The Whole Gamut

There’s a nice article on at the moment about foreign words and musical notes, explaining why we use so many Italian words like piano, adagio, staccato and crescendo in our musical vocabulary. Another musical word that cropped up in my work recently was gamut, although it’s not a word you think of as having musical origins.

Nowadays, we use gamut particularly in the phrase the whole gamut, meaning ‘the complete range or scope of something’ but it is a very odd sounding little word.

It was first used in English in the 1520s to refer to the lowest note in the medieval musical scale. This medieval scale was made up of six notes: ut, re, mi, fa, sol and la. It was the predecessor of the tonic sol-fa system, Julie Andrews’ favourite, which consists of doh, ray, me, fah, soh, lah and te.

It was a medieval monk called Guido de Arezzo (Italian, incidentally) who came up with the scale. He chose syllables to represent each note based on the Latin hymn to St John, ‘Ut queant laxis’.

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris

Mira gestorum famuli tuorum

Solve polluti labii reatum,

Sancte Iohannes

The lowest tone that was recognised in medieval musical theory at that time was bass G an octave and a half below middle C, which was also known as gamma. Put gamma and the first note in Guido’s system together and you get gamma ut.

Eventually, gamma ut merged into gamut and it came to refer to Guido’s whole system rather than just that one note. From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump before it came to mean scale or scope more generally.


A trip to the Oxford University Press museum a few weeks ago spurred on some thoughts about favourite words – surely a true lingthusiast has a good favourite word or two? The thing is there are just too many great words to choose from. When we’re pushed to choose, it does seem that the ones that make it to the top of the list are the ones that roll off the tongue the most, such as mellifluous or ubiquitous. But one great word suggestion that is not only fun to say but actually has an interesting word story too is quintessential.

You wouldn’t think there would be anything particularly remarkable about the origin of quintessential; looking at it, it looks quite French and you can see how it can break down into essential and then, presumably, essence. But what about the quint part?

Think quintet or quintuplets. Quintessence literally means the ‘fifth essence’. Going back (via Medieval French) to Latin, as quinta essentia, it was used in classical and medieval philosophy to refer to:

A fifth substance in addition to the four elements, thought to compose the heavenly bodies and to be latent in all things.


It was introduced to philosophical theory by Aristotle and entered Latin via a loan translation (ie the literal construction of ‘fifth element’ was borrowed) of the Greek pempte ousia. The basic idea was that there are five elements that made up all matter: fire, earth, air, water and quintessence. The first four we’re already familiar with but quintessence, also known as aether, was thought to make up the heavenly bodies and the rest of the universe. It was used to explain several natural phenomena, including gravity and the motion of light.

Over time, our scientific knowledge evolved and the theory of the five elements was dismissed but quintessential stuck on in there by hanging on to that last part of its meaning – ‘latent in all things’ – so that it eventually came to mean ‘the intrinsic and central constituent of something’ or ‘the most perfect or typical example’.


One famous tourist sight right in the centre of Oxford is the Radcliffe Camera. Of course, the Radcliffe Camera isn’t a photography machine but a large 18th century building that is part of the Oxford University library. The origin of camera in the sense of a structure is a lot clearer than why camera now mostly refers to a photo-taking device.

The old sense that we don’t hear very much literally means ‘vaulted building’. It comes, like the French chambre and the more common English chamber, from Latin camera meaning ‘vaulted room’ and ultimately from Ancient Greek kamara.

Meanwhile, various clever people were working on the precursor to photography, using a pinhole device and a darkened room. This clever device needed a clever word and Latin’s always good for that; they put together the two words camera and obscura to make camera obscura, literally a dark room. The term’s first use is attributed to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1604.

When photography kicked off in the 1840s, camera obscura was clipped, to refer to the new picture-taking devices. So essentially, when you’re taking a few snapshots, you’re actually using a ‘room’.


If I’ve learnt anything in the last couple of weeks it’s that working a nine-to-five-thirty job doing writey typey things is not conducive to frequent blogging. That being said, I have had time to muse on a couple of interesting words here and there, including the word muse.

