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.



One point to consider in language is how much our pronunciation is influenced by spelling, or by other words that sound similar enough to be confusing. I often think it would be interesting to come back in three hundred years and see how far the language has gone, considerng that we are living in a time of unprecedented wideespread literacy.

In this word, dent, we have a prime example of a word that has been influenced by other lexical items that appear similar but have entirely different roots. On first glance, you might think that it looks similar to the first element in dentist, dental, denture, etc. Could it be from the Latin word for ‘tooth’?

The modern version of the word may indeed have been influenced by Latin dens (the genitive form of the word is dentis), and we can see some effects of that influence in texts from the 14th century. Let’s take a look at these two lines, that come one after the other, from Sir Degarre, a Middle English Romance dating to 1330.

In þe helm he set his dent.

In þe sscheld he set his dint.

(He struck the helm,

He struck the shield.)

But wait. What’s going on here? No one said anything about striking did they? Well, that’s just it. Around 700 years ago, that is exactly what dent meant. A blow, a strike. Think about what might happen if you strike something soft, or even something hard with enough force. You might leave a dent.

Now take a look at the Middle English lines again. You may notice that dent is expressed as dent in one, but dint in the other. This is because the early Middle English word was dint, but there were dialectal variations starting to become more popular at that time, and one of these was dent.

Not only that, but the Latin word dentis had crept into English through other words, such as endenten, ‘to make notches’ (with the appearance of teeth-marks). These new additions to the languages started to affect the early Middle English word dint, as people, taking their cues from the ever more familiar dialect words, assumed that they were really part and parcel of the same word.

Let’s take a step back into Old English to see a little more of the word’s development. This line comes from Salomon and Saturn, a series of riddles and verse written in Old English, perhaps during the ninth century and the age of King Alfred.

Ne wyrnaþ deórra dynta

(They do not spare severe blows).

You can see that here the word is dynt, or dynta in this plural form. It tends to be found in the context of fighting and combat. There is a cognate word in Old Norse, dyntr, which also meant ‘blow’ and also ‘kick’. A root has been proposed in Proto-Germanic; *duntiz, meaning ‘blow, strike’. An ultimate link with the source of the Latin word for tooth, dens, is not thought to be the case. The source for *duntiz is thought to be a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘strike, hit, blow’, and the proposal is *den- (the root for dens is *dent-). However, the Middle Englsh endenten I mentioned previously has given rise to indent in Modern English, so dens has certainly had its part to play outside of direct references to things affecting our teeth.


This post is dedicated to Angela

The internet abounds with cute memes featuring all kinds of animals, and hedgehogs are no exception. But what of the word itself?

It consists of two elements, as I am sure you can easily see: hedge + hog. These two were put together sometime during the late 1300s, presumably because the animal is frequently to be found in or near hedges, and because its snout bears a passing resembance to a pig. Intriguing spellings such as hegge-hogge and heyghoge can be found in Late Middle English, and the two elements of the word can both be traced to Old English and Germanic roots.

But if this word only came into being in the fourteenth century, how was the animal known until that time? Certainly hedgehogs didn’t suddenly evolve out of thin air!

They were known in Old English as igil, a word with cognates in other Germanic languages, at least until Old French started to exert its influence over English, and the word yrichon came to be adopted, itself an adaptation of Old French herichon (this word has evolved into the Modern French equivalent hérisson). This is where it gets interesting: yrichon developed into the word urchin, a word which is still used to mean ‘hedgehog’ in some dialects.

Gradually, people of raggedy appearance, especially smaller people or children, came to be known as urchins, perhaps because their ragged clothes were reminiscent of a hedgehog’s spikes, and for most dialects of English, this new meaning of urchin came to dominate over the older sense.

So the modern French word for ‘hedgehog’ is a cousin of ‘urchin’, and both come an ancient Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘bristle’, a root which also gave us the word horror, a word seldom applied to a hedgehog (and one that’s worthy of a post all of its own).

On the Origins of Write

Education for a much wider section of the population has meant that more people than ever before are able to write. We might write differently today from the way we did in the past, whether because the shape of the letters have changed, some have been lost, or because we now write by tapping keys as well as by hand. Even our handwritten work is not the same – when was the last time you reached for a quill and pot of ink? Or even a chisel to engrave your words?

But what of the word itself? You can read about its history in my post for the Conclave of Sappho: On the Origins of the Word Write


Hurrah! December is here. Christmas is approaching, celebration is in the air. Time to deck those halls with boughs of holly!


But wait. What is this holly we are using to decorate the home? Where does it come from? Not the plant, of course, for that you can find a botanical site. Here we shall look at the word itself.


You may be considering its resemblance to holy and wondering if they are related. Well, wonder no longer. I can put your mind at rest. There is no connection, and today’s similarities are purely coincidental.


Holly can easily be traced to Middle English, where, as you may by now have come to expect, there was a variety of spellings, such as holin, holinge, holun, holi, holli, holie and holien. This is not just because some are later than others, and the word had evolved, it is also a reflection of the non-standardised spellings.


