Stories That Words Tell Us

Stories That Words Tell Us


This article is Chapter 1, of the book ‘Stories That Words Tell Us, by Elizabeth O’Neill, M.A. First published in 1918, this book is now in the public domain. This article is reprinted by permission from the original book.


Nearly all children must remember times when a word they know quite well and use often has suddenly seemed very strange to them.

Perhaps they began repeating the word half to themselves again and again, and wondered why they had never noticed before what a queer word it is. Then generally they have forgotten all about it, and the next time they have used the word it has not seemed strange at all.

But as a matter of fact words are very strange things. Every word we use has its own story, and has changed, sometimes many times since some man or woman or child first used it.

Some words are very old and some are quite new, for every living language—that is, every language used regularly by some nation—is always growing, and having new words added to it.

The only languages which do not grow in this way are the “dead” languages which were spoken long ago by nations which are dead too.
Latin is a “dead” language. When it was spoken by the old Romans it was, of course, a living language, and grew and changed; but though it is a very beautiful language, it is no longer used as the regular speech of a nation, and so does not change any more.

But it is quite different with a living language. Just as a baby when it begins to speak uses only a few words, and learns more and more as it grows older, so nations use more words as they grow older and become more and more civilized.

Savages use only a few words, not many more, perhaps, than a baby, and not as many as a child belonging to a civilized nation. But the people of great civilizations like England and France use many thousands of words, and the more educated a person is the more words he is able to choose from to express his thoughts.

We do not know how the first words which men and women spoke were made. People who study the history of languages, and who are called Philologists, or “Lovers of Words,” say that words may have come to be used in any one of three different ways; but of course this is only guessing, for though we know a great deal about the way words and languages grow, we do not really know how they first began.

Some people used to think that the earliest men had a language all ready-made for them, but this could not be. We know at least that the millions of words in use in the world to-day have grown out of quite a few simple sounds or “root” words.

Every word we use contains a story about some man or woman or child of the past or the present.

In this chapter we shall see how some common English words can tell us stories of the past.

In reading British history we learn how different peoples have at different times owned the land: how the Britons were conquered by the English; how the Danes tried to conquer the English in their turn, and how great numbers of them settled down in the Danelaw, in the east of England; how, later on, the Norman duke and his followers overcame Harold, and became the rulers of England, and so on.

But suppose we knew nothing at all about British history, and had to guess what had happened in the past, we might guess a great deal of British history from the words used by English people to-day.

For the English language has itself been growing, and borrowing words from other languages all through British history. Scholars who have studied many languages can easily pick out these borrowed words and say from which language they were taken.

Of course these scholars know a great deal about British history; but let us imagine one who does not. He would notice in the English language some words (though not many) which must have come from the language which the Britons spoke.

He would know, too, that the name Welsh, which was given to the Britons who were driven into the western parts of England, comes from an Old English word, wealh, which meant “slave.”

He might then guess that, besides the Britons who were driven away into the west of the country, there were others whom the English conquered and made to work as slaves. From the name wealh, or “slave,” given to these, all the Britons who remained came to be known as Welsh.

Yet though the English conquered the Britons, the two peoples could not have mixed much or married very often with each other; for if they had done so, many more British words would have been borrowed by the English language. To the English the Britons were strangers and “slaves.”

We could, too, guess some of the things which these old English conquerors of Britain did and believed from examining some common English words.

If we think of the days of the week besides Sunday, or the “Sun’s day,” and Monday, the “Moon’s day,” we find Tuesday, “Tew’s day,” Wednesday, “Woden’s day,” Thursday, “Thor’s day,” Friday, “Freya’s day,” Saturday, “Saturn’s day,” and it would not be hard to guess that most of the days are called after gods or goddesses whom the English worshipped while they were still heathen, Tew was in the old English religion the bravest of all the gods, for he gave up his own arm to save the other gods.

Woden, the wisest of the gods, had given up not an arm but an eye, which he had sold for the waters of wisdom.

Thor was the fierce god of thunder, who hurled lightning at the giants.

Freya was a beautiful goddess who wore a magic necklace which had the power to make men love.

We might then guess from the way in which our old English forefathers named the days of the week what sort of gods they worshipped, and what kind of men they were—great fighters, admiring courage and strength above all things, but poetical, too, loving grace and beauty.

But, as everybody knows, the English people soon changed their religion and became Christians; and any student of the English language would soon guess this, even if he knew nothing of English history.

He would be able to guess, too, that the English got their Christianity from a people who spoke Latin, for so many of the English words connected with religion come from the Latin language.

It was, of course, the Roman monk St. Augustine who brought the Christian religion to the English. Latin was the language of the Romans.