First of all, you might think that artistic inspiration would be linked to being absorbed in thought but actually the noun muse and the verb to muse are completely different, unrelated words, which just happen to be homonyms (words which are spelt the same but have different meanings).

Muse the noun came into English in the late 14th century from Latin via Old French. The original word was the Greek Mousa, which meant ‘the Muse’ as well as ‘music, song’. According to Greek legend, the nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and were each responsible for a different area of the arts and sciences.

The noun can be traced back even further to the PIE root *men- which meant ‘to think, remember’, which is similar in meaning to the modern verb to muse, although this is purely by coincidence. It is from this muse that we got the words museum, originally a ‘shrine for the Muses’; mosaic, which was ‘work of the Muses’; and music, ‘pertaining to the Muses’.

The verb to muse, on the other hand, means ‘to reflect, to be absorbed in thought’. It came into English at roughly the same time as the noun, in the 14th century, and through the same source language: French. The French word, muser, meant ‘to ponder, to dream’ and also ‘to loiter, to waste time’ but the medieval Latin word it came from, musum, meant ‘snout’ and relates to the modern English word muzzle. So what’s the connection? It could either be because a person who is musing is standing with their nose in the air or because they are sniffing about, like a dog that’s lost the scent. Since both words arrived in the language in the same period, it’s also possible that the noun had an influence on the meaning of the verb.

Now, there are two important words that come from to muse: amuse and bemuse. The a- prefix in amuse means ‘to cause’, which, in the late 15th century, lead to ‘to cause to muse, to divert’ and the primary meaning was ‘to deceive, to cheat’ well until the 18th century. From this, it became ‘to divert from serious business’ and then later ‘to entertain’. It is actually bemuse which has retained more of the original meaning of amuse: the be- prefix can equally mean ‘to cause’ as well as ‘thoroughly’, so someone who is bemused is utterly confused.


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.


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.


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.


In a moment of genius or stupidity (open to debate), I have signed Word Stories up for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. This means there will be a new post every day except Sunday throughout April, one for every letter of the alphabet. For an etymoloblog, it should be easy enough to pick out a word for each letter and write about it. The hard part will be keeping motivated to write every day. So to bring about some good karma before the grand départ, it seems apt to look at the story of the alphabet, in honour of the A to Z Challenge.

Alphabet as a word comes, unsurprisingly, from the Greek alphabetos which is a combination of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta. What is surprising is that alphabet only entered English in the 1570s, via Late Latin. Before that, we used the Old English words stæfræw, meaning ‘row of letters’, or stæfrof ‘array of letters’.


The word alpha precedes the Greek alphabetos as it comes from the Phoenician eleph which meant ‘ox’. One convincing theory is that the character A originated as a symbol of an ox head. Flip the A upside down and it looks similar enough.

Equally, beta also comes a Phoenician pictogram, this time from a house as viewed from above. In many Semitic languages, ‘house’ is beth or beyt which is what led to the Greek beta.

It’s hardly surprising that the Phoenicians should have given us the word alphabet, since they did invent it after all, sometime between 1200 and 1050 BC. The Phoenician alphabet is the oldest verified consonantal alphabet and the basis of our modern-day alphabet. We may call our alphabet the Latin alphabet and it may have evolved from a western variety of the Greek alphabet but actually we have the Phoenicians to thank for our ABCs.

The Phoenician alphabet quickly spread around the Med from around the 9th century BC. Part of its success was owed to the fact that one sound represented one symbol making the system far easier to lean than its contemporaries, such as Cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphs. Also, the Phoenicians were big maritime merchants so their writing system covered a lot of ground.

The fact that the Greeks then used the first two letters to create the word alphabet isn’t particularly novel. The same thing happens in Arabic using alif and baa; in Hebrew using aleph and bayt; and in the Old Norse runic futhark which used the first six letters put together. It seems like a fairly logical linguistic occurrence, especially considering how we refer to learning our ABCs.

