Picnics and Barbecues

Since the UK has been enjoying (or suffering, depending on how you look at it) a heat wave over the past few weeks, strawberries and instant barbecues have no doubt been selling by the bucket load. But not only is the current weather considerably un-British, but barbecue doesn’t sound particularly home-grown either.

One folk etymology suggests that the word is a compound of two French words: barbe, meaning ‘beard’, and queue, meaning ‘tail’. It supposedly comes from hog roasts, when the whole pig is roasted from head (or beard) to tail.

Unfortunately, this story isn’t true. In reality, the word is much more exotic, originating in the Caribbean in the Haitian language of Arawakan. It was originally in reference to a framework of sticks, which would be used to sleep on or to cure meat. The Spanish borrowed it from the Haitians first with barbacoa before it passed into English in the 1650s. By 1733, it was used to mean an outdoor social gathering where fish or meat would be roasted. It finally developed the sense we know now, a grill for cooking over an open fire outdoors, by 1931.

Another summer word that we’ve borrowed is picnic. This time, the word comes from a closer holiday destination: France, from their word, pique-nique. It was used from 1694 and referred to any meal where everybody contributed food or money.

The first part is easy to understand. Pique, like our pick, means to eat by small amounts. As for the nique part, it might just be a catchy reduplication of pique or it might come from the word nique meaning ‘worthless thing’. The chances are it’s a bit of both options with pique-nique therefore meaning a meal of various small items. Picnic arrived in English by 1748 but it did not become particularly popular until around 1800.

So we can’t lay claim to either barbecue or picnic. Clearly, we’re just not the nation for al fresco dining


George Alexander Louis

After a bit of a wait, it’s a big congratulations for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge this week for the birth of their baby boy and I was as anxious as anybody to find out the name of our future King. The bookmakers’ favourite was George with the odds on at 2/1, proving that the old saying that the bookies always win was once again correct. It was officially announced yesterday that the new prince was to be named George Alexander Louis, but what’s in the name?george

Firstly, George clearly resonates kingliness for most of us since there have already been six King Georges here to date. In fact, King George VI was known as Prince Albert and Bertie to friends and family, until he chose to take the name George upon his coronation in order to sound more regal. The reigning Georges we’ve had so far have been a bit of a mixed bunch: George III suffered mental illness; George IV was known as a drinker and womaniser; George V declared war on Germany in WWI, against his first cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II, and changed the family name to Windsor. But there’s no doubt that it’s a popular name in the Royal Family.

In terms of etymology, the name originates from Greek Georgos meaning ‘farmer’ which in turn comes from ge, ‘earth’, and ergon, ‘work’. It was introduced to England by the Crusaders although it wasn’t particularly common until the 18th century when the German George I became king.

Of course, St. George is also the patron saint of England and St. George’s Day has been a holiday since 1222. St. George is most famous for his legendary battle with a dragon in order to save the King’s daughter, a story first attested in the ‘Legenda Aurea’ in the 13th century.

Alexander, on the other hand, is more of an unusual choice; no king of England or the United Kingdom has ever had the name. Still, there have been three Scottish King Alexanders and, without a doubt, most of us hear Alexander and add the Great on the end. Well known as a great leader, Alexander the Great conquered a large part of the known world and is often attested as the best general in history. Unsurprising when you consider that the original Greek name Alexandros means ‘defender of men’, from alexein, ‘to protect’ and aner, ‘man’.

Finally, Louis seems like a really odd pick since the first King Louis we think of are the 17 (or 18 or more depending on how you count) King Louis of France. On the contrary, while George respects the Windsor side of the family, Louis respects the Mountbatten side. One of Prince William’s names is Louis and his great-great-grandfather was Prince Louis of Battenberg. His son, Louis Mountbatten and Prince Phillip’s uncle, was the last viceroy of India. His was killed on his yacht by an IRA bomb attack.

The name comes from Old French Loois, probably through Medieval Latin Ludovicus, which was a Latinised version of Hliuodowig in Old High German. It literally means ‘famous in war’ from hlūd, ‘fame’, and wīg, ‘warrior’.

So, in theory, the royal baby will be a farmer who is famous in war and a protector of men. I guess we’ll have to wait and see about that.


It’s the word which starts the majority of our conversations. It’s known the world over and it’s probably the first word any English language learner will learn. But hello isn’t quite the fundamental, time-honored greeting you might expect it to be. In fact, it’s been popular for less than 150 years.

