5 Common Mistakes You're Probably Making about the Evolution of the English Language
The origin of the word ‘dormouse’ might have nothing to do with mice.
Instead, what might have happened is that the original Anglo-Norman word for a dormouse – something like dormeus, meaning ‘sleepy one’ – sounded a bit like it ought to end in mouse, and so in our usage, it was turned into ‘mouse’.
We say ‘might’ because it’s quite possible that all of this is nonsense; that the original Anglo-Norman word was a ‘dor-’ prefix for its sleepiness, and a ‘-mouse’ suffix for its mousiness. But it’s a cute story to illustrate the point that etymologies of English words – the history of how they came to be what they are – can really be quite odd. It’s not just a straightforward case of pinching promising words from other languages and anglicising them a bit. Sometimes words go through all sort of strange roots to get to us, quite possibly including people thinking that a particular word ought to be a little bit ‘mousier’.
There’s a similar story with the word ‘cockroach’, which comes from the Spanish cucaracha, but people thought the word should sound ‘roachier’, thus cockroach. But that’s not as cute.
Figuring out etymologies can be complicated, especially when a particular usage of a word might only appear in one or two manuscripts, leaving us uncertain as to whether the word is really being used in the way that we want, or if we’re simply dealing with a writer who isn’t specific in their choice of words. Given this, it’s not surprising that there are a number of common mistakes and misconceptions about the way the English language has evolved. In this article, we take a look at a few of them, and what the reality is.
1. Words come from acronyms
There are countless examples of false etymologies from acronyms. Most of these are obscenities, but there are plenty of examples even with those taken out. For instance, you might have heard that ‘tips’ stands for ‘to insure prompt service’, or that ‘posh’ stands for ‘port out, starboard home’, which allegedly relates historically to the location of the cabins preferred by upper-class British passengers travelling by ocean liner to India.
Some are more bizarre, such as the suggestion that ‘golf’ stands for ‘gentlemen only, ladies forbidden’. This is particularly nonsensical as this invents not only an etymology but a history of early discrimination that there is no evidence for; there are references to women playing golf pretty much as far back as there are references to golf itself. Similarly, the suggestion that ‘news’ stands for the points of the compass in a somewhat illogical order – ‘north, east, west, south’ – when the real etymology of it simply being the plural of the word ‘new’, as in ‘new things’, seems fairly obvious.
There are some more recent words that do come from acronyms, such as ‘radar’ (‘radio detection and ranging’), ‘laser’ (‘light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation’), ‘scuba’ (‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’) or ‘nimby’ (‘not in my backyard’). What’s noticeable about all of these is that they are much more recent than words such as golf (15th century) and news (14th century) and are even a half-century or so more recent than posh (early 20th century). They’re also usually complicated technical terms or jargon, rather than the kind of word you could imagine evolving organically.
A possible source for this linguistic trend is the choice of names that also function as acronyms. One such term is a ‘care package’. It’s pretty clear what a care package might be from its use of a good Anglo-Saxon word derived from ‘caru’. But ‘care’ also stands for ‘Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere’, a humanitarian agency founded in 1945 with a name that was evidently crafted for the ‘care’ acronym to work. The trend seems to have gone from taking a real word and creating an acronym that sounds plausible, to taking an easily pronounceable word that didn’t yet mean anything and creating an acronym for it (as in ‘radar’), to a word arising naturally out of an acronym (as in ‘nimby’).
One final note on acronyms is that the word is often misused. If the individual letters are pronounced (e.g. NY for New York) then it’s an abbreviation, not an acronym. Only if it’s pronounced as a word (e.g. ‘Nasa’, ‘Unicef’) does it actually count as an acronym under the traditional usage of the term.
2. The English language was static until it changed completely around 1066 as a result of the Norman conquest
To be clear: there’s no doubt that the Norman conquest caused huge changes to the English language. There’s a fun book by David Cowley that looks into how the English language might be today if the Normans had lost, where he suggests words like ‘oathbreach’ (perjury) and ‘werekin’ (humanity) that might have existed had Harold triumphed at the Battle of Hastings. It’s all pure speculation, but it does illustrate the huge changes that the Normans wrought on the English language. After all, five words from that very sentence came into Middle English from French: pure, speculation, huge, changes and language.
But the divide between Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons) and Middle English (what that language evolved into after the Norman Conquest) is not as stark as it is usually painted. After all, the Battle of Hastings was in 1066. Proper Middle English began to appear – roughly – around 1150. It took 2-3 generations before the influence of the Normans on the English language really started to take hold properly.
In addition, the English language was already in a process of change before the Normans arrived. It had been influenced by the Viking settlement in England (gaining words like ‘blunder’, ‘knife’, ‘mistake’, ‘wrong’ and ‘trust’), and was evolving grammatically as well. Old English is in general a language with a sharply defined case structure (words changing depending on their usage within a sentence, like modern German) but from about 900, this begins to become less well-defined. Similarly, though Old English had no standard spelling, differences in how words were conventionally spelled began to appear. So, while the impact of the Norman conquest was huge, the language was evolving under internal pressures already, and the effect wasn’t quite as black and white as it’s been painted.
