Sunday, 16 April 2017

Ode to London's Errant Apostrophes

Apostrophes of London! Cease your woes!
You come and go with highs and lows.
The Underground and street signs clash,
Resulting in an awful hash.

It seems Kings Cross and Regents Park
On roads and streets, I must remark.
I see Earls Court, as Barons do,
And no one Gardens quite like Kew.

Ravenscourt and Park as well,
While Seven Sisters cast their spell.
Snaresbrook no challenge and hold fast,
Cockfosters growth that's meant to last.

Those Theydon Bois and Shepherds Bush
Much as those Colliers Wood push.
Do Gunnersbury their hatchets deep,
While Kingsbury their queens and weep?

Pray, let the fair Queen spark and sway,
Just as her Knightsbridge night and day.
So London, sort your apostrophes.
And use St Paul's philosophies.

© Marc Loewenthal

Thursday, 9 March 2017

I swear, to tell the truth. Don't we all?

Trigger alert: swear words present (and correct)

Swearing. Cursing. Foul language. Language of the gutter. Locker room talk. There must be very little in the history of language that has caused as much disagreement and controversy as the use of language labelled undesirable, uncouth, foul, obscene, profane, taboo, or any other word or phrase that you want to apply to it. Its prohibition has been inculcated into generations of youthful minds. Countless mouths have been washed out with soap because of it. Millions of lines starting “I must not swear in class...” have been written after school on its account. Incalculable embarrassment and calumny have been incurred through its use. Polite company is largely defined by its total absence. How many times have we studiously, even obsessively, had to watch our p's and q's to avoid causing offence to family, friends, acquaintances and strangers alike?

And yet, and yet, swearing is probably the most natural, normal and psychologically healthy things that we can do with our language. I would go as far as to say we need to swear to express our feelings about someone or something. We gain a release. We show exactly what we think and feel. We identify ourselves with others through it. It becomes a badge of honour. We learn when its use is acceptable and when it isn't. We effectively become proficient users of swearing, because it's an integral part of our language and our linguistic repertoire. I would even venture to say that without swearing, we are not fully fledged users of our language. This is not just my opinion; swearing is actually part of the structure of our language.

First, let me explain why swearing is the topic of this blog post. Recently, the local council in the English town of Rochdale, near Manchester, decided to ban swearing by using a “public spaces protection order” to warn, or even fine to the tune of £100, anyone using “foul and abusive language”. You can read the report here. While I understand that consistently using foul and abusive language to the extent that people in the vicinity feel threatened and intimidated is undesirable, there doesn't seem to be any concise definition of what constitutes foul and abusive language and to what extent it needs to be used to require sanction. However, the aspect of this matter which intrigues me is the idea that an integral part of our language can and should be banned.

Swearing, far from being an undesirable and iniquitous use of language, is actually an aspect of our grammar. If you want to ban swearing, you might as well campaign to ban the use of object pronouns, modal verbs, superlatives, or even the past perfect continuous. If you open up a grammar book, you will see examples and explanations of the grammar that we use on a daily basis, the grammar which makes our language the English language. Now, you might think that postulating swearing as a grammatical category of the language on the same level as, say, phrasal verbs is going more than slightly beyond the pale. However, there is ample evidence for this, which I present here.

We have adjectives, adverbs and nouns, which we can use in increasingly lengthy strings to give more detailed descriptions, as in these examples:

a book; a good book; a really good book

a house; a large house; a large, wooden house; a beautiful, large, wooden house; an amazingly beautiful, large, wooden house.

We use adverbs to modify our impression of something, to add positive or negative feelings or attitudes to expressions, or to enhance certain aspects of the thing, person or idea that we are describing. And we use swear words in a similar way. However, what makes swear words a separate category from all other modifiers in the English language is how we use them to modify. In short, swear words are the only words in our language that can grammatically split other words. Here are some examples:

abso-bloody-lutely; un-fucking-believable; fan-bleeding-tastic; the under-poxy-ground

We usually use these words to emphasise something, stress disapproval and express annoyance. Their use adds emotion to what we're saying in such a way that other words can't. We can also use swear words in other ways without splitting words. The significant thing is that other words which are not normally regarded as taboo, cannot perform the same function. Have a look at these:

no fucking way; I don't bloody believe it; a piss-poor game; I should sodding-well think so.

There are many more examples if you care to look for them, or even think of them (if you aren't afraid of sullying your mind). Of course, you can go through your life without using swear words, just as you can go through your life without ever using the passive, or relative clauses. It would be quite difficult to avoid doing so, though. The point that I'm making is that swear words form a grammatical category in our language, and attempting to ban their use in natural language expression is both unjustifiable and futile. Certainly, we as speakers should be able to judge when to use them and we shouldn't be sanctioned for the odd use of a choice word. I think that if local authorities want to regulate the behaviour of certain people in public, they would do better to focus on what they do, rather than try to deny them the right to use the full range of language that we have at our disposal.

If you would like to read a more comprehensive description of taboo words, read the taboo section in Michael Swan's Practical English Usage, a must for anyone keen to know how the English language really works.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

You can't handle the truth!

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition is the way in which we deal with truth and untruth, reality and fantasy, fact and fiction. We can use fantasy and fiction to imagine other worlds and other “realities”, as well as to test ideas and hypotheses. The problems come when we knowingly use fiction to replace fact, and then try to present that fiction to the world as reality.

A good example of this was revealed last week by the Trump administration. Now, this blog is not necessarily the place to launch a political attack on Trump and his team, as, among other things, there are people far better equipped at doing that then I am. I will, however, take issue with the language that any politician uses to obfuscate the truth. I have no problem in calling out lies when I see language being used to pretend that they are anything but lies.

On 14th February Mike Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, resigned after it emerged that he had misled VP Mike Pence over his previous contacts with Russian officials. The exact words he used for his misdemeanour were “inadvertently briefed” and “incomplete information”. Now, let's analyse this. He briefed him. OK. That's his job, so I can accept that he opened his mouth and produced words designed to help Pence make a decision or come to a conclusion of some kind. Except that he wasn't briefing in this case – he was responding to a specific question as to whether he had discussed with Russian officials the prospect of raising sanctions imposed on Russia. What was required was a yes/no answer. There was no briefing required here.

Let's now examine “inadvertently”. defines “inadvertent” as “unintentional, heedless”. gives these synonyms (among others): careless, reckless, unintended, unwitting, chance, not on purpose, unpremeditated. So Flynn is saying that the “incomplete information” that he transmitted to Pence in their exchange on this matter somehow emanated from his mouth in an entirely unplanned, unintended and unpremeditated manner. In some way, words expressing that he did not discuss state matters with foreign officials somehow formulated themselves in his mind in an entirely unplanned way, and escaped from his mouth with no intention at all. And he is in one of the highest advisory positions in the administration of the most powerful country in the world. In other words, as far as he is concerned, he didn't lie, as that would have involved premeditation, intention and clear denial of a manifest truth of which he was certainly aware as he had actually held the talks with the Russians.

Of course, Flynn isn't the only politician to engage in this type of wordplay in an attempt to save their bacon. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have confessed that they “misspoke” - Trump when referring to abortion and Clinton when referring to her trip to Bosnia. In fact, “misspeak” has a history stretching back to Old English, though it mostly meant “murmur”, “grumble”, “speak disrespectfully” and “pronounce incorrectly”. However, more recently, especially under the influence of politics in America, it has come to mean increasingly “avoid telling the truth” under the guise of not saying what you intended to say. Another expression for lying, “economical with the truth”, entered political discourse during a 1986 trial over a book, Spycatcher, which the British government was trying to stop from being published in the UK. Alan Clark, a minister in Margaret Thatcher's government, admitted to being “economical with the actualitè” in Parliament, which stretches the denial of lying even more. Careful research will no doubt produce numerous other examples of alternative expressions for telling lies.

Don't get me wrong. Humans throughout history have obfuscated, denied and dissembled for a variety of reasons. We use euphemisms and other expressions to avoid mentioning the real name of something. The ancient Greeks believed that there existed infernal goddesses known as the Furies, who punished people for breaking their oaths. However, they usually referred to them as the Eumenides, a euphemism which meant “kindly ones”, for fear of arousing their wrath by calling them by their real names. The Black Sea was stormy and difficult to navigate in the ancient world, so the Greeks called it Pontos Euxeinos, literally “hospitable sea”, to avoid incurring its wrath. Some seemingly innocuous words and expressions are even taboo. The Russian for bear, medved, literally “honey eater”, is thought to have been used to avoid uttering the real name of the animal, which has always been a powerful figure in Russian folklore. “The Scottish play” is used to avoid uttering “Macbeth”, “pass on” is used to avoid “die”, and so on. However, in most of these cases the aim is usually to avoid hurting feelings, insulting people, provoking conflict or raising a contentious subject. These ways of speaking are part of our human nature.

Let's be clear, though. When it comes to politicians, who we entrust with our votes to govern our countries, societies and lives for our good, we have every right to expect them to give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and not conceal it for their own benefit. Politicians use expressions such as “inadvertently advise”, “misspeak oneself” and “be economical with the truth” to deliberately lie. If something is a matter of state secrecy and security, then fine - we can all accept that. Just say so. We're not children to protect from the awful truth. If they want our trust, they should just come out with the truth when there is no alternative. We can handle it. They can't.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Talk of the town, but which one?

A funny thing happened to me yesterday as I was making my way to Horsham from London on a Southern rail service. Now, all railway companies screw up with their services from time to time, and they occasionally have the good grace to inform their passengers of delays and cancellations. On my train, they even repeatedly put out helpful suggestions to make sure the passengers were on the right part of the train, as the front four coaches were continuing to Portsmouth after Horsham, while the rear four were off to Bognor. I mean, you wouldn't want to have Portsmouth as your intended destination, only to pull up in Bognor, uttering "Bognor? Bugger!" in surprise and disbelief at your folly.

However, I would have thought they would draw the line at the summary renaming of random stations as you approach them. I mean, this could prove quite confusing, even disconcerting, if you were to be expecting to arrive in, say, Brighton, only to be informed that it had been renamed Invercargill or Happisburgh or something. However, this is precisely what happened on my train, not once, but twice, though I must emphasise that it did not affect me personally, as the station in question was simply one I was passing through. What's more, the replacement name was not one which, to my knowledge, identifies any genuine geographical location in this country or, indeed, anywhere else in the known universe, which makes it all the more perplexing. Still, I can do no more than give you the facts and allow you, Dear Reader, to supply your own explanation for it.

The station in question is Crawley, though anyone with less than a passing acquaintance with the vicinity of Gatwick Airport may well not have been able to deduce that, given the nature of the announcements. As we left the station before Crawley, the announcer proclaimed to all and sundry: "The next station is Wouldcustomerspleasenote." A quick search on Google maps failed to turn up a settlement, large or small, of that name in the area. However, a few minutes later the next announcement seemed to have obliterated the newborn Wouldcustomerspleasenote from the face of the earth and replaced it with yet another ostensibly non-existent settlement with the same coordinates as Crawley: "We are now approaching Pleasemindthegapbetweentheplatformandthetrain." Another search failed to identify this newest of new towns in the locality, given that a few minutes previously it had been known as Wouldcustomerspleasenote. Perhaps they had reviewed the initial renaming of Crawley as a singularly inadequate attempt to truly place it on the world stage and wanted to endow it with a name to rival Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in Wales or even Taumatawhakatangihangakoayauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukypokaiwhenuakitanatahu in New Zealand. However, I think you might agree that these attempts both fall a bit short.

Well, that's my interpretation, for what it's worth. I look forward to any other simpler, more likely explanations, should you wish to supply them. Oh, and by the way, on my arrival in Crawley Station, I noticed that it still had signs for Crawley, so evidently they had not had the time to engage signwriters to amend them. If I were you though, I'd be on my guard the next time you want to travel there by train. You never know.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

950 years ago today - the battle that changed our language forever

So here we are, exactly 950 years since the English language started to undergo probably its most radical change in history – the loss of its status as a national language and its transformation from an almost exclusively Germanic language into a Latinised Germanic mongrel. Vast swathes of its original vocabulary were supplanted by words from Old North French and standard Old French, with the result that some 60% of the vocabulary of our language comes either from French or from Latin, often via French. However, it's not just the vocabulary that has left a mark on our mother tongue; there have been other influences, and in commemoration of the momentous events of 950 years ago in the Battle of Hastings, I have outlined the main ones in this post. I hope you enjoy and appreciate them.

Basic vocabulary

First, let's look at some basic vocabulary changes. Among the myriad words that have arrived from French, many have ensconced themselves firmly within everyday English. Here is a selection just to give you a taste:

Old English didn't have a special word for what follows first, instead using other, so it borrowed second from Old French. It comes ultimately from Latin secundus and literally means “following”. Related words include sequence, suit and suite.

By Chaucer's time, Middle English had adopted because, which is a combination of English by and French cause, which in turn comes from Latin causa, “reason, matter”.

In modern English slang, a guv'nor, or guv, from governor, means “boss, sir, mate”. It comes ultimately from Greek kybernein, “steer”, via Latin gubernare, which produced gubernator, “ruler, director”, which French handed over as governor.

Every day we use good old English terms like “I hope so, I think so, I guess so”. To that we added “I suppose so”, or, as it's generally pronounced “s'pose so”. The Middle English supposen, “have an opinion, assume”, comes from Old French supposer and ultimately from Latin.

Old English used the word sore as an intensifier, much as Modern German uses sehr. Sore continues in its original meaning of “painful”, while sorely is old-fashioned but clearly an intensifier. However, Middle English went to Old French to borrow verai, from Latin verax, “truthful”, and turned it into very.

There are hundreds more everyday words like these which owe their existence to the Norman Conquest, including these, which you might like to follow up yourselves: chief, defeat, dress, eagle, fashion, grief, injury, judge, leisure, prison, push, quiet, reason, rest, royal, search, tax, trouble and uncle.


It is well-known that Old English names were largely unpronounceable (at least to us). Who can forget the names from the spoof school history book, 1066 And All That: Ethelbreth, Athelthrall and Thruthelthrolth? OK, so the writers were going slightly over the top, but we still have Alfred, Audrey, Cedric, Earl, Edith, Edmund, Ethel, Harold, Oswald, Wilfred and Winifred, to name but a few. However, the Normans brought over a huge swathe of new names for us to choose from, including Alice, Charles, Clement, Felicity, Gerald, Geoffrey, Henry, Janine, Lucy, Marjorie, Matilda, Nancy, Richard, Robert and, of course, William. What's particularly interesting is that many of these names originally come from German, since the Germanic Franks, who gave their name to France when they settled there, supplied many of them. Just look at modern German Heinrich (Henry) and Wilhelm (William).

The Normans were also past masters at supplying us with surnames, most notably those connected with professions. Hence we have the person who makes bows, Archer, the person who chops up your meat, Butcher, the person who makes arrows, Fletcher, as well as the person who cuts the cloth for your clothes, Taylor and Turner, the person who, well, turns. One very interesting aspect of Norman names comes from their occupation of Ireland. All over the world people traditionally take their name from their parents. In English we have a large number of names ending in -son: Johnson, Williamson, Peterson, Harrison to name but a few. The same was true of the Norman French in Ireland. The French word for "son", fils, was prefixed to the father's name and was eventually rendered as fitz, hence: Fitzgerald, Fitzmorris, Fitzpatrick, Fitzsimmons and Fitzwilliam.

When we look at place names, we can see some that the Normans changed from previous names and a few new ones. They are usually names which mix the original English name with the name of the Norman Lord who took over the town or the area. Hence we have Ashby de-laZouch, Stoke Mandeville, Theydon Bois, Beauchamp, Beaulieu and Richmond.


I've written about this already (see 21/4/16), but a few short words won't go amiss here. When the Normans took over and invited more of their countrymen into the conquered land, they only numbered about 10% of the population, but the top 10%. For anyone old enough to remember bottled milk being delivered to your door every morning, you could compare the social structure of England to the contents of a milk bottle – the Norman French cream on top of the Old English milk, accurately reflecting the provenance of these two words.

The same ran through society, most clearly exemplified by words for animals on the English farm and in the forest, and the meat served up on the Norman table: English pig/swine and French pork; English bull and French beef; English cow and French veal; English sheep and French mutton; English deer and French venison. This last one is especially interesting, as venison actually comes from the Latin venari, meaning “hunt”, while deer originally had the meaning of “animal”. Only the king and his nobles were allowed to hunt deer (transgressors did so under pain of death), so venison, literally “hunted