On Dancing and Ballet

Dance

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’.

Ballet

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’.

Leek

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.

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?

Field

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.

 

Cottage

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.

 

Hair

What images does this word call to mind? Hair styled in many different ways, perhaps. Dyed in bright colours, left naturally grey. Curly, straight, wavy. Completely shaved off, balding or thick and luxurious. There are many ways our hair can be.

But what of the word itself? Where does it come from?

We’ll start our journey with Middle English, and its enormous variety of spellings for this word: hẹ̄r, er, herre, heir, hier, hear, hær hor, har, and even the familiar hair. Our first example is from Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale, from 1375.

In his heeris al his strengthe lay.

Does it look familiar? The whole sentence is still very close to modern English. Even with the alternative spellings, the modern word is still recognizable in its predecessors.

Let’s compare it with an earlier example, this time taken from the period of the language known as Old English, some 300 years before Chaucer. This comes from The Homilies of Ælfric, an English monk and abbot.

Ne sceal eów beón forloren án hǽr of eówrum heáfde

[Not one hair of your head will be lost]

In case you are wondering where it is, the form of the word here is hǽr. I would say that it is still recognizable, and we can still see hair in this earlier form. There are cognates of the word in other Germanic languages, such as hǣr in West Saxon, hēr in other Saxon areas, har in Old Norse and Old German. Modern German and Dutch share the word Haar.

All these point to a common root in Proto Germanic, and the proposed term is *hæran or *khæran, simply meaning ‘hair’.

Sometimes it may seem odd that we are still using the same words with only minor differences that people used so many centuries ago. Personally, it makes me wonder what the language of the future will be like