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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Weird

Weird’s history is a pretty odd one and it only came to have the meaning we recognise today, ‘strange’ or ‘bizarre’, relatively recently.

Going all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, we find *wert-, meaning ‘to turn’ or ‘to bend’, which is related to Latin word versus. This then developed in Proto-Germanic as *wurthiz which has relatives in Old High German, wurt, and Old Norse, urðr. It then entered Old English as wyrd. However, by this time, the word no longer meant ‘to turn’ or ‘to bend’ but ‘fate’, ‘destiny’ or literally ‘that which comes’, in a similar way to how turn into can mean ‘become’ now.

This sense of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ is found as far back as Beowulf:

Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel.

(Fate goes ever as fate must.)

Hie wyrd forsweop on Grendles gryre.

(Fate sweeps them away into Grendel’s clutches.)

In the 1400s, weird meant having the power to control fate, or it was the personification of fate as in the three Fates of Greek and Roman mythology. In Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women from c.1385, weird is clearly being used as an animate noun:

The werdys that we clepyn destene Hath shapyn hire that she mot nedis be Pyetous sad.

(The weirds that we call destiny have determined that she must necessarily be piously solemn.)

By 1625, the use of weird to mean ‘witch’ was quite common and the first record of weird being used as an adjective stems from this sense. Perhaps the most famous use of weird to mean ‘witch’ is found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the characters of the weird sisters, who were, of course, witches and able to foresee the future.

After Shakespeare’s weird sisters, weird as an adjective expanded into other contexts but the modern sense of ‘strange’ didn’t develop until the 19th century. The last step probably came about through the idea of something weird being ‘unearthly’ and therefore ‘strange’ or the portrayal of weird sisters as frightening, odd-looking and disturbingly different.

 

Quick

There are some words which change their meaning over time but leave behind a footprint of their former senses in expressions and compound words. A great example of this is quick.

Nowadays, quick means ‘fast’ but this was not always the case. The word is of Germanic origin with the original form being cwic or cwicu and it meant ‘alive, animated’. In fact, it has an Indo-European root *gweie-, which also gave the Latin vivus and the Greek bios.

The original sense of the word does still exist now but only in set phrases like the quick and the dead and the fact that the quick and the dead is often misinterpreted with the ‘fast’ meaning shows how outdated the ‘living’ meaning is.

Other words which still contain the former meaning are quicksilver and quicklime: quicksilver, another term for mercury, is supposedly ‘alive’ because of the way the drops of liquid mercury move; quicklime is so called because of its vigorousness and is a direct translation from the Latin calx viva.

In around 1300, quick went from meaning ‘alive’ to ‘moving, shifting’ and it is this meaning which lead to quicksand. Much to Hollywood’s dismay, quicksand is not fast at all, but just moving. In reality, it is almost impossible to sink all the way into quicksand since it is rarely more than a few feet deep. What’s more, you’ll only sink quickly if you panic and struggle. Keep calm, move slowly and, since your body is less dense than quicksand, you’ll eventually get out, which goes to show etymology is not only interesting, but useful in survival situations too.

Lousy

The word up for consideration today is one we all use regularly to mean ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ without ever really considering what it originally meant. But stop and think about it and it seems obvious. The word is lousy. Break it down and it clearly comes from louse.

Louse itself existed in Old English as lus which goes back further to Proto-Indo-European *lus-. It’s hardly surprising that louse should date back this far; in our modern, hyper-hygienic time, lice are rarely a problem but through most of our history the insects were a familiar pest.

The extension of the meaning of lousy from ‘infested with lice’ to ‘poor’ is pretty transparent and it happened in an impressively short period: between the middle and the end of the 14th century.

So in 1377, the former meaning was used and understood in William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman:

 With an hode on his hed a lousi hatte aboue.

(With a hood on his head, a lousy hat above.)

But Chaucer was able to use the latter meaning in Friar’s Tale, sometime after 1387:

 A lowsy jogelour kan deceyve thee.

(A lousy juggler can deceive you.)

Lousy developed another meaning in American English in the mid-19th century, that of ‘swarming with’ or ‘full of’. Oxford Dictionaries gives the example:

 ‘The town is lousy with tourists.’

Fortunately for us, we don’t have much use for the original sense of the word any more. The nice thing about it, though, is that the spelling and pronunciation have barely changed so the etymology is apparent and doesn’t involve lots of research and guesswork.

