casual use of the phrase suggests that this form was already in common use and generally well known, notwithstanding the fact that Carlyle was a well educated man who would have been familiar with Horace’s works.

The same idea is expressed in Swedish, with blixt från klar himmel, which translates as “lightning bolt from a clear sky”. This also extends to its geographic neighbouring language, albeit from a different language family, Finnish, in which you say salama kirkkaalta taivaalta, also meaning “lightning bolt from the clear sky”.  (Here, kirkas taivas  means “clear sky”, and this is an interesting example of how Finnish words use suffixes to build up meaning in one word, while these things are expressed with prepositions and other words in English.)

Over to Eastern Europe, Bulgarian uses a very similar expression, with Като гръм от ясно небе [kato gram ot iasno nebe], meaning “like thunder from a clear sky”. Fellow Slavic language Slovenian uses the same idea, with kot strela z jasnega, which also translates as “like a thunderbolt from a clear sky”, again representing something sudden or unexpected.

Hungarian is another one to use the same kind of expression, with derült égből villámcsapás, meaning “a thunderbolt from the clear sky”, while German also thinks along similar lines, with aus heiterem Himmel, which literally means “out of the clear sky”. Far away geographically, but close in thought comes Manx with haink eh myr taarnagh veih’n speyr; “thunder from the sky”.

We come now to Portuguese, which uses the idiom cair do céu, which means “falling from the sky”, which makes you think that something was so unexpected, it was like it had fallen from the sky. After all, things don’t generally fall from the sky!

There is a very interesting expression in Welsh used for something unexpected; fel huddyg i botes, which translates as “like soot into soup”. Evidently, this idiom dates from the days when everyone cooked over a real fire and soot may have fallen from the chimney into a bubbling pot. Indeed, especially with a careful cook, soot in soup is neither expected nor desired!

Personally, I rather like the equivalent expression in Japanese, which is nemimi ni mizu, meaning “cold water on a sleeping ear”. This brings to mind an amusing picture of a bucket of cold water being poured over the sleeper to wake them up. What a cheerful way to start the day!

Rule of Thumb

Before going into the origin of this phrase, I should first refer to the popular folk etymology that claims that it originates from English law, supposed to have stated that a husband may beat his wife with a rod no thicker than a thumb, thus the “rule of thumb”. There has never been such a law, and there are no references whatsoever to it in any legal documents. Even with the much maligned Judge Sir Francis Buller, who was supposed to have issued such a ruling in 1792, there are no records of his ever making such a pronouncement, and the first suggestion that he did came a full year later in a cartoon.


However, the phrase “rule of thumb” long predates Buller’s alleged and elusive ruling.


We can find it in its present form from the 1600s. An early example in print, from 1685, is in Durham’s Heaven Upon Earth:


Many profest Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb.


However, the phrase is much older than that, and is very likely linked to the use of the thumb as a unit of measurement. Indeed, in a number of languages, “thumb” has long been related to the word for “inch”, such as Italian pollice, which means both, Spanish pulgada, “inch”, which derives from pulgar, meaning “thumb”, or Slovenian palec, which also means both.


If we go back further in English history, to the ninth century and Old English, we can find a reference to this idea:


Swá greáte swá ðín þúma

(As large as a thumb)

This is from Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of writings published in the 1800s, dating back to the late ninth century. Already at that time the thumb was being used as a means of comparing size, and it is no great leap from “as large as a thumb” to “the rule of thumb”.

Thumbs are conveniently attached to us and conveniently small – it seems natural that they should have been routinely used for measurement. And of course, as we have seen with “inch”, this is hardly restricted to English, and there are expressions with the same idea in other places too. Swedish, for example, has tumregel, also meaning “rule of thumb”, while Finnish uses a similar expression with nyrkkisääntö, which translates as  “rule of fist”. German uses the same image, with Faustregel; “fist-rule”. Welsh uses synnwyr y bawd – “rule of thumb”.

Spanish does not use a thumb or hand related word, and instead prefers regla general, “general rule”, or also regla de oro, which translates as “golden rule”.

This brings me back onto German, and the expression Pi mal Daumen, or “Pi by the thumb”, a parody of a real calculation, if you like, for rough estimates or approximations. I do hope this is not a reflection of your maths lessons!


You can read about the etymology of thumb here.

It doesn’t have a leg to stand on

Despite its seemingly obvious metaphor, this has not proved to be an easy idiom to track down.

It is assumed to have come about through the literal idea of legs or feet supporting a body, holding it up, and it may have originally been a positive expression, conveying the notion of a lot of support, a firm grounding.

It may have come into Middle English from Old Norse, where it was indeed used in a positive manner. We can find it in the epic poem Egil’s Saga, dated to around 1220:

Stóð þá á mörgum fótum fjárafli Skalla-Gríms.

(Thus Skallagrim’s wealth had many legs to stand on) Egil-Skallagrim Ch. 29

The similarity between some of the English and Norse vocabulary may even have helped the expression to become absorbed more quickly into popular English speech – Old English stód (stood) is very much like the Norse stóð you see above, the verb “stand” was standa in Norse, standan in Old and Middle English. Our modern English word “leg” is related to Old Norse leggr, and “foot” in Old Norse was fótr.