This can be amply demonstrated if we compare these two examples. The first is from 1475, from a collection of English carols:


Holy hat berys, as rede as any rose.


(Holly has berries as red as any rose)


You may well recognize that particular carol. But setting that aside for the time being, let’s compare the word holly in this next example. It is from 1470, from the Works of Sir Thomas Malory.


He syghe hym sytte undir a tre of hooly.


(He saw him sit under a holly tree)


These examples are only five years apart, and you can easily see that the word has been spelt differently.


Now let’s continue tracing our word on its journey through time. We are still in the period of Middle English, but some 240 years earlier, leaping back to 1230 and a mention for holly in the Ancrene Wisse, also known as the Ancrene Riwle, a sort of manual for anchoresses.


Wið holin ne wið breres


(With holly or with brambles)


In this earlier example, holly still has its final /n/. This has carried over from Old English, as we shall see here, in this brief mention in the Codex Exoniensis (the Exeter Book), which dates to the 10th century.


Holen sceal in æled


(Holly shall to the fire)


Similarly, I found it as a compound noun, Holenleáfa, meaning ‘holly leaves’ in Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of early England, a collection of writings dating to the ninth century.


Can we trace it any further back, before Old English? We can indeed. German gives us Hulst, with the same word appearing in Dutch, from Old High German we take hulis, while Old Norse has hulfr. All of these have helped to find the root in the language that gave rise to all of those, known as Proto-Germanic, and the root in question is *hulin.


Perhaps you may be surprised to learn that this is cognate, or related to Middle Irish cuilenn and Welsh celyn. Try pronouncing ‘hulin’ with a heavy aspiration, or harsh breathing on the /h/, and it may be easier to see the connection.


All of these are thought to come from Proto-Indo-European root *kel-, meaning ‘to prick’; one glance at holly leaves will tell you why!


Finally, this brings me onto my own cause for celebration this Christmas: the publication of my book Christmas in Greece.




12299888_747767018662553_712728856_oContinuing the story of Lucy the InstaExplorer, this book transports young readers, pre-teens and young teens, into a magical season of traditions and festivities, as Lucy struggles to learn the language while discovering local Christmas folklore and sampling its delicacies.

Christmas in Greece is available here:

UK Customers

International Customers


Here is a word for everyone. Everyone? I hear you ask. Yes, everyone. There is nobody that doesn’t eat; therefore food is something for us all. The only issue is what flavour it will be.

But here we are not concerned with flavours, at least not for today. We are going to look at the word itself. Where did it come from? And what is its history?

We shall start with Middle English, just a step back from our language of today. Here we can find several forms: fọ̄de, vode, foyde, fude, fudde, and also the very easily recognisable foode. In Middle English, the word meant ‘food’, much as we understand it today, but also ‘fuel’, and it could be used to refer to wood put on a fire, for example. Still today, we may talk of feeding a fire.

Now let’s take a look at the word in context. Our first example is from the Middle English Genesis and Exodus and dates to 1325.

to fode and srud, to helpen ðe lif.

[to give food and clothe, to help the life.]

Here, ‘feed’ and ‘food’ are the same word; the noun and the verb are identical. Let’s take a look at a reference from the Hali Meidenhad, which is a homily from 1225.

Þu speke þruppe of monnes help to flutunge mid fode

[you spoke to the homestead of men, help to provide with food]

In this case, although the word is exactly the same in form, it is used as a noun rather than the verb of the previous example. It is clear that it is not far removed from our word of today. But what about taking a step further back in time? Are there greater changes?

Well, changes there are indeed, but not enormous ones. Having gone through Middle English, it does not take a lot to recognise the form the word had in Old English. This time, our example comes from The Homilies of Ælfric and dates to around 990.

Búton ðam gódspellícan fódan

[without the spiritual food]

In this example, the form is fódan. While this is not enormously different from the fode of Middle English, it may appear even closer when I point out that Old English used a grammatical case system since lost to us, and that the nominative form of the word was fóda. This may put you in mind of fodder, and indeed, this word is from the same root and as such is a cognate of food.

There are cognates in other languages in the Germanic family, such as Swedish föda, Danish föde, German Futter. All of these point the way to an earlier common form, Proto-Germanic *fodon.

As sounds develop and evolve over the centuries, one frequent adaptation is the /p/ becoming an /f/. The most obvious example of this that comes to mind is in the words father and pater, but the phenomenon can also be seen within the same language, such as with πτερά [ptera], the ancient Greek word for ‘wings’ becoming φτερά [ftera] in Modern Greek.

We see the same thing here, as the distant root of ‘food’ in Proto-Indo-European is thought to be *pat-, a /p/ sound rather than /f/. The meaning is pasture, feed, protect, guard. Cognates have been traced in words such as ‘pasture’, pastor, which would simply have meant ‘feeder’, Latin panis, meaning ‘bread’, Avestan pitu, meaning ‘food’, and others.