So on April 1st, Word Stories will be starting the A to Z Challenge by exploring the origins of an alpha word. Bring on the ox.


Decimated English

You only have to dabble around in literature on language for a while to realize there’s an ongoing debate about ‘correct’ language use. For those passionate linguistic warriors it’s not even a debate but a battle. We’re talking about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism.

In short, prescriptivists believe that we are getting sloppier with our language, people don’t communicate correctly anymore, and, thus, English is going to the dogs. Meanwhile, descriptivists are not concerned with enforcing grammar rules and lamenting the glory days of the English language but just record language as it is and label the so-called deterioration of English as ‘language change’. Prescriptivists tend to be non-linguists; descriptivists tend to be linguists, or anyone who’s ever read a book on language change.

Personally, I find the argument generally uninteresting. What I do find interesting are those little articles prescriptivists write with titles like ’10 Words You Didn’t Know You Were Using Incorrectly’ or ’15 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean’. Not because I learn exactly how my understanding of English is ‘wrong’ but because of the interesting etymology that they reveal. For example, a word that came up recently was decimate. Most of us understand decimate with the first meaning cited in the OED:

verb  [with object]

  1. kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of:

            ‘the inhabitants of the country had been decimated’

  •  drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of (something):

             ‘public transport has been decimated’

But this article pointed out that the ‘real’ meaning isn’t to destroy totally or even largely but it means, very specifically, to destroy one tenth of something, which seems obvious when you look at it: decimate comes from the Latin decimare whose root is decem, meaning ‘ten’ like the decem in December. It entered English in the 15th century with the sense of a tithe, a tax of ten per cent of one’s annual income, but within a hundred years it came to mean ‘destroy a large portion of something’.

However, the original Roman practice of decimare was a punishment on mutinous legions or rebellious cities. Soldiers would be drawn out by lots of ten and one in every lot would be executed. Consequently, the group was decimated.

Although it would be easy to mourn the loss of such a delightfully precise meaning, we have gained a more general and widely-used meaning in the process. Language change does not leave a language ‘decimated’ but helps us to communicate as our society evolves, unless of course we want to keep those old Roman punishments too.

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.

Pilgrims and Peregrines

Peregrine falcon

The peregrine falcon

Every so often, two words in English will crop up which look fairly similar, sound fairly similar and behave fairly similarly but are still two distinct words. Pilgrim and peregrine are two such examples and the reason why they are so alike is because they are essentially the same word, or rather, they come from the same root word. In this case, the root word is the Latin peregrinus, meaning ‘foreigner’, which breaks down further into per, meaning ‘through’, and agr-, meaning ‘land’. After that, the word split off in two separate directions, altering the spelling or meaning here or there, until we ended up with the two words we have now.

Looking at peregrine first, it’s a term we associate nowadays with the peregrine falcon, whose Latin name is falco peregrinus. But peregrine has another meaning which is now archaic:

1. coming from abroad
2. travelling or migratory; wandering

This neatly explains the bird’s given name: it has one of the longest migrations of any North American bird and can cover a total of 25,000km in a year, which is why it’s known as the ‘wanderer’. The birds were also taken by the falconer during their migration rather than directly from the nest.

Pilgrim has had a more complicated journey. By Late Latin, the original peregrinus became pelegrinus by a process called dissimilation. The two sounds, ’r’ and ‘l’, are very similar: they are liquids which are consonants that can be extended, like vowels, but are made without any friction. Because of this, it’s quite normal for them to be interchanged as language evolves.  In this case, the first ‘r’ probably changed to an ‘l’ so as to be more distinct from the second ‘r’. Essentially, it was just easier to both say and understand pelegrinus than peregrinus. Interestingly, Spanish maintained the original spelling with peregrino while Italian took the dissimilated version pellegrino. Meanwhile, Old French developed pelerin which was then loaned into Old English as pilegrim, in around the 12th century. Finally, the trisyllabic word became disyllabic and English had developed another pair of related but quite different words.

Peregrine (adj.): having a tendency to wander
Pilgrim (n.): someone who travels to a holy place