Friday, September 9, 2011

Surprising etymologies

I remember as a child being surprised to realise that fantastic was related to fantasy, and later that brilliant meant shining. ("Le soleil brille," we would all chant when our French teacher asked what the sun did.) Sometimes, knowing the root of a word brings its meaning into focus. 

Probably my favourite is conspire. The Latin spirare means 'to breathe' (as in respiration, perspiration, etc), so it literally means 'breathe together', which for me creates an evocative image of what conspirators do.

This week I had a fascinating discussion with the incomparable Heather Corinna about the awkward relationship between infidelity and infidels. Both come from the Latin fides (faith), which implies a belief based on no evidence. By talking about 'infidelity', we seem to be accepting a religious sanction on our personal relationships, even among those who reject religion. If one partner is covertly sleeping around, that person isn't showing a lack of 'faith'; it's their cuckolded partner who is showing too much faith. Infidelity in relationships has little to do with a lack of faith; it's all about the nastier business of breaking promises.

The only thing surprising about dog is that it appears to have no etymology. It's unrelated to the German hund or the French chien, and no other language anywhere has a comparable word. Various etymologies have been suggested, but none are persuasive.

It's said that English borrows from every language. I'm not sure that's strictly true, but this common little word comes from Mongolian and takes us back into the empire of Genghis Khan (you know it's pronounced Jenghis, don't you?). It's unrelated to 'hoard', which is Anglo-Saxon and refers to treasure. 

The Mongols, being nomads, lived in tents, and a city of tents was an ordos. The h was added by the Poles, who came into uncomfortably close contact with the Mongols during the campaign of 1241. When the Mongol Empire broke up, the Russian branch set up its capital at Sarai, near the Volga, and its wealth was such that the tents were covered with gold-coloured cloth, which is how the Russian Mongols became known as The Khanate [i.e. kingdom] of the Golden Horde. The word horde came to refer to the people rather than their city. Since they fulfilled all the criteria of a horde as we know the word today, the meaning morphed.

Since the Mongols regarded themselves as a 'World Empire', it's not surprising that they had a presence in India as well (where their descendants became the Mughals). The language spoken in their camps took the word for 'camp': Urdu.

While we're in India, let's not forget that the word for a one-storey house comes from there. It is related to the name Bengal and Bangladesh. Sometimes, the name of a place is simply 'home' in the local language.

Some serious contraction has gone on here. How can four little letters mean keeper of bread?

Here's how: in the early Middle Ages, people gave service and loyalty to a lord in return for protection, and they became vassals in the process. Those who put their hands together in prayer are mimicking the medieval act of submission, whereby a vassal would offer his hands to a lord, and the lord would put his hands over the vassal's hands to seal the deal in a symbol of protection.

Protection included managing the food supply. The symbol of sustenance, then as now, was bread (as in "Give us this day our daily bread", which in 1000AD was "yaf us todaȝ urne daȝwamlican hlaf"), so the boss was the hlaf-weard (loaf-ward[en]). That got shortened to lafford and eventually lord.

This brings us neatly to…

This is etymology from a slightly different angle. Essentially, warden and guardian are the same word. English being a Germanic language, we have the w sound. Romance languages, notably French, lacked this sound and so substituted the letter g for w, so the German name Wilhelm became Guilhomme, while you can see how the Gaulish people of Britain became Welsh to their conquerors (actually it's more complicated than this, but it will do for now).

The people of Roman Gaul didn't adopt many words from their Germanic conquerors, the Franks, but some of the language of aggression slipped through: the French for war, guerre, comes from the same root as the German wehr, rather than the Latin bellum. Warden came into the English language from German and Guardian from French. So wardrobe (a piece of furniture for warding your robes) is garde-robe in French.

This consonant-shift brings us back to the words for dog. When the Indo-European languages split into East and West in about 2500BC, the initial k sound hardened to a c in West languages (Latin, Gallic and their descendants) and softened to an h in East languages (all the others, including German and English). So hund and canis, the German and Latin words for dog, have the same root. The same goes for hundred and century.

Moral: I have to blog about this. If I talk about in the pub, my friends' eyes glaze over.


  1. Root words are a source of both surprise and bafflement. I had no idea that dog didn't have a known origin.
    Interesting read as always.

  2. My favorite read of the day. Nice to find your blog and look forward to your posts.

    Love the moral! I can relate.