Sigh, long days. With the social distancing and quarantines that we experience during this pandemic, the days do seem to get long. For some, this is a welcomed opportunity to catch up on put-off projects or cleaning, for others it seems like there is little to do except clean up the hair all over the floor that you tore out. I just got an email with some clever quips about the current situation. “I wonder if God got so mad about all of our fighting down here that He sent us to our rooms?” or “This is the day dogs have been waiting for. They realize their owners can’t leave the house and they get them 24/7. Dogs are rejoicing everywhere. Cats are contemplating suicide,” or maybe the one that sums it up best – “The truth is, it’s not so boring at home. But it’s interesting that one bag of rice has 7,456 grains and another has 7,489.”
In the midst of this season, some are also experiencing the season of Lent. Lent is the 40 day period in which the church reflects on the time before the death and resurrection of Christ. So recently, I discovered that the word Lent comes from “lencten”, the Anglo Saxon or Old English term for “long days.” We get the word “lengthen” from it. The Anglo Saxons didn’t have clocks. They observed the obvious. The sun rose earlier and set later in the spring of the year. According to Bede, 8th century historian and scholar, and later Aelfric, Anglo Saxon prose writer, the Anglo Saxons had four seasons: lencten or lenctentid was spring or spring time, sumor was summer, hærfest was harvest or autumn, and winter remained our word winter. Bede wrote that winter was over for the Anglo Saxon on February 7. On February 7, 2020, the London sunrise was 7:29 am and sunset was 5:01 pm. That doesn’t seem like a real long day. Now, April 1 is a different story. Sunrise was at 6:35 am and sunset at 7:34 pm. So with 13 hours of light, you could call April 1 a truly long day. So what did these early English speakers do with their “lencten”?
A typical Anglo Saxon’s spring workday would consist of feeding the animals, planting, plowing, and of course eating, all of which needed daylight. There was plenty to keep these people busy attaining their yearly goal of a good harvest. April was called Eostremonath or Eostre month. Eostre, according to Bede, was a pagan goddess of rebirth. Her image is associated with Hares and Eggs, both symbols of new life. The name probably stems from the Germanic Ostara, from the Greek goddess of dawn, Eos, and ultimately, from a Proto-Indo-European goddess of dawn.
You may have noticed that the name of this goddess sounds an awful lot like Easter. Well, the Christian missionaries didn’t want to abolish all pagan traditions as they shared their new ideas, so they translated the new birth of the earth in the celebration of the spring season into the message of the death and resurrection of Christ. The church kept the pagan name “Easter” for the Sunday celebration. And somehow the little pagan bunnies and eggs of the Eostre celebration, also survived.
After the darkness and cold of winter, April was considered the apex of new life. Not only did the Anglo Saxon peasant have the joy of increased sunlight, but animals usually gave birth at this time. With the warmer days and the first flowers blooming, April has always signaled that the world is changing for the better. Easter is often in April. Scholars have proven through historical record, geological research, and the computer studies of the ancient positions of stars, that Jesus Christ was indeed crucified on April 3, 33 A.D.
So celebrate April! Celebrate the looooong days. Celebrate the light! Things could be worse. You could be an Anglo Saxon with no electricity. Then you would really be enjoying the “lenctenid.”
What in the world is a kenning? Sounds like cunning. Aha! Both words come from Old Norse kunna meaning “know” and Old English cunnan meaning “know.” Cunning originally meant knowledge. Only later it became a synonym for craftiness or trickery, probably because it also used to mean using magic arts. “Cunning folk” were people who supposedly helped their neighbors with tricky little problems of life like “Where did I leave my keys?” and “Can you get my daughter a good husband?” So they “knew” stuff. They practiced their methods, including spells, from the Middle Ages through the early 1900s. In Scotland, to ken means to know…you know like, “beyond my ken” in “Timid and shy and scared are you, Of things beyond your ken.” in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from The Sound of Music or that other musical theater gem, Brigadoon where the confused Fiona says, “I dinna know…I canna (ken nae) say.”
Now, a kenning is a completely different thing, although it is related to knowing. If you could go back in time to England of the 800s AD, you would probably meet some Vikings. And they would be speaking Old Norse. Old Norse gave us words like berserk, club, slaughter…get the idea of their favorite pastime? The Anglo-Saxons who also raided and later settled England were cousins of the Vikings and shared a common Germanic, linguistic ancestry. Both Norse and Anglo-Saxon poets created kennings – compound words which were metaphors or comparisons of one thing to another by combining two seemingly unrelated words. The poets had a “knowing” about some deeper image they were trying to convey. My favorite is “whale-road”. Can you guess what this meant? Think about it. I will reveal later.
