Rainbow

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Continuing to feature the etymology of book titles: this article is in association with Mom’s Favorite Reads.

Mom’s Favorite Reads is an international community of readers and authors. Check out their web page above! Today’s author spotlight is on: Sylva Fae.

rainbow

What a marvellous image is conjured by this word: rainbow. We think of colour and light, and it is a cheerful thought, despite the rain.

Given the miserable weather on the island where English arose, it comes as no suprise that this word has been in the language for a very long time. Let’s take a look at its passage through the centuries. We shall go first to 1450, to that stage of our language known as Middle English. At a distance of so many centuries, you might reasonably expect the word to be different, so you will be disappointed in our quote from the Middle English translation of Macer Floridus de Viribus Herbarum, originally a hexameter poem in Latin.

for his floures hauyn colour like þe reinbowe.

[For his flowers have colour like the rainbow.]

Aside from the very small difference in spelling, the word is very familiar and easily recognisable. But we won’t stop there. Let’s take a small leap a little further back into Middle English, to 1387, where we find John Trevisa’s Translation of the ‘Polychronicon‘ of Ranulph Higden.

if þat stoon is i-holde aʒenst þe sonne, it schal schape a reynbowe

[If that stone is held against the sun, it shall shape a rainbow.]

Again, the only major difference is in the spelling. I find it rather reassuring that this sentence, written so long ago, could easily be heard today. Underneath all our modern technology, we are still the same, and can still enjoy the pretty patterns caused by the sun striking a stone. But let’s return to our word. We shall now track it back into Old English, where we have two quotes from the 7th century. The first is from the Anglo Saxon version of Genesis:

Ic sette mínne rénbogan on wolcnum

[I set my rainbow on the clouds]

Here the word is renboga, here used in the accusative form as renbogan. You can see it in the nominative in our final quote, from a work by Caedmon:

rénboga cymþ of ðam sunbeáme and of wǽtum wolcne

[The rainbow comes of the sunbeams and of wet clouds.]

The language is now much less familiar, and more difficult for your average speaker of Modern English to understand, especially when compared with the Middle English version. But the word ‘rainbow‘ is not radically different. We can find cognates of it in other Germanic languages: Swedish regenbåge, Dutch regenboog, German Regenbogen. Having established that this is a Germanic word, we shall now split it easily into two parts: rain + bow.

The first part means, you’ve guessed it, rain. It derives from the Proto-Germanic root *regna, also meaning rain, and, as with the compound word, there are cognates in many other Germanic languages. The second part, bow, comes from Old English boga, the second element in renboga in the quotes above. This word meant bow, as in the weapon used for archery, but also anything bent or curved or arched: hence its use for rainbow, in reference to the shape. It derives from Proto-Germanic *bugon, which in turn is from the Proto-Indo-European root *bheug-, meaing ‘to bend’. And here comes the final twist in our tale: a word that also derives ultimately from *bheug-, and is thus a cognate of ‘bow’ is something you might find on your plate: bagel.

rainbow monsters

The inspiration for today’s article comes from Sylva Fae with her book Rainbow Monsters, available here.

 

 

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Saving Grace

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A new feature on the blog: this article is in association with Mom’s Favorite Reads.

Mom’s Favorite Reads is an international community of readers and authors. Check out their web page above! Today’s author spotlight is on: Hannah Howe

Saving Grace

I expect you have all heard this expression at one time or another; it means “the thing that in some way mitigates all the negative points”. But where does it come from?

It’s actually quite simple to get to the origin of this phrase. But we like things to be a little more challenging. So, we are going to go first to the etymology of the word ‘grace’, and from there to the expression.

If you speak a Romance language, or even if you have just heard the Italian or Spanish words for ‘thank you’, then it may come as no surprise that ‘grace’ derives from Latin. Specifically, it comes from gratia, which meant ‘favour, positive quality, gratitude’. You can see how in Italian and Spanish it has developed to mean ‘thank you’. Gratia derives from gratus, which, unsurprisingly, meant ‘pleasing, nice’ and other similar things. It came into Middle English via Old French some time during the 12th century, and in Old French, Latin gratia had already become grace, and had taken on a religious significance; the grace of God, the positive favour granted by God to human beings.

Now you will understand why we looked first at ‘grace‘. Our expression, saving grace, derives from the religious usage of the word. According to Christianity, it is by God’s grace that we are saved, God’s special favour redeems us despite all our faults and flaws. And that, of course, is exactly how the expression is used: something becomes acceptable despite its flaws; it has a grace that saves it.

If we step back in time, we find that originally, when the expression was used in a non-religious context, people spoke of a ‘helping grace’, as only God could save. Thus we find:

oure helpyng grace muste… be seid to be ij qualitees of which oon schal be in oure resoun to tech

[Our helping grace must be said to be in qualities, of which one is our mental capacity to teach.]

(Reginald Pecock, The Rule of Christian Religion, 1443)

On an interesting note, gratus is thought to have evolved from Proto-Indo-European root *gwreto, itself from *gwere, ‘to favour, to be pleasing’. This is also the source of the word ‘agree’, coming from the sense ‘something pleasing’, which makes us sound rather smug when we agree!

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Saving Grace is also the title of a fabulous thriller by Hannah Howe, which exploits the expression for a marvellous pun. Available here.

Alien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bifore me þou schalt not haue noon alien goddis.

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

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

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

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

A Place for Fun: On the Origins of School

Do you view school as a place of enjoyment? Is it the first place that pops into mind when you hear the word ‘fun’? This might seem like a strange question, but all will quickly become clear.

The word we use today to mean ‘place of learning/ teaching’ developed from a word in Old English, in which the word was scól. You may notice that the spelling is considerably different – they felt no need to put an H after the C. So why do we do that today, since the pronunciation would be the same without it?

The answer is that during the Renaissance, which was from the 14th to the 17th centuries, classical learning was very popular. By classical learning, people meant Latin and ancient Greek. People wanted to show off their scholarship, they wanted to display their knowledge of the origins of the word. So they put a C in ‘school’ to show their awareness that it came from Latin schola, which was borrowed originally from Greek σχολή [skhole].

The interesting thing is that in Latin, the word did not refer just to the place where people went to learn. It also meant ‘leisure time for learning’ as well as ‘debate, lecture’ and even ‘scholarly conversation’. So you can see that the meaning has narrowed down considerably over the centuries!

Let’s go now to the word in the original Greek: σχολή [skhole]. This word only came to mean what it does today by transferal, or association, if you prefer. It meant ‘spare time’ or also ‘leisure, rest, thing to do for fun’. So how on earth did it get from one meaning to the other? It is simple. In ancient Greece, learning was highly prized, and people would spend their spare time holding debates and discussions; this really was their idea of fun. Eventually, the word became associated less wih the activity and more with the place they went to carry it out. And as you can learn a lot through a discussion, especially with a knowledgeable person, the activity was seen more as learning than as ‘having fun’. Thus, the word was transferred from the activity to the place where it happened.

The word became extremely popular, and was borowed into many languages. It is used in French école, Spanish escuela, Welsh ysgol, Italian scuola, German Schule, Swedish skola as well as others. It seems a pity that it has lost its meaning of ‘leisure time activity’, but it is intriguing to note that there is still a word in Modern Greek today meaning ‘activity’ (ασχόληση [ascholisi]) which derives from σχολή. So who knows: if school is enjoyable, then perhaps this meaning will once again be associated with the word. Let’s hope the government gets the memo.

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.

Window

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’.