Hello was originally a variant of hallo which itself had numerous variants such as holloa, hillo and halloo, all of which were used as a call to attract attention and this seems to trace back to around 1400. The OED suggests that the original root was Old High German holon, meaning ‘to fetch’, which was used to hail a ferryman in particular.

It was the invention of the telephone which really did the trick for hello. Initially, the word used on the experimental switchboard in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878 was ahoy. Then are you there? stood its ground for a while. But it was Thomas Edison’s hello that finally won out, despite the preference of his rival, Alexander Graham Bell, for ahoy. By 1889, central telephone exchange operators were referred to as hello-girls and before long it was loaned into other languages, including allo in French, hallo in Afrikaans and haló in Hindi.



Where would you guess tulip came from? A reasonable guess might be Dutch; after all, the flower is a general symbol for the Netherlands. Or maybe it comes from France, since it sounds almost like a French word. Well, that would be half right but in fact the word ultimately comes from Persian via Turkish from the word dulband, meaning ‘turban’, supposedly because of the resemblance of the flower to a turban.

The tulip was introduced to Europe from Turkey in the 1550s with the first known instances of its cultivation in the garden of Johann Heinrich Herwart in Ausburg. The full Turkish form survives in Spanish tulipan and Italian tulipano but the –an­ ending was generally dropped in Germanic languages, supposedly because it was mistaken for a suffix.

The word also gave us derivatives such as tulipomaniac, one who is obsessed with the flower.

1842  “The prices of these roots..are enough..to delight the cupidity of a Dutch tulipo-maniac.” (OED)

Going Dutch

Admittedly, entries in Word Stories have been sparse in the last week or so for various reasons: a hiking trip to Scotland; a particularly aggressive cold; and a little jaunt over to the Netherlands, visiting universities. Now, the Netherlands have always been a source of linguistic bafflement for me. Mostly, I’ve wondered, why does the country have two names: Holland and the Netherlands? Why do we call Dutch Dutch while the Dutch call their language Nederlands? Why do Americans call German Dutch while we call it German and the Germans call it Deutsch? It all seems unreasonably complicated.

The first question is fairly easy to answer: in English, we use both titles but the Netherlands is the most politically accurate. The Dutch use Nederland and this is the correct term for the whole country. Holland, technically speaking, refers to two regions to the West of the Netherlands: Noord Holland and Zuid Holland, the most populated areas which incorporate the major tourist attractions like Amsterdam. Holland was used as far back as the 14th century and came from Old Dutch holt land meaning ‘wood land’. Problem number one: solved.

Regions of The Netherlands

On a side note, New Zealand, discovered by Dutchman Abel Tasman and once part of the Dutch empire, is named after the province of Zeeland which is just below Zuid Holland and quite transparently means ‘new sea land’.

Problem number two is a little more knotty. Dutch was first recorded in English around the end of the 14th century and comes from Old High German. It originally meant ‘vulgar’ or ‘popular’ – possibly from Proto Indo-European *teuta- meaning ‘people’. In Germany, from the 9th century onwards, it was used in adjectival form to refer to the Latin vulgar tongue, distinguishing it from the Latin of academic and ecclesiastical domains. From then on it came to mean the language of the vernacular generally and Germanic languages as a whole. Like English, it spread from denoting the language alone to the culture and its people to the extent that, by the 12th or 13th century, it appeared in the nation’s title: Diutisklant, now Deutschland, the area of modern Germany. So in England by the 15th century, it was used in a way not unlike how we might say Germanic now, to represent both the area of ‘Low Dutch’ (the Netherlands) and ‘High Dutch’ (Germany). When the Dutch Republic was established as an independent state, there was a linguistic divergence: English kept Dutch to refer to the people and language that were ‘Low Dutch’ whereas the Dutch themselves, along with the Germans, kept the term in reference to the people and language of ‘High Dutch’.

What’s more, using Dutch to refer to German did stick around in American English which is why the Pennsylvania Dutch aren’t of Dutch origin at all but in fact emigrated from the Rhineland and Switzerland.

From the 17th century, Dutch has been used with pejorative connotations due to the strong military and commercial rivalry between the British and the Dutch at that time. These connotations then continued in America in particular because of the high levels of immigration from Germany. This has given our language phrases which draw especially on the Dutch’s supposed traits of heavy drinking and miserliness such as: a Dutch treat (1887), where everyone contributes their fair share; a Dutch uncle (1838), meaning ‘a strict disciplinarian’; and a Dutch feast (1785), apparently where the host gets drunk before the guests.

Fortunately, the Netherlands is actually a great place to visit and we no longer think of the Dutch as stingy drunkards.