3. In olden days, people said “ye”
Think of how people spoke in the Middle Ages, and you might well think of “ye olde inn” or something similar. But no one ever said “ye”.
Among the things that have evolved over the centuries has been our alphabet. Old English had no k, q or z. What it did have were the letters æ, þ and ð. The first – æ – is probably the least alien to our eyes, given it crops up in old-fashioned spellings of words like ‘archaeology’ or ‘encyclopaedia’, and is even used in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy to lend a bit of glamour to his spelling of the word ‘dæmon’.
The other two – þ and ð – are both now represented by the letters th, although the two sounds are different. A þ sound is the sound at the start of ‘that’, whereas a ð sound is the sound at the start of ‘thumb’; a distinction that is effortless to native English speakers (who usually get this right even when reading languages they don’t know, such as Old English), but quite confusing to people who grew up speaking languages that don’t contain those sounds.
So where does ‘ye olde inn’ come from? In the Old English alphabet, this would have been written ‘þe olde inn’, literally just ‘the old inn’, but in handwriting (if not in printed text), a þ does look quite a lot like a y. Anyone who wasn’t aware that such a letter as þ existed can easily be forgiven for confusing it with a y and sounding the word accordingly. Now the error has proliferated, and we appear to be stuck with it.
4. Words and phrases to do with women have sexist etymologies
There’s no shortage of sexism embedded in our language. While we’ve pretty much accepted gender neutral terms like ‘chair’ to replace ‘chairman’, very few people will instinctively refer to a ‘postal officer’ rather than ‘postman’, and it’s hard even to think of a non-gendered alternative to ‘milkman’. Various things, from forts to space missions, are routinely ‘manned’. And, in a tight spot, it’s every man for himself.
Given how sadly commonplace this kind of sexist language remains, it’s surprising that people cling so fondly to false notions of sexism in the etymology of our words and phrases. One particularly pernicious example is the phrase ‘rule of thumb’, meaning a rough guideline. The popular understanding of this is that it comes from a law that states a man may beat his wife with any implement so long as it is not thicker than his thumb. Depending on the size of his hands, a broom handle might be allowed, but a rolling pin wouldn’t be. There is no evidence that any such law ever existed, and variations on the phrase ‘rule of thumb’ exist in a wider variety of languages than would seem probable if the wife-beating etymology were correct, given the diversity of associated legal systems.
This mistaken etymology was firmly enough established by the 19th century, though, that it was cited in a 1868 ruling in North Carolina – and so this false etymology quite possibly led to a man being given legal permission to commit domestic violence. Now, the etymology is cited only with horror at the barbarity of the past, but it demonstrates the damage misinformation can do.
Similarly, the words ‘woman’ and ‘female’ have been criticised as sexist – the argument being that they are simply the words ‘man’ and ‘male’ with prefixes tacked on, giving the impression that male is the default, and female is a lesser, edited version. While that may be the impression given to some modern readers, it’s nonsense from an etymological standpoint.
‘Woman’ is ‘man’ with a prefix, but ‘man’ at the time just meant ‘human’. It had no gendered implications whatsoever. An Old English woman was a wīfmon while an Old English man was a wer (preserved in the modern ‘werewolf’ – a man-wolf) or a waepnedman, a ‘weaponed person’. The latter certainly reflected the gender roles of Anglo-Saxon society but also demonstrates how ‘man’ on its own was not enough to indicate gender in Old English. ‘Female’ is similar. It derives from Latin femina via Old French femelle, and when that word was adopted into Middle English its ending sounded sufficiently like ‘male’ to English ears that that’s what it became. There is of course the argument to be made that the etymology of a word is rather less important than the impression it now creates (‘to cringe’ comes from the Old English for ‘to die’, but no one wants to put an 18 rating on a movie for being cringeworthy), but it’s worth knowing all the same that the etymological underpinning is incorrect.
5. Abbreviations are a modern phenomenon
There’s an elegant illustration of the mistaken belief that abbreviations are a modern phenomenon in the objection to the spelling of Christmas as Xmas. This is seen as slangy, with a British lexicographer describing it as “barely allowable in its common use in writing and printing” and is sometimes accused of being part of a great conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas, thereby denying the Christian roots of the celebration.
Xmas is no such thing. The usage of Xmas dates to the 16th century and an alternative abbreviation, XPmas, can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1021. It seems reasonable to assume that the 11th-century monks who acted as scribes for the Chronicle were probably not trying to take Christ out of Christmas. Instead, they were trying to do what pretty much everyone writing Xmas today is trying to do: namely get the words down on the page a little quicker. X and P represent the Greek letters chi and rho – as in Kristos, or Christ – a symbol that has been used since the 4th century. Xmas is a slightly quicker version that is more instinctively clear to anyone whose Greek is a little rusty. Ampersands were used by medieval monks to save time in a very similar way.
Do you know of any more common mistakes in English etymology? Share them in the comments!
Image credits: Vaulted Corridor, dormouse, scuba divers, Battle of Hastings, pub sign, punch and judy, werewolf, text message.