Gradually, the expression came to be preferred in the negative, although it is sometimes used humorously today in the positive.

Naturally, the image of metaphorical standing is hardly restricted to English. Welsh uses exactly the same expression as in English, with dim coes i sefyll arni – it has no leg to stand.

Changing only the “leg” image, in modern Greek, you might say that an argument or idea doesn’t stand up: το επιχείρημα δε στέκει (to epiheirima de steki).

In Spanish, however, the expression is (something) no tiene de dónde agarrarse, which literally means “it has nothing to hold on to”.

Russian has a rather nice expression: ему́ не́чем крыть (jemú néčem krytʹ), which means “he has no good card to cover”.

Crying Wolf

For those who are unfamiliar with this expression, “to cry wolf” is generally used to mean “give a false alarm”, or “lie, complain about a situation when there are in fact no problems”.

It is a fairly easy idiom to trace, as it comes from a well-known source; Aesop’s Fables. One of the tales is called, quite simply, The Boy who Cried Wolf, although it is sometimes also known as “The shepherd boy and the wolf”, or “the boy who kept the sheep”. However, for our purposes, the main title immediately makes it clear where our idiom is from!

The fable tells of a boy whose task it was to watch over the sheep. However, he got bored doing this, and to liven things up a bit, he started calling out that there was a wolf attacking, so the villagers all ran to help, only to discover that the boy was playing a trick. This happened a few times before the villagers got fed up with the boy and his tricks, so when the next time a wolf really did attack the sheep and the boy cried out for help, they didn’t go, and some sheep were killed by the wolf.

Obviously, in this tale, it was the fact that the boy cried out “wolf!” several times and was lying that caused all the trouble, and of course, it is this that gave rise to our expression.

Interestingly, although the fable dates back to the 5th century BC in its original Greek, it was not translated into Latin until the 15th century, and does not appear in English until 1484, in a collection published by William Caxton under the title Of the child whiche kepte the sheep.

Unsurprisingly, English is not the only language to use this image in this context – the French equivalent means exactly the same: crier au loupNorwegian also uses the same phrase with rope ulv, as does Swedish with ropa varg. Again, in Italian, the fable has left its mark with gridare al lupo, just as in Romanian a striga lupul.

In Welsh, you would say gweiddi blaidd, which literally means “shout wolf”. Moving on to Irish Gaelic, we find gáir an mhic tíre a thógáil, meaning the same thing – mac tíre, which means “wolf”, literally translates “son of the land”.

Perhaps it is the structure of the Finnish language that makes it appear more complete: ken sutta huutaa; “he who cries wolf”.

Similarly, in Spanish, some people use the expression (it’s like) Pedrito y el lobo, signifying “Peter and the wolf”. Along the same lines, still from the fable, is the Bulgarian equivalent лъжливото овчарче (lajlivoto ovcharche) which means “the lying shepherd boy”.

German prefers a more literal approach, with falscher/blinder Alarm schlagen, “to sound a false alarm”, although a rarer phrase also exists; Zeter und Mordio schreien – “to scream for Zeter and Mordio (murder)”, it doesn’t necessarily convey the idea of a false alarm. (Further explanation here in German).

Slovenian also uses a plain phrase, akin to the German, with lažni alarm, which simply means “false alarm”.

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

I feel sure that the sentiment expressed by this phrase must go right back to the very earliest human communities; “to err is human”, as the saying goes, but that doesn’t mean we want to keep on making the same errors!

A very early form of this expression can be found in Aesop’s Fables, possibly dating to the 600s BC, although it is not clear which tales were written when. The fable in question is about a wolf that wants to eat a dog, and is tricked by the dog into letting it go. Very aptly, in Aesop’s tale, it says: “he who has been once beguiled by another should keep away from them.”

It was translated into English in the 15th century by the first English printer, William Caxton, who wrote it as:

“’He that hath ben ones begyled by somme other ought to kepe hym wel fro(m) the same.

Very logical, you might think, but the preferred phrasing has moved on since then. In 1853, we find a close reference to our modern version in ‘Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour‘ by English novelist Robert Surtees:

…had been bit once, and he was not going to give Mr. Sponge a second chance…

You might be wondering what the “bite” part of the idiom is referring to and how it arose. We should bear in mind that in the past, most people would have had contact with animals that might bite them, whether livestock on a farm, dogs or other domestic animals. It is not hard to imagine that bites would have occurred – and the victim would have been likely to avoid the offending animal in future.

Let’s have a look at what other languages have to say. The corresponding idiom in German is ein gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer, which translates as “a burned child avoids fire”. Very similarly, in Swedish the saying goes: bränt barn skyr elden, which signifies “a burnt child dreads the fire”.

In Welsh we find two expressions; a losgodd ei fysedd a ochel y tân; “fingers burned, fire avoided” and cas gan gath y ci a’i bratho, which means “the cat hates the dog and its bite”.