The word religion itself is a Latin word meaning reverence for the gods; and Mass, the name given to the chief service of the Catholic religion, comes from the Latin missa, taken from the words, Ite missa est (“Go; the Mass is ended”), with which the priest finishes the Mass. Missa is only a part of the verb mittere, “to finish.”

The words priest, bishop, monk, altar, vestment, and many others, came into the English language from the Latin with the Christian religion.

Even, again, if a student of the English language knew nothing about the invasions of England by the fierce Danes, he might guess something about them from the fact that there are many Danish words in the English language, and especially the names of places. Such common words as husband, knife, root, skin, came into English from the Danish.

But many more words were added to the English language through the Norman Conquest. It is quite easy to see, from the great number of French words in the English language, that France and England must at one time have had a great deal to do with each other. But it was the English who used French words, and not the French who used English. This was quite natural when a Norman, or North French, duke became king of England, and Norman nobles came in great numbers to live in England and help to rule her.

Sir Walter Scott, in his great book “Ivanhoe,” makes one man say that all the names of living animals are English, like ox, sheep, deer, and swine, but their flesh when it becomes meat is given French names—beef, mutton, venison, and pork. The reason for this is easy to see: Englishmen worked hard looking after the animals while they were alive, and the rich Normans ate their flesh when they were dead.

England never, of course, became really Norman. Although the English were not so learned or polite or at that time so civilized as the Normans, there were so many more of them that in time the Normans became English, and spoke the English language.

But when we remember that for three hundred years French was spoken in the law courts and by the nobility of England, and all the English kings were really Frenchmen, it is easy to understand that a great many French words found their way into the English language.

As it was the Normans who governed England, many of our words about law and government came from the French. Englishmen are very proud of the “jury system,” by which every British subject is tried by his equals.

It was England who really began this system, but the name jury is French, as are also judge, court, justice, prison, gaol. The English Parliament, too, is called the “Mother of Parliaments,” but parliament is a French word, and means really a meeting for the purpose of talking.

Nearly all titles, like duke, baron, marquis, are French, for it was Frenchmen who first got and gave these titles; though earl remains from the Danish eorl.

It is a rather peculiar thing that nearly all our names for relatives outside one’s own family come from the French used by the Normans—uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, cousin; while father, mother, brother, and sister come from the Old English words.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the real “Middle Ages,” the French poets, scholars, and writers were the greatest in Europe. The greatest doctors, lawyers, and scholars of the western lands of Europe had often been educated at schools or universities in France. Those who wrote about medicine and law often used French words to describe things for which no English word was known. The French writers borrowed many words from Latin, and the English writers did the same. Sometimes they took Latin words from the French, but sometimes they only imitated the French writers, and took a Latin word and changed it to seem like a French word.

If we were to count the words used by English writers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we should find that quite one-tenth of these are words borrowed from other languages. After this time fewer words were borrowed, but still the English language has borrowed much more than most languages.

Some people think that it is a pity that we have borrowed so many words, and say that we should speak and write “pure English.” But we must remember that Britain has had the most wonderful history of all the nations. She has had the greatest explorers, adventurers, and sailors. She has built up the greatest empire the world has ever seen. It is only natural that her language should have borrowed from the languages of nearly every nation in the world, even from the Chinese and from the native languages of Australia and Africa.

Ever since the middle of the sixteenth century England has been a great sea-going nation. Her sailors have explored and traded all over the world, and naturally they have brought back many new words from East and West.

Sometimes these are the names of new things brought from strange lands. Thus calico was given that name from Calicut, because the cotton used to make calico came from there. From Arabia we got the words harem and magazine, and from Turkey the name coffee, though this is really an Arabian word. We had already learned the words cotton, sugar, and orange from the Arabs at the time of the Crusades.

From the West Indies and from South America many words came, though the English learned these first from the Spaniards, who were the first to discover these lands. Among these words are the names of such common things as chocolate, cocoa, tomato.

The words canoe, tobacco, and potato come to us from the island of (sic) Hayti.

The words hammock and hurricane come to us from the Caribbean Islands, and so did the word cannibal, which came from Caniba, which was sometimes used instead of Carib.

Even the common word breeze, by which we now mean a light wind, first came to us from the Spanish word briza, which meant the north-east trade wind.

The name alligator, an animal which Englishmen saw for the first time in these far-off voyages, is really only an attempt to use the Spanish words for the lizard—al lagarto.

When the English at length settled themselves in North America they took many words from the native Indians, such as tomahawk, moccasin, and hickory.

In England and in Europe generally history shows us that there were a great many changes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This new love for adventure, which gave us so many new words, was one sign of the times.

