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 that!

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,

School. Student.

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, really.

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 your students.”

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 language.

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.”

Squish syndrome

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 survive.

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

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