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.

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.

Field

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.

 

Dent

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.

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