An example of radical language change

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Words change their meaning as well as their pronunciation for all kinds of reasons: popular, economic, social, political, cultural, physical, psychological and religious. Take infantry, for example. The word for "speak" in Latin was fari. From this root came the word infans, literally "not speaking". The only time in our lives when we can't speak is when we're babies, hence the change in meaning in Latin into "young child unable to speak", and then just "young child". In fact the French derivation, enfant, came to refer to any young person. In Medieval times, two of the main elements of an army were the cavalry and infantry, which comes from Italian infanteria. The cavalry was composed of well-trained horsemen, individually of far greater value than the more numerous infantry, which was composed of young footsoldiers whose loss in battle was more easily borne. In two great leaps, the meaning of modern infantry is completely different from the ancient word infans: from "not-speaking" to "footsoldiers". If we didn't know about Latin word roots, we would have no idea.

A Bit of History

One of the most fascinating things about English has been its ability to borrow huge quantities of words from a variety of languages. English is descended from a group of dialects spoken in northern Germany around the time of the Roman Empire. It borrowed various Latin and Greek words during the time before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded Roman Britain, including butter, cheap and cheese. After Old English became established in Britain, it borrowed a further set of words from Latin and Greek, mainly through the arrival of Christianity, including bishop, church, parish, port, temple and candle.

The invasions and subsequent settlement of the northern and eastern areas of England by the Norse and Danes resulted in numerous Scandinavian words entering the language, including egg, scream, take, get and sky. Many of these words were still similar to the Old English words they replaced. However, the biggest shake-up came with the Norman Conquest. The Normans spoke a northern dialect of Old French, though they were originally Scandinavians who had settled in Northern France and lost their native language over a hundred years or so. As a result of a dispute over the English throne, William, Duke of Normandy, invaded England and defeated the English army under King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, a date every English schoolchild knows, as it was the last time any invading force from outside the British Isles succeeded in conquering the country.

The Normans proceeded to take over the whole of England and, as a result, Old English, a language with a rich cultural and literary heritage, became the language of the underclass, while Anglo-French, Old French and Old North French dominated for the next two hundred years or so. Interestingly, as a result of the arrival of French speakers from various parts of France, English contains many instances of words from both Old French and Old North French, including, respectively, chattel/cattle, eschew/skew, guarantee/warranty and guard/warden. Over some 300 years, Middle English absorbed huge quantities of French words, amply exemplified in Geoffrey Chaucer's works, including: achieve, affair, asset, cattle, chief, city, close, damage, defeat, despise, double, dress, fail, gentle, grief, join, lieu, maintain, please, point, power, print, prison, prize, push, rail, relieve, reply, rest, royal, saint, second, sense, sever, sign, size, sport, spouse, stage, sure, survive, tense, trail, treat, trouble, very and void, to name but a few.

A few fun words

alarm, alert

Do you sleep with a gun or a club under your bed? Perhaps it's for fear of burglars breaking in and attacking you. Maybe you live in a rough area. Or maybe you just can't stand getting up in the morning. So when the alarm clock goes off at 7.00 to summon you once more to the abject boredom of yet another day at the office, you finally lose it and blast or pummel it into tiny scraps of plastic and metal. For that's what alarm actually means, "to arms!", from the Italian all'arme, borrowed into Middle English through Old French alarme. Then there's its cousin, alert, which is referenced in Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower"; if you're truly alert that's where you'll be. The Italian erta, "lookout, watchtower", comes ultimately from the Latin verb erigere, "raise", which gives us erect. Soldiers were summoned to the watch by the call all'erta, which comes to us again through Old French alerte, "vigilant".


This is one of those ancient beliefs that I just wish were true. The other day I put an amethyst in my pocket and went out on the town all night. I thought I'd be able to drive home sober, without having to say, "shorry oshiffer, it'sh a fair cop (hic)"; sadly, however, I was wrong. I was following the example of the ancient Greeks, who believed that the amethyst literally rendered you "not drunk". Amethystos comes ultimately from a-, "not", and methyskein, "intoxicate", from methy, "wine", which was used to form the modern methyl alcohol, and is related to English mead. While the Greeks got quite a few things right, they weren't right about this, so I wouldn't risk my driving licence if I were you.