Then there were changes in manners, in religion, and in the way people thought about things. People had quite a new idea of the world. They now knew that, instead of being the centre of the universe, the earth was but one of many worlds whirling through space.

The minds of men became more lively. They began to criticize all sorts of things which they had believed in and reverenced before.

During the Middle Ages many things which the Romans and Greeks had loved had been forgotten and despised; but now there was a sudden new enthusiasm for the beautiful statues and fine writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

It was not long before this new great change got a name. It was called the Renaissance, or “New Birth,” because so many old and forgotten things seemed to come to life again, and it looked as though men had been born again into a new time.

One of the chief results of the Renaissance was a change in religion. The Protestants declared that they had reformed or changed religion for the better, and the change in religion is now always spoken of as the Reformation; just as the reform of the Catholic Church which soon followed was called the Counter-Reformation, or movement against the Reformation—counter coming from the Latin word for “against.”

In England the Renaissance and Reformation led to great changes not only in religion but in government, and the way people thought of their country and their rulers. People came to have a new love for and pride in their country.

It was in the sixteenth century that the old word nation, which before had meant a race or band of peoples, came to be used as we use it now, to mean the people of one country under one government. In the sixteenth century Englishmen became prouder than ever of belonging to the English “nation.” They felt a new love for other Englishmen, and it was at this time that the expressions fellow-countrymen and mother-country were first used.

The seventeenth century was, of course, a period during which great things happened to the English state. It was the period of the great Civil War, in which the Parliament fought against the king, so that it could have the chief part in the government of the country.

All sorts of new words grew up during the Civil War. The word Royalist now first began to be used, meaning the people who were on the king’s side. The Royalists called the men who fought for the Parliament Roundheads, because of their hair being cropped short, not hanging in ringlets, as was the fashion of the day.

The people who fought against the king were all men who had broken away from the English Church, and become much more “Protestant.” They were very strict in many ways, especially in keeping the “Sabbath,” as they called Sunday.

They dressed very plainly, and they thought the followers of the king, with their long hair and lace and ruffles, very frivolous people indeed.

It was the men of the Parliament side who first gave the name Cavalier to the Royalists. It was meant by them to show contempt, and came from the Italian word cavaliere, which means literally “a horseman,” coming from the Late Latin word caballus, “a horse.”

It is a curious fact that we now use the word cavalier as an adjective to mean rude and off-hand, whereas the Cavaliers of the seventeenth century certainly had much better manners than the Roundheads; and at the end of that century the word was sometimes used in the general sense of gay and frank.

Both sides in the Civil War invented a good many new words with which to abuse the enemy.

Milton, who wrote on the side of the Parliament, made a great many; but the Royalists invented more, and perhaps more expressive, words. At any rate they have been kept and used as quite ordinary English words.

The word cant, for instance, which every one understands to mean pious or sentimental words which the person who says them does not really mean, was first used in this way by the Royalists to describe the sayings of the Parliament men who were much given to preaching and the singing of psalms. Before that time the word cant had meant a certain kind of singing, and also the whining sound beggars sometimes made.

In the eighteenth century, when Parliament was divided into two great parties, their names were given to them in the same way.

The Tories were so called from the name given to some very wild, almost savage, people who lived in the bog lands of Ireland; and the name Whigs was given by the Tories, and came from a Scotch word, Whigamore, the name of some very fierce Protestants in the south of Scotland.

At first these names were just words of abuse, but they came to be the regular names of the two parties, and people forgot all about their first meanings.

The great growth in the power of the peoples of Europe since the French Revolution has brought about great changes in the way these countries are governed.

It was the French Revolution which led to the widespread opinion that all the people in a nation should help in the government. It was in writing on these subjects that English writers borrowed the words aristocrat and democrat from the French writers.

Aristocracy comes from an old Greek word meaning the rule of the few; but the French Revolution writers gave it a new meaning, as something evil. Before the Revolution the name despotism had been used for the rule of a single tyrant, but it now came to mean unjust rule, even by several people.

The French Revolution gave us several other words. We all now know the word terrorize, but it only came into English from the French at the time of the Revolution, when the French people became used to “Reigns of Terror.”

But if the French Revolution gave us many of the words which relate to democracy or government by the people, England has always been the country of parliamentary government, and many terms now used by the other countries of Europe have been invented in England—words like parliament itself, bill, budget, and speech.

Nearly all the words connected with science, and especially the “ologies,” as they are called, like physiology and zoology, are fairly new words in English. In the Middle Ages there was no real study of science, and so naturally there were not many words connected with it; but in the last two centuries the study of science has been one of the most important things in history.