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’.

Birth

Here is a word that applies to all of us without exception. No matter where or how, we have all been born: we have all had a birth.

So where does the word come from? Is it a Latin root, through French, perhaps. Well, no, in French it is naissance. Is it from Greek? In Greek, birth is γεννα [genna] or τοκετός [toketos]. So we will have to look elsewhere.

Let’s start by going back to Middle English. Here we may find various spellings, including bird, burd, burth, borth and byrd as well as the much more familiar birth. We have a nice example in On the Properties of Things, John Trevisa’s translation from Latin of Bartholomaeus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum, dating to 1398.

If defnes be in birþe, it is incurable.

Deafness from birth is incurable.

 

The words and sentiment are all familiar and easy to understand. Some parts of the human experience have changed very little or not at all over the centuries it seems. Going back slightly earlier, to 1225, we have a quote from Old English Homilies at Trinity College:

On þe ehteðe dai efter his burþe

On the eighth day afer his birth

Does this bring us any closer to the origin of the word? Well, birþe and burþe are alternate spellings of the same word, and it derives from Old Norse *byrðr, also meaning ‘birth’. However, this is not where the tale ends. The Old Norse word was easily adopted by English speakers, as it was cognate with and similar to the word that had previously been used: Old English gebyrd. Here is an example from the Codex Exoniensis, a tenth century collection of poetry in Old English:

Bearnes þurh gebyrde

through the birth of a child

Very similar here in the Anglo Saxon Gospels, from a similar time frame:

Cennan bearn mid gebyrdum

to bring forth children by birth

The interesting thing is that both gybyrd and *byrðr derive from the same place: Proto-Germanic *gaburthis, which also gave rise to Dutch geboorte and German Geburt. This in turn came from Proto-Indo-European *bhrto, which is thought to be the past participle root of *bher, meaning ‘to bear children’ or ‘to carry’. Is this the end of our tale? Not quite. This root in Proto-Indo-European is also thought to be the source of numerous other words in Greek, including the words for mare (possibly as a horse that bears a load), bring, and coffin. Somehow it seems fitting that coffin and birth are linked, albeit in different languages: it highlights the circle of life.

Tongue

Never one to pass up on the opportunity to talk about language, I was only too happy to accede to the request of one of my readers and write about ‘tongue’. This word has a double meaning as the organ in the mouth and also ‘language’. Most apt for the purposes of this blog, I feel.

On seeing the spelling of the word, with the -gue ending, you may be forgiven for wondering if it derives from French, as this continues to be a common ending in that language. But spelling, as we have seen before, may be deceptive, and it seems that in this case the spelling does not reveal the origin. Indeed, in Middle English, it may be spelt variously tung, tong, tongge, tungen, tongan, among others.

If we take a look at how the word was used in Middle English, we can compare with today’s usage:

we gladly opyn oure tonge largely forto speke

We gladly use our tongue, largely in order to speak

 

This is taken from A Deuout Treatyse Called the Tree and xii Frutes of the Holy Goost dating to 1460. You can see that while the turn of phrase may have moved on, the meaning of the word ‘tongue’ is the same. Going back a few hundred years, to Early Middle English in the twelfth century, we can see something similar:

 

Nim þisse wyrte leaf, leȝe under þa tungan

Take this leaf and place under the tongue

 

While I am not in the habit of placing leaves under my tongue, I can readily understand it, and it seems that the meaning of the word is unchanged. But where did it come from? Not, it would seem, from French, where the word is ‘langue‘. Instead, our answer lies in Old English, where we can find the form tunge (in the examples below it appears as ‘tungan‘ in the accusative and dative cases).

 

Ic hæfde ðe lætran tungan

I have a sluggish tongue

This comes from the Junius Manuscript, a collection of poetry in Old English telling the Biblical story of Exodus dating to around 930. Another example, from just a short period earlier:

 

mid tungan fácenfullíce dydon

they used the tongue deceitfully

 

This is from the Old English Psalterium, which was written some time during the late 800s. So it would appear that this word comes from a Germanic root, and indeed the theory is that it derives from Proto-Germanic *tungon, which would also be the source of Dutch tong, German Zunge, and others. The meaning remains the same – ‘tongue’ in the sense of both the organ and speech. Stepping back a little further, the proposed root in Proto-Indo-European is *dnghu, which would also have meant ‘tongue’.

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.