The next time you're out and about and you come across someone running around screaming and smashing things up, stop him and ask him what his shirt is made from. If he says it's made from bear fur, run like hell. He may well be a berserkr, literally "bear shirt", one of the Viking warriors who ransacked and pillaged Old England in maniacal style, which would be understandable if you went around wearing an itchy bearskin. Berserk was actually first used with the meaning of "mad, raging" in the early 19th century, borrowed earlier from a Scandinavian source.


Last week on a lovely evening, I was strolling along a wide boulevard. People were relaxing and chatting, the birds were singing, and a warm breeze was rustling the leaves on the trees. Suddenly, there was a loud boom, and a cannon shot whistled overhead and exploded on the other side. People screamed and ran for cover as soldiers streamed out to return fire. I'd just walked from the boulevard to its older French manifestation, a passage along a castle rampart. It comes ultimately from the Middle Low German bolwerk, originally "defence made from tree trunks", from which we get bulwark. Somehow Sunset Bulwark doesn't sound quite right.

cab, caper

If an irate taxi driver ever said to an annoying passenger "you're really getting my goat", he would be absolutely right. When you catch a cab, don't be surprised if it bleats and capers about a bit. Both these words come from the Latin caper, "goat". Cab is short for cabriolet, "carriage", borrowed through French from Italian capriolare, "leap about", so called because it jumped around like a wild goat as it ran along. The same verb gives us caper, which developed from capriole, "leap, skip, jump around playfully" into "play tricks". So if you were born around Christmas/New Year, your birthday bash in a taxi could be termed a Capricorn caper in a cab!


It's such an innocent thing to say, ciao, you wouldn't think that it has rather a dark history. The Latin servus, "slave", was displaced in the middle ages by a new word sclavus, which gave us slave. This came from Slav, because Slavs were captured in great numbers and sold into slavery. It became schiavo in Italian, which was used in the greeting sono vostro schiavo, "I am your slave", and this was reduced in dialect to just ciao. So guys, next time you say to a lovely lady "ciao bella", you might in all reality end up as her slave. You have been warned.


If two Greek raisins make love, is that a currant affair? Probably not, apart from the Greek part. A currant was originally a raisin from Corinth, the Greek city from where they were said to be exported, and arrived in Middle English from Anglo-French reisin de Corauntz, passing through various forms before being eventually shortened to currante and finally currant, giving rise to a swathe of bad jokes: Why did the sultana give in during his wrestling match with the Corinthian raisin? Because the currant was too strong. What do you get when you plug in a Corinthian raisin? An electric currant. How can you turn Corinthian raisins into money? Throw them on the ocean and create a currant-sea. OK, OK, I've stopped.


Plus ça change... Was your dad a complete control freak in your family? Did he boss everyone about? Did he try to regulate all aspects of family life, to bend your every action to his will? Well, if he did, he was only acting in the true spirit of an ancient Greek tradition - being a despotes, literally "lord of the house". This means, of course, that you can't call your boss at work a despot, because he has no control over your home life (at least one would presume so). On the other hand, he could be called a tyrant as, while a tyrant can be just as much a lord or master as a despot, he's not limited by association with any particular place. So remember, your dad is a despot, but your boss is a tyrant. And you need to get a life.


If you've ever been slandered by someone, you might invite the slanderer to go to hell. But before you do, you might want to check their address first, because the likelihood is that they already live there. They might even invite you to visit them for a while, or even an eternity. Devil comes from the Greek diabolos, "slanderer", via Latin diabolus and Old English deoful, which also gives us diabolical. The original meaning was "someone who throws something across you, someone who attacks/slanders", and to the early Christians, there was only one entity who did this big time. So next time someone slanders you in the media, check the text carefully before you sue them, as the devil may quite literally be in the detail.


I was walking through the Dutch countryside the other day. The sun was shining, the bees were buzzing and the flowers carpeted the ground with their glorious colours. Then I saw him - Van Gogh, setting up his equipment ready to paint the beautiful scene. He took out his brushes and his paint, and started to place his canvas on the easel. However, the easel didn't seem to be cooperating this morning, and started to move about, letting out big hee-haws as Van Gogh struggled with it. Then it kicked out, scattering all his paints, and making him so mad that he cut off his own ear.

Well, being Dutch he should have known better. Easel comes from Dutch ezel, "ass", itself a borrowing from Latin asinus, "ass". Presumably, when he went to France he used a French easel, a chevalet, which comes from the French word for "horse", an altogether more pleasant animal to erect your art equipment on.