Daft

Today’s d word comes as a very belated response to a request made by Paul Thomas way back in 2013. The word up for consideration is daft, whose etymology is long, winding and, to be honest, pretty daft.

The word derives from the Old English gedaefte which originally meant ‘mild, gentle, becoming’. Tracing the origin back further, we find *gadaftjaz in Proto-Germanic which also gave rise to the related words daeftan, ‘to put in order, arrange’, and gedafen, ‘suitable’ in Old English. Going back even further, we find the root*dhabh- ‘to fit together’ in Proto-Indo-European.

Now of course, daft no longer means ‘mild, becoming’ or has any connotation of being suitably arranged, but it means something altogether different; the definition given by Oxford Dictionaries is ‘silly, foolish’. So the word has definitely become more negative, which, in linguistic terms, we call pejoration. But how has this happened?

By Middle English, around 1200, daffte meant ‘quiet and humble’. One hundred years later, it meant ‘dull’. In another 150 years, it meant ‘foolish’ and in the 1530s it even went one step further to become synonymous with ‘crazy’.

Daft first had the meaning of ‘stupid’ in reference to animals: a mild, humble animal was also considered simple. This meaning was eventually applied to people too. The progression could also have been influenced by analogy with another word, daffe, which then meant ‘half-wit’.

A surprising relative of daft is deft, which comes from the same Old English root gedaefte. The two words split sometime in the 15th century. While daft’s ‘gentle’ meaning went on to become ‘foolish’, deft developed the ‘gentle’ meaning into ‘skillful’ and ‘subtle’. So perhaps being called daft is not so bad after all.

Yule

There are only 17 more sleeps until Christmas so it’s time to start feeling festive with some seasonal word stories. The first interesting one I came across was Yule. We’ve all heard of yuletide and everyone likes the chocolaty goodness of a Yule log but does anyone really know what Yule itself is? Or why we celebrate with a log-shaped cake?

Unsurprisingly, it’s a fairly old word. It comes from Old Norse jol (plural) which entered Old English as geol. Yule was originally a pre-Christianity midwinter festival period which was connected to the Norse God Odin and celebrated by the Germanic peoples. In fact, in Old Norse, often the word was synonymous with feast. The earliest citations are found in the ancient month names Ærra Jéola ‘Before Yule’ and Æftera Jéola ‘After Yule’ which probably correspond to December and January. Bede, the man who provided the first historical accounts of the English, in the eighth century, even wrote about geola or giuli in his comments on the Anglo-Saxon calendar.

Ancient yule celebrations were not unlike our own: a feast, toasts, visiting the temple, and drinking lots of ale. Except for the custom of making animal sacrifices to the gods before serving the roast. That one didn’t quite stand the test of time.Yule Log

As Britain converted to Christianity and since both festivals took place at around the same time, Yule was eventually absorbed into Christmas and the word fell into general disuse by the eleventh century. Oddly, the term stuck around in the Northeast, possibly because this was the area of Danish settlement.

The term was then revived by 19th century writers referring nostalgically to life in ‘Merrie England’, a supposedly idyllic and truly ‘English’ pastoral way of life which was supposedly led between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution.

The Yule log also allegedly originates from Germanic paganism although no one knows for sure since the first attestation comes from the 1720s. However, the original Yule log was not, of course, a chocolaty treat but a lump of wood. Traditionally, the large Yule log would be cut and dragged home while people walked alongside and sang songs. It would sometimes be decorated with evergreens and then it would be placed onto a fire which had been started using the remnants of the previous year’s log. This would bring prosperity and protection from evil and by keeping the log through the year, its protection lasted through the year too. The log would be burned for at least twelve hours and sometimes up to twelve days. Then the remaining ashes would be sprinkled onto the fields to bring fertility.

Yule Log CakeThe modern-day Yule log or bûche de Noël is a chocolate roulade decorated to look like a log and the name was transferred to the cake as the log-burning custom was abandoned, probably in the first half of the 20th century. The cake was invented in France but no-one knows exactly when or by whom.

Another interesting spin-off of the original jol is actually another Christmassy word although it hasn’t developed so directly. Jol was loaned from Old Norse into Old French as jolif, meaning ‘festive, merry, amorous, pretty’ which then evolved into Modern French as joli, ‘pretty, nice’, but into English as jolly. So here’s to a jolly Yule!