Fairy

Here is an interesting word, a nice example of how perceptions can change. These days, we may think of fairies and our minds go to fairytales, to cute little creatures with wings and wands, the stuff of children’s films and stories.

But this has not always been the case, and fairies have also been viewed as terrifying beings. Certainly, the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are nothing like the Tinkerbells of Disney.

The word came into English in the 1300s, from Old French. It meant both ‘supernatural being’ and ‘home/ country of supernatural beings’. There were a number of spellings in Middle English, such as fayri, faeri, feyry, fairi, and so on.

Let’s take a look at an example of it from John Lydgate‘s work King Henry VI’s Triumphal Entry into London, dating to 1435

Twoo olde men..dydde appere lyke ffolkes off ffeyrye.

(Two old men did appear, like folks of fairy).

In this case, it is the country that is referred to with the word ‘fairy’, and indeed faerie in Old French appears to have been most common with this meaning. Old French developed the word from Latin fata, which meant the Fates, or the goddesses of destiny. The English word fate obviously comes from the same source, making it a cognate of fairy.

But we can do better than this. We can trace the word back further. The Latin word fata is the plural of fatum, which literally means “utterance”. It was formed from fari, which means “utter”. Thus, fate is “that which is uttered” (the implication being that it is the gods who are doing the uttering!). This Latin meaning helps us to trace the word to its earlier source in Proto-Indo-European. It comes from the root *bha-, meaning ‘speak, say’. Cognates such as Sanskrit bhanati, ‘speaks’, Old English ben ‘prayer, request’, English ban, Greek φωνή [foni] ‘voice, sound’ and others attest to this root.

Did you notice the modern English word? Yes. Ban is a distant cognate of fairy. Make of that what you will.

Advertisements

Hedgehog

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).

Cottage

These days, many people think of a cottage as a quaint old house in the countryside, perhaps with a thatched roof. But the sense of the word was once much wider, and would have included structures built to house animals, and various outbuildings that were part of the same main property.

In this form, it starts its story in English during the late 13th century. In Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, in the Nun’s Priest’s Prologue, which dates to 1390, we can find a very nice reference to it:

They ne founde as muche as a cotage

In which they bothe myghte ylogged be.

[They never found so much as a cottage

In which they both might stay.]

The word is the same here as it is today, with only a very minor spelling adjustment. And now comes a part of some intrigue in the tale of this word. The suffix -age is Anglo-French and can be seen in a number of other nouns. So does this mean that word comes from French? If we take a look at Old French, we discover the term cote, with an older form cot which is unrelated to the modern English cot, but it meant ‘hut’, and could be the source we are looking for of cottage.

Wait. Not so fast. If we dig a little deeper, we find that the Old French cot derived from Old Norse kot, also meaning ‘hut’. It is a word of Germanic origin, and Old English is known to be a Germanic language. So let’s take a look at Old English.

We witan ðæt hý ne durran hý selfe æt hám æt heora cotum werian

[We know that they dare not defend themselves at home in their own houses]

This quote is taken from King Alfred’s version of Orosius’s History, translated into Old English during the ninth centry, but there are many other references to cot in Old English, meaning ‘cottage, hut, dwelling place’.

A Proto-Germanic root of *kutan has been proposed, also meaning ‘hut, cottage’. But let’s now go back to where we were: Old French or Old English? It is in fact hard to say. The suffix is well known in Anglo-French, but the stem could well have come from both sources, its similarity meaning that it was easily adopted.

There are cognates of this word in Dutch, another Germanic language. But an interesting little note at this point is that in patois normand, or the French dialect spoken in Normandy, cottin means ‘small house’. It is worth remembering here that Anglo-French developed from the Norman dialect. The word has lived on over the centuries.

And now, while we are on the subject of cottage, what better place to take a relaxing break than in a beautiful cottage, fitted with modern conveniences but in the timeless setting of the gorgeous Welsh countryside; a little slice of the past in the present. Check out Esgair Wen near Dolgellau.

 

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

Holly

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

Food

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.

Hair

What images does this word call to mind? Hair styled in many different ways, perhaps. Dyed in bright colours, left naturally grey. Curly, straight, wavy. Completely shaved off, balding or thick and luxurious. There are many ways our hair can be.

But what of the word itself? Where does it come from?

We’ll start our journey with Middle English, and its enormous variety of spellings for this word: hẹ̄r, er, herre, heir, hier, hear, hær hor, har, and even the familiar hair. Our first example is from Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale, from 1375.

In his heeris al his strengthe lay.

Does it look familiar? The whole sentence is still very close to modern English. Even with the alternative spellings, the modern word is still recognizable in its predecessors.

Let’s compare it with an earlier example, this time taken from the period of the language known as Old English, some 300 years before Chaucer. This comes from The Homilies of Ælfric, an English monk and abbot.

Ne sceal eów beón forloren án hǽr of eówrum heáfde

[Not one hair of your head will be lost]

In case you are wondering where it is, the form of the word here is hǽr. I would say that it is still recognizable, and we can still see hair in this earlier form. There are cognates of the word in other Germanic languages, such as hǣr in West Saxon, hēr in other Saxon areas, har in Old Norse and Old German. Modern German and Dutch share the word Haar.

All these point to a common root in Proto Germanic, and the proposed term is *hæran or *khæran, simply meaning ‘hair’.

Sometimes it may seem odd that we are still using the same words with only minor differences that people used so many centuries ago. Personally, it makes me wonder what the language of the future will be like