These kennings are almost riddles and they are the reason that Bilbo and Gollum have their riddle contest in The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien was a master of the Old English or Anglo-Saxon language. He would have been very familiar with the literature of the Anglo-Saxons, including kennings and riddles. A kenning is a compound word which is a new way to look at something. It is something you need to figure out. But it’s not nearly as complicated as a riddle. The riddle in the fifth chapter of The Hobbit which I think captures the feel of the scene best is one of Gollum’s riddles,
Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking
A kenning for fish might be scale-swimmer, or mail-swimmer. Ok, now some of you probably guessed that the whale-road is the channels of the sea. Giving an insight into the mind of an Anglo-Saxon, here are some of their kennings: battle-sweat (blood), battle-light (sword), sky-candle (the sun), bone-house (body), winter-spear (icicle).
Now, onto compound words. We have a lot of them in English. In my first blog post, “The Journey Begins”, I gave a very brief history of the English language. The Old English words that survive into Modern English are “meat and potatoes” words like prepositions, conjunctions, functional words that hold our thoughts together. The use of compounds has also survived… big-time. Railroad, moonlight, firefly are examples of closed compounds. Good-looking, sugar-free are examples of hyphenated compounds. This Germanic language compounding trait begins in Old Norse and continues in English and German. The Germans actually are the champs. Germans add and keep adding smaller words to create long chains. The longest ever created is: rindfleischetikettierungsuberwachungsaufgabenubertragungsgesetz, a 63 letter word for a law regulating the testing of beef. They finally dropped it officially in 2013. I guess it was even too long for the Germans. The man who shortened his name from Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain, said of the length of some German words, “Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these examples:
These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions.”
Ahh, the procession of words! We keep creating these wonderful nuggets of letters and sounds to express images. English is expanding with new words every day, including new compound words. I challenge you, my readers, to create some new words. How about some kennings? You can start with a base word that is like the kenning you will create. For example, road, in whale-road, is the base word which is like the channels of the sea. Couple it with a word which describes the base word, as whale describes what kind of road it is. Please give us your creations in a comment to this blog. Have fun, word-makers!
We’ve all heard the expression “sour grapes”. Although it’s familiar, most of us don’t really understand what its true meaning is. I heard twice, in the last several months, two well-educated women on news shows refer to someone being bummed about not getting something they wanted. The women said about this miffed attitude that “they were sour grapes”. Well that’s actually only half the story.
Deal. Deal with it. In other words, cope with the situation, get over it. It’s a smug challenge rather than a sensitive deference to someone else’s feelings or opinions. So this is a recent slang term that has become a meme, or a “mimicked theme” over social media.
Deal, as an American slang term, is not new. It began with card playing in America in the 19th century. It originally comes from Old English, daelan, meaning divide or distribute. So when playing cards, one would “deal” them to the other players. The one dealing was the dealer. This gave rise to many expressions such as deal me in, square deal, good deal, bad deal, no deal. Deal also means an arrangement, an agreement. This is likely a natural progression from card playing. So a card game is an agreement of sorts. If you say, “Deal me in.”, this could mean either get me into the game or the business arrangement, the deal. If a deal is an arrangement, or understanding between parties, then it can be rated. Is it a raw deal, the best deal, such a deal? You can sweeten the deal, clinch the deal. You can present it, as in “Here’s the deal.” or confirm it with “It’s a deal.” or “It’s a done deal”.
The American gambler in the 1800s began this flurry of “deal” expressions as gambling became a popular activity on the riverboats. Five Card Stud, a form of Poker, was the favorite game. Gambling was often illegal in town but gamblers had free reign on the water. Other expressions arose from the game, like “pass the buck” which came from the players passing a buckhorned knife around the card table to show who was dealing. Card playing then, was the source of an expression which came to mean pass on the responsibility. Harry Truman’s Oval Office desk sign “The Buck Stops Here” was the declaration that as president he took the final responsibility in government matters.
Card “sharps”, later called card “sharks”, were skilled at cheating the inexperienced out of their money and as the West opened up with railroad expansion after the Civil War, gamblers and con men plied their trade on unsuspecting cowboys and miners. Gamblers like Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, and Doc Holiday enticed others to play Chuck-a-Luck, Three Card Monte, and the favorite at the Western saloons, Faro.
One of the most colorful and most notorious of these con men of the West was Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. He got this sobriquet (nickname) because he was particularly adept at tricking the public with “The Prize Package Soap Sell”, a display of bars of soap which were supposed to be randomly wrapped in bills anywhere from $1 to $100. Smith would call on a “shill”, a plant in the audience who pretended to discover a $100 bill with his $5 purchased bar of soap. Smith would pretend to double wrap the bill and the plain soap wrapper together around the bar. But with sleight of hand, he got the money back into his pocket with no one the wiser. I won’t go into the details of Soapy’s rise and decline ending in a gunfight in Alaska in 1898. But I do want to mention that his sobriquet (French for “a chuck under the chin”) mmm… inspired writers to create other “soapy” characters in fiction. Soapy Slick is the nefarious saloon owner and racketeer in the Uncle Scrooge comics. But my favorite spin off of this real life character is Soapy Sid in the story, “Aunt Agatha Takes the Count” or “Pearls Mean Tears” in the BBC film series version, authored by P. G. Wodehouse. Bertie Wooster is encouraged by his heavy-handed aunt to take up with sickening sweet Aline Hemingway and her pious curate of a brother, Sidney. Ironically, they are actually the notorious confidence tricksters, Soapy Sid and his female accomplice. All their “soapy” behavior, meaning fawning, phony, and saccharine, was not enough to clean them up. The story ends just as Soapy Smith’s did…justice, for their dirty, rotten tricks.
Did I hear you right? Many of the words and expressions which we hear may sound strange to us and we wonder “where did that expression come from?” Some of these quirky treasures are actually bastardized forms of another word or phrase that got distorted by being heard wrong and the substitution is an expression which has survived.
Telephone and eggcorn
An eggcorn, the term coined in 2003, is a name for a word or expression which people have created by changing something that they misheard. For example, “eardropping” has, in some cases, mistakenly been substituted for “eavesdropping”.
Now this is a simple substitution. But there are more deliberate and involved linguistic creations which came about for simplicity’s sake.
Why does this happen? Well let’s give the illustration of the game “telephone”. Let’s say you are in middle school. Let’s say you are at a party or better yet in a drama class. It is quite likely that you will end up playing “telephone”. Now for those of you who are not familiar with this game, I will explain. It’s not going on social media with your phone. It is not pretending to use an antique, dinosaur communication device of the 1980s and prior…(“how does this thing work??”) It is sitting in a circle with others, as one person whispers a phrase or sentence into the ear of the person next to them. This person then whispers what they hear to their neighbor and so on until the phrase has passed entirely around the circle. The last person says what they heard aloud. And of course 90% of the time it is completely garbled. However! It isn’t just gibberish which they say. No! Everyone wants to be right so they tweak the message with just enough sense to make it sound plausible. So, for example, “I like lots of ice cream.” becomes, “I eat chocolate ice cream.” And so the progression happens.
As these substitutions have occurred many times in our linguistic past, we have created new and colorful English expressions. One of my favorite stories of word substitutions is the origin of the word, gringo. A gringo is a Mexican slang word for a man from north of the Mexican border. The story goes that the homesick yankees, or American soldiers, during the Mexican-American war of 1846-48, would sing a favorite song based on a Robert Burns poem. The lyrics were:
Green grow the rashes, O
Green grow the rashes, O
The sweetest hours that e’er I spend
Are spent among the lasses, O.
The Mexican men who heard them singing the song thought that “green grow” sounded like “gringo” and thus this term for Americans was invented. You can’t beat this story for color and “scope for the imagination” as Anne with an E would say.
Hocus-pocus is the word which has been used to signal the transformation of one thing into another through magic, or slight of hand. The best explanation for the invention of this catchy phrase appears to be the corruption of Latin “Hoc est corpus” meaning “this is my body”, the words spoken by the priest when the bread is said to change into the body of Christ during the Catholic Mass. Obviously the Post-Reformation nonbelievers thought that the transformation was pure trickery and thus it became the catchword of the world of magic tricks. Magicians and entertaining tricksters, in days gone by, said it when making things disappear or appear, as in rabbits out of a hat.
According to Samuel Pepys, 17th century member of the British Parliament, the pub is the “heart of England.” Pub is short for public house. The Romans, who happened to be occupying Celtic England until about 410 A. D., began the custom of setting up shops along the Roman roads. A “taberna”, or shop, was the forerunner of the tavern or pub. Later, these establishments were actually set up by the English government to provide refreshment and lodging for travelers. In the Middle Ages, travelers on these now British roads would likely be on pilgrimage to a holy site and indeed some of the pubs or taverns had religious sounding names. The locals, however, had their own way with the formal sounding tavern names. God Encompasses Us over time turned into the popular tavern, Goat and Compasses. A favorite restaurant even in the U.S., The Pig and Whistle, is derived from the Norse name Piga Waes Hael, or “Hail to the Virgin”. (So the curiosity about that favorite childhood eatery with the goofy name, Pig and Whistle, has been personally satisfied in this knowledge.) Lastly, Bacchanals, the name being a reference to Bacchus, Greek god of wine, became Bag o’ Nails and La Infanta de Castilla, after the Spanish princess, morphed into The Elephant and Castle. The English locals, especially after a few cold ones, were very creative indeed.
Shipley, Joseph T., In Praise of English. Times Books, 1977
We’ve come a long way since the usage of “shall” and “will” (when do you use which?) and other cumbersome grammar albatrosses. But wait! The fear of speaking like a commoner still exists. By trying to sound proper, people can actually use the incorrect forms of pronouns. It’s like trying to “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” so to speak.
For example, how many times do you hear people say something like, “They’re taking Brad and I to the game.” Well c’mon, if Brad weren’t going, you wouldn’t say, “They’re taking I to the game.” So you see it doesn’t fit there. It’s not an object of the verb take. It makes no sense. But somehow it sounds proper. It’s almost offensive to use “me” in polite company these days.
“I” is not just overused when supplied as a “direct object” of a verb. It’s also wrongly used as an object of a preposition. As in, “She gave the book to Paige and I.” Well darn it, if she wasn’t giving it to Paige as well, you wouldn’t say, “She gave the book to I.” That would be very prissy indeed.
I say celebrate “me”. After all, there are “Celebrate Me” events. There are generations of people identified as the “Me Generation” – baby boomers, generation X, generation Y. We’re all guilty. Let’s embrace our me – ness and use this comfortable and apt little pronoun!
Now, at the risk of offending further, I will venture forth into the pronunciation of “often”. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that sounding the [t] in the word, smacks of grammatical elitism. Unless you were raised to sound the [t] in “often”, you probably added that pronunciation to your vocabulary when you decided you needed to impress the right people (ouch). Both pronunciations are acceptable according to Merriam Webster. But if you’re trying to sound like you’re using the “queen’s English”, keep in mind that even Queen Elizabeth I pronounced “often” without the [t] sound. I am sure that the daring Virgin Queen would be pleased to know that the famous excerpt from her speech at Tilbury, “I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.”, is quoted often.
A short journey into the history of English…
Hey, what was that you said?
Have you ever wondered, as an English speaker, why you say the words you do? Most people never give it a thought. The words they use are just taken for granted as useful tools for everyday communication. There’s no interest in where these words came from, right?
I say wrong. DNA testing for ancestors is a very hot topic today, and I’m willing to bet that people will not only want to know where they came from, but where their words came from as well. And so I begin this blog.
Influence on Language
If you speak Icelandic, Spanish, or Finnish you are generally using the same words which have been spoken for centuries. You’d say these languages are conservative. Especially if a country is isolated, there is less opportunity for new influences on the language from non native speakers.
But what about English? The roots of the English language are deep and wide and the results are a unique, linguistic flowering, largely due to the influence of invaders. Take a look at England. It’s hardly isolated. In fact, the British Isles have been a target for invaders for thousands of years. Every invader, and eventually settler, contributed to the evolution of the English language.
Anglo Saxon Influence
“But what does this have to do with me?” you may ask. Well, what if you were to say, “Let’s go to your house. I need to get something to eat.” You would be speaking an evolved version of pure Old English, the speech of the Anglo Saxons. Every word in those sentences is from them. Their words are the “meat and potatoes” words, the words that glue our language together. The Anglo Saxons were Germanic raiders that acted and looked a lot like their more famous cousins, the Vikings. They found the island with it’s doors wide open as early as 450 A.D. and walked right in.
And speaking of the Vikings, after plundering the British Isles, they eventually settled down and shared their language, Old Norse. If you wanted to choose some words spoken by that tough bunch of dudes, you might say, “Tuesday and Thursday I want to ransack the loft for that skirt!” They showed up in earnest in “Angleland” about 800 A. D.
After the second millennium rolled around, we had another batch of bad boys take over and bring their words with them. In 1066, William the Conqueror from Normandy battled Harold and the Anglo Saxon lords at the Battle of Hastings. After they dispatched Harold with an arrow through the eye, they set up their French government and eventually influenced the way their English subjects spoke. Now, remember you wanted to eat at your friend’s house before? Let’s suppose you’re still hungry but don’t want to go to your friend’s house after all. You’ve found out that all he’s got is three day old cheese sticks. You might say, “Let’s rendezvous at the restaurant. I’m famished!” Well, most of that is basically Frenchified Anglo Saxon, which soon after the Norman French takeover would have been dubbed – Middle English.
As English speakers, we have a rich treasure of words at our beck and call. Mmm… and where does that fun, little phrase come from? Stay tuned… there’s another English expression which bears looking into! We will explore more secrets of the English language in upcoming posts.
Mary Atwood, May 2018