Companion

By reading Word Stories, you might be lead to believe that every single word has a complex and fascinating history. Unfortunately that’s not always true; there are plenty of the words out there that have pretty run-of-the-mill origins and can be summed up in just a few words. It’s exciting that you can look at some words and notice immediately that they come from, say, Latin. It’s not so exciting that that’s as far as the story goes.

Take companion for example. On first inspection it looks like just another Latinate word, which possibly came into English via French.

This time, however, what first appeared to be another boring Latin-derived word turned out to be much more interesting.

Yes, it came into English via Old French compagnon in the 14th century, meaning ‘fellow, friend, partner’, but the Latin root companionem actually meant ‘bread fellow, messmate’ and was a compound of com and panis. What do com and panis mean? ‘With’ and ‘bread’. The idea being that someone you break bread with is your companion, your friend.

In a similar vein, lord looks like a pretty standard Old English word but the original form was hlaford, coming from the mid-13th century. Hlaford was actually a compound of hlaf and weard, which later evolved into loaf and ward. So a lord is actually a bread-guardian.

In fact, before companion became the dominant term, Old English had a synonym which comes from the same root as lord: gahlaiba. Gahlaiba also meant ‘friend, messmate’, the hlaib part being a variation of half, ‘loaf’.

So this leads us to two conclusions. Firstly, don’t judge a word by its dull Latinate appearance. Secondly, as much as we like talking to each other, its always the second best; food comes first.

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Caesar

What did the Romans ever do for us? Or more specifically, what did Caesar ever do for us, linguistically? The answer is: not as much as you might think.

julius-caesar-statue

A common misconception surrounding the great Roman emperor is that he donated his surname to the surgical method of childbirth, the Caesarean section, because this was the way he was born. However, although such operations did exist in ancient times, they would inevitably lead to the death of the mother, whereas Caesar’s mother, Aurelia Cotta, lived for another 46 years after Julius was born. In reality, the term comes from the Latin word caesus, meaning ‘to cut’. Still, it is quite probable that a predecessor of Julius was born by this method, leading to the family name; the Caesarean section gave the name to Caesar, not the other way around.

Another thing Julius Caesar didn’t give his name to is the Caesar salad. The dish was conceived by a Caesar Gardini, chef of Caesar’s Place in Tijuana, Mexico. One night, more diners arrived than he had anticipated and he had to put together a salad using the ingredients left in the fridge: lettuce, garlic, olive oil, cheese, eggs and croutons. The guests loved it and it went on to become known as the Caesar salad.

Julius did, on the other hand, lend his name to the Old English word casere which has since become archaic having been replaced by French and Latin equivalents. Casere was used as a title for emperors, particularly those between Augustus and Hadrian. In other languages, this evolved to become Kaiser in German and tsar in Russian.

Turkey and Sprouts

I do feel sorry for the humble Brussels sprout. It’s that awkward dinner guest that no-one wanted to invite but ended up at the table anyway because it had nowhere else to go. So why do we bother with them? And do they really come from Brussels? Do turkeys actually have anything to do with Turkey?

The first part is no real mystery: Brussels sprouts are cultivated annually and come into season in the winter. They can withstand the frost and so would be available even in the bitterest of winters.

However, it does seem odd that one vegetable can come from such a specific place. In fact, a sort of precursor to the sprout was grown in Ancient Rome. But the sprout as we know it is indeed a product of Brussels, thanks to the cool climate. It is thought to have been cultivated there since the 13th century but the first record of the term comes from 1587.

Another key feature of our British Christmas dinner that’s not actually British at all is of course the turkey, but we all know turkey comes from North America, not Turkey. The key to this is that the word turkey was actually first used not to refer to the bird we eat at Christmas, but to guinea fowl, which were imported from Madagascar via Turkey by turkey merchants. The North American bird was introduced to Spain in 1523 by the conquistadors and then spread to the rest of Europe shortly after. By the 1550s it was recognised in English as turkey because it was thought to be related to the guinea fowl and by 1575 it became a popular main feature on our Christmas dinner plates.

So when it comes to tucking in on the 25th, you dinner dilemma is solved: sprouts are Belgian but turkeys aren’t Turkish.

One Tough Cookie

A cookie or a biscuit?

A cookie or a biscuit?

Looking in the shop window of a little bakery in Groningen, the Netherlands, I saw an interesting item for sale, a koekje. Koekjes are small cakes. Cookies are essentially small cakes. Could the two be related?

Although it might be convenient to think that cookie must just come from cook, the reality is that cookies do actually descend from the Dutch koekjes. So in the great debate between the British biscuit and the American cookie, it turns out that the cookie isn’t even American at all, but Dutch.

Cookie was first recorded in American English in 1703 and it came across the Atlantic with the many Dutch immigrants who arrived in the 17th century. It came from the diminutive form of cake, koek, which was derived from kaka in Old Norse in the early 13th century, which in turn originated from West Germanic *kokon-.

Biscuit, conversely, is not Germanic but Latinate. For a long time (between the 16th and the 18th century), biscuit was actually spelled bisket. The spelling was altered under the influence of the Old Italian cognate biscotto. Both words came from Latin (panis) bis coctus which literally means ‘bread twice cooked’. Like our modern-day Italian biscotti, the original biscuits were crisp and dry because they were cooked in a two-part process: they were first baked and then dried out in a slow oven.

On the other hand, the original cookies were not crisp or dry or twice-baked but soft and would rise slightly in the oven. Cookies used a rising agent; biscuits did not. On this occasion, as time progressed, it was not the language itself that changed but the confectionary items that the terms defined: cookies and biscuits converged.

So the next time the cookie/biscuit debate crops up in conversation, it might be useful to add that a cookie is actually a cake, a biscuit is more like biscotti, a cookie is really Dutch, and a biscuit is in fact Italian.