On Dancing and Ballet


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’.


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’.


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.


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.


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:

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