In Italian, the proverb is cane scottato dall’acqua calda ha paura della fredda, which translates as “a dog scalded by hot water is frightened of cold water”. Along similar lines, there is also the French equivalent; chat échaudé craint l’eau froide, meaning “a scalded cat is afraid of cold water.”

The Greek version refers to people rather than animals, but the idea is similar; όποιος καίγεται στο χυλό φυσάει και το γιαούρτι (opios kaiyetai sto hilo fisaei kai to yiaourti), which means “whoever gets burnt on broth blows yogurt too”. This is very similar to the Turkish expression; sütten ağzı yanan yoğurdu üfleyerek yer signifying “he whose mouth is burnt drinking milk blows on yoghurt while eating it”. All these last few are clearly emphasising how overcautious a person might become once having experienced something unpleasant.

On now to Finnish, which seems very logical, if slightly less colourful this time: vahingosta viisastuu, meaning “a mistake makes you wiser”. There is a similar phrase in Slovenian: iz napak se učimo; “we learn from mistakes”.

I like the Hungarian expression a lot, it does make you wonder about the wildlife in the country; akit a kígyó megmart, a gyíktól is fél, which means “whoever has been bitten by a snake, also fears a lizard”.

The Spanish expression came close to winning first place in my estimation, it really is great; el que se quema con leche, ve una vaca y llora, which means “whoever gets burnt on milk, sees a cow and cries”. So silly, it’s very funny. Just imagine sobbing at the very sight of a cow! Hats off to Spanish!

And last but not least, we come to my personal favourites: the Dutch expression een ezel stoot zich geen twee maal aan dezelfde steen. This means “(even) a donkey doesn’t stumble twice over the same stone.” Donkeys are regarded as particularly stupid animals by the Dutch.

Not to be outdone, the Slovenians also regard donkeys as stupid beasts, and it is reflected in their most colourful version of the idiom: osel gre samo enkrat na led, which signifies “a donkey steps on ice only once”. Probably because it broke its legs the first time, and doesn’t step anywhere any more – always assuming it didn’t actually fall through the ice and drown, of course!


Whether it is a daffodil in bloom, the colour of a flame as the light catches it, a lemon, our perception of the sun, an egg yolk, or even the colour of withered grass, the colour yellow is all around us in the natural world. And so it has always been – our linguistic forebears were just as surrounded with yellow as we are today.

So where does the word come from? Well, if we go back to Middle English, we find an enormous variety of forms, raging from yelwe to yeleu, yelewe, yelu, yelou, even yelough, gelou, geolo, among others.

An example is in The Knight’s Tale by Chaucer, from 1385;

With nayles yelwe and brighte as any gold

(with yellow nails, as bright as any gold)

This particular example is readily accessible to the modern reader, of course, the language is not too far removed from today’s.

Yet, if we go back a little further, to Old English, and the forms geolo, geolu and geolwe, this changes. In 1072 in the Old English text Codex Exoniensis (or Exeter Book), in the Riddles we can find:

geolo godwebb (yellow silk)

And in the well-known Old English epic poem Beowulf, dated between the 8th and 11th centuries:

geolo linde (yellow shield)

And even, my favourite Old English example:

ǽger-geolu (egg yolk)

In the last example, the meaning is “egg-yolk”, but it is literally “egg-yellow”, and of course, the word “yolk” comes from geolu, and means “yellow”. In Middle English it was often also spelt yelk.

To find the source of geolu, we take a step back to Proto-Germanic and the form *gelwaz. This form has left its mark in many places – from English yellow, to German gelb, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish gul, Dutch geel, and Icelandic gult.

Of course, the story does not end here. We can trace *gelwaz back to Proto-Indo-European and the root *ghel-, meaning “to shine”. Along with its variant form *ghlo-, this root has given rise to a whole host of vocabulary in numerous languages, especially related to things that are bright and shining, or colours, such as Polish żółty, Ukrainian жо́втий (zhovti), Russian желтый (zeltyy), all meaning “yellow”; another group including Slovenian zelen, Lithuanian zaliuoti, Irish and Scottish Gaelic glas, Polish zielony all meaning “green”; Latvian zālājs, meaning “grassland”; and Welsh glas, Breton, glas, Manx glass, meaning “blue”, as well as the Germanic colour adjectives mentioned above, and other words in English, such as glare and glow. You can read more on this root on the Mashed Radish.

Taking a brief look at Finnish, there is a possible borrowing from its neighbouring Germanic languages, withthe word kulta, which means “gold”, and possibly derives from *ghel-. It should be noted that in Finnish, a /g/ changes to a /k/. There is also kultainen, meaning “golden”, and keltainen; “yellow”. Distant cousins with the same meaning, despite their different forms today.

You probably noticed that Polish has two different colour adjectives from this same root – one relating to yellow, and the other to green. This is no surprise at all, and is a phenomenon we see in a number of languages, where colours are all perceived differently. In Welsh, for example, it is only comparatively recently that there has been a differentiation between blue and green, in Manx pale grey and blue were described using the same word, and speakers of other languages are sometimes amazed to discover that pale green and dark green are described using the same word in English.