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.

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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.

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’.

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.