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’.


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.


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’.

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.

Cheese, the food of the gods

Cheese comes in many varieties and there are a range of flavours and aromas associated with it. It has long been part of our diets, as attested to in texts such as by Hippocrates from around 400 BC. But of course, Hippocrates spoke Greek and his writing was in Greek, which means that he used the word τύρον [tyron]. What of the English word; cheese?

What a small but smooth word this is. It flows beautifully off the tongue and onto the plate. Or perhaps indeed onto the palate!

And it too is not a modern invention. This word has been with us for a very long time. Let’s take a look at the Peterborough Chronicle from around 1160.

Þa was corn dære, & flec & cæse & butere.

(There was corn there, and meat and cheese and butter.)

At that time, in the period of our language known as Middle English, ‘cheese’ was cæse, as you can see above, but also chese, cyse, chise. There are references to it in many places, in diverse texts and it appears to have been quite popular. The only thing we cannot be sure of is the flavour!

However, the word did not arrive in English fully formed during the twelfth century. Its history goes back further than that, and can be found in Old English texts.


In West Saxon it was generally cyse, while in Anglian it was cese, both meaning cheese. Here is an example from the Anglo Saxon version of Medicina de Quadrupedis by Sextus Placitus, a fourth century work that was rendered into English during the ninth century. It was printed in Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England during the eighteenth century.


Níwe gáte cýse

(new goat’s cheese)


This seems very recognisable. Little has changed in the intervening centuries, you might think, except the numbers of varieties!


But can we trace its history any further? The Old English words came from a West Germanic source; *kasjus, which itself came from the Latin word caseus, which of course also meant “cheese”. This word has spread around the continent, with Käse in German, kaas in Dutch, queso in Spanish, caws in Welsh and also càise in Scottish Gaelic, to mention just a few.

On theory suggests that it might derive from a Proto-Indo-European root *kwat, meaning “ferment, become sour”., although there seems to be some dispute about that. Whatever the truth of this theory, in my humble opinion this is where the ancient Greeks made a huge mistake. Forget nectar, forget ambrosia. The food of the gods is cheese.


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.