by Suzanne Blake, OCT
by Suzanne Blake, OCT
by Gabrielle Bauer
by Karen Horsman
by Katherine Barber
Manure & Magatogas
R u fed up cuz ur students use txt abbreviations?
And, what’s more, they use “sick” to mean “good.” Not to mention
“bad” to mean “good.” How dare they try to change the language like
Will it in fact change because of this?
Perhaps, but perhaps not. One thing is certain, though: The language
has always been, and will always be, subject to change. The very
words you use every day in school are not what they once were.
by Katherine Barber
illustrations by Sonia Roy, Colagene.com
Etymologically, the former
means “leisure time” and the latter “an eager, zealous and diligent
person.” Ha! So much for word histories, you think. But wait. A fancier
word for “teacher” originally designated a type of slave. A word for
the subjects the Ministry requires you to cover has something to do
with running around in circles. There’s a good reason why tests make
people testy. Yes, there’s more to the history of the English language
than you might think. For those of you who have to teach it, it can
in fact be – gasp – fun, and it may give other teachers new and surprising
insights into their subjects, with which to entertain students. No,
Mists of time
Back in the mists of time, the British Isles were inhabited by the
Celts and were then invaded by the Romans. You don’t have to remember
either of them for the final exam. (I told you the students would enjoy
this.) But, you may be saying, what about all those English words that
come from Latin? The Romans spoke Latin, didn’t they? Indeed they did,
but all those Latin words came into English much later, not when the
Romans were actually living in England.
The next people who arrived you do have to remember for the final
exam (you knew it couldn’t go on being this easy). These were three
Germanic tribes – the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes – who lived
in what is now southern Denmark and northern Germany. In about 450 they
sailed westward and bumped into the country that has ever since been
known as Angle-land: England. In common with many of their invading
ilk, they were a rather arrogant lot. They called the resident Celts
“foreigners” (wealh) and promptly shuffled them off to the edges
of the British Isles, one of those edges being the country we now call
Wales, literally “land of the foreigners.”
To this day, the common terms having to do with essential human experience
– “eat,” “house,” “be,” “live,” not to mention “teach” and “learn”
– derive from the related languages of the Anglo-Saxons. The basic
meaning of many such words has not changed over the intervening 15 centuries,
or only very slightly. “Teach,” for instance, originally meant “show”
(and “teacher” was briefly the name of the index finger, used for showing
something) but very quickly took on its current meaning. Have you ever
wondered: If “taught” is the past tense of “teach,” why isn’t “raught”
the past tense of “reach”? In fact, it used to be, but at some point
in the Middle Ages “reach” became a regular verb while “teach” remained
stubbornly irregular, despite efforts by some to use “teached.” Surely
it couldn’t be that teachers had a vested interest, in that language
irregularities kept them in a job.
“I am sure you have never thought of manuring
The Vikings, who started arriving in about 800, spoke Old Norse, another
Germanic language. They settled mostly in what is now northeastern
England and southern Scotland, which accounts to some degree for why
the people on Coronation Street sound different than the Queen. Many
Viking words stayed stuck in the north and didn’t become part of general
world English, which grew out of southern English instead. But others
did infiltrate the south. Many Viking words start with a “sk” sound
(think of where they came from: Scandinavia), whereas related Anglo-Saxon
words started with a “sh” instead. Take “skirt” and “shirt,” which
originally designated the same long smock-like garment, “skirt” being
the Old Norse word and “shirt” the Anglo-Saxon one. Some cultures might
have felt obliged to opt for one word or the other, but if you think
of the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle slogan, we English speakers have never
been into the reduce part. It is almost as if we said, “Hey, if we
keep both skirt and shirt, we can have … separates!” English loves
synonyms and subtle sense distinctions.
The next event in England’s history delivered them by the bushel.
Adopting and adapting
In 1066 the Norman French under William the Conqueror (also known,
and not only to the English, as William the Bastard) defeated the English
King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and became England’s rulers.
For many centuries thereafter, French was used for anything that was
a preoccupation of the ruling class – for instance, government, the
legal system and money. Indeed, those three words “government,” “legal,”
“money” are French, not Anglo-Saxon.
While many Anglo-Saxon words survived the Norman invasion, some, like magatoga,
the delightful word for “schoolmaster,” lost the battle entirely and
died out of the language. But a third category of word neither died
out nor remained an essential part of the vocabulary, instead staying
in the language but with restricted usage, often as a less frequent
synonym of a French word.
Say the Anglo-Saxons went partying, drank too much and passed out.
The word they used was “swoon.” You will agree that “swoon” is no longer
a basic essential word in English. The reason you don’t complain to
your doctor that you’ve been swooning lately is that the French came
along and also drank too much and passed out, but their word was “faint”
(related to “feign” and originally meaning “pretend to be sick”). It
would have been terribly un-English to waste a good word like “swoon”
when it could be used for something else. Why exactly English needs
a word to mean “faint in particularly romantic circumstances” I don’t
know, but the more synonyms, the better.
With Anglo-Saxon surviving alongside French, English became an unusually
hybrid language, with a strong underpinning of Germanic from the Anglo-Saxons
and the Vikings and an equally strong overlay of Romance (Latin) language
from the French. The words we use for family members are revealing.
Closest to us we have mother, father, sister, brother, child. All Anglo-Saxon
words. If you go to the next level of kinship, we have aunt, uncle,
nephew, niece, cousin. All French words. It illustrates quite neatly
the sweeping generalization that words designating what is essential
to us tend to be Anglo-Saxon, while things that are a little less important
are French. Grandmother, grandfather, grandson, granddaughter and grandchild
are all perfect hybrids, “grand” being French and the other words Anglo-Saxon.
Thus, right in our own family we can see the history of the English
When we say that French comes from Latin, we are not always talking
about the classical Latin of Cicero and Virgil. Rather, the source
was often what is called popular or vulgar Latin, the language of the
Roman soldiers and market traders and their wives – Latin slang, in
effect. A good example of this is what happened to the classical Latin
word testa (pot). The French (and, after borrowing it, we) used
this word for the crucible in which gold was assayed to determine its
purity. By Shakespeare’s time this had become metaphorical, so a “test”
was a trial of quality or character. Much later, coinciding with the
introduction of compulsory education in the late 19th century, the
word came to be used in academic circles for those things that students
hate. But the Latin testa also underwent another evolution.
In Latin slang it was used to mean a person’s head (rather as we use
“mug” for someone’s face). This is why the French word for “head” is tête rather
than a derivative of the classical Latin word for it, caput.
The circumflex indicates a missing s; in Old French the word was teste,
and a headstrong person was testif. From headstrong, stubborn
and impetuous, it was only a short step to aggressive and short-tempered,
giving us the word “testy.”
Polysyllabic Latin words were reduced to something much snappier in
the former Gaul, usually by removing a few consonants in the middle.
I call this the French squishing syndrome. Not a linguistic term but
a good description of what happened. This is where you find out what
manure has to do with education. The French squished the Latin phrase manu
operari (“work with the hands”) down to manouvrer, using
it to mean “cultivate the land.” We English shortened it some more
to manourer but also used it figuratively to mean “cultivate the spirit
or the mind.” I am sure you have never thought of manuring your students.
Then again …
Since you can’t cultivate the land without applying dung, soon the
association with excrement became too strong for any other sense to
Manouvrer also gave us “manoeuvre,” but that was borrowed much later
directly from modern French. There are many of these doublets (and
even triplets) in English, as words having the same ultimate origin
came into English at different times and by different routes.
Another source of doublets was the difference between Norman French
and Parisian French. Some French words (a very few) derive not from
Latin but from another Germanic language, Frankish. The Franks, who
lived in southern Germany, invaded Gaul at about the same time the
Angles and company were invading England. Then the Vikings invaded
Normandy (“the land of the Norsemen”), giving it an extra dose of Germanic.
This is very important, as we will see with the fascinating story of
the word “wallop.”
The Frankish phrase wala hlaupan (run well), related to the
same Germanic words that gave English “well” and “leap,” was squished
down by the Norman French to waloper and used to describe horses
running. In post-Conquest England, it was the French who had the wealth
to maintain horses for riding, so French words started to usurp Anglo-Saxon
words for equestrian matters. Throughout the Middle Ages, horses went
walloping down the roads in England. But meanwhile, back at the horse
ranch in central France, people who hadn’t had that extra dollop of
Germanic from the Vikings couldn’t say the many Frankish words beginning
in “w.” They stuck a “g” at the beginning to give themselves a running
leap at it. After a while they decided “gw” was too much work, so waloper ended
up as galoper in Parisian French. In the 1500s the English decided
they didn’t want their horses to wallop anymore; they wanted them to
gallop like those chic Parisian horses. But they didn’t get rid of
“wallop” (terribly un-English to waste a good word); they started to
use it to mean “make the sound of a horse galloping.” Since one way
to make that sound is to whack someone upside the head, “wallop” ended
up meaning what it does today.
You can see many such pairs in English. Why do we have “warranty”
and “guarantee,” meaning just about the same thing and spelled just
enough differently to make our lives miserable? It was the same phenomenon:
We borrowed “warranty,” a money-related word, from the Normans, and
then a couple of centuries later we borrowed “guarantee” from central
French. The silent “u” in the spelling is a vestige from when the Old
French were still pronouncing it “gwarantee.” In Modern French it’s garantie.
No “u.” French pronunciation has moved on, and spelling has moved on
with it. But not us. No. One of the reasons English spelling is so
wacky is that it often reflects Old French pronunciations.
Stay tuned. It got even wackier in the Renaissance.
Katherine Barber, known from media appearances
and speaking engagements as Canada’s Word Lady, was Editor-in-Chief
of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Visit her at katherinebarber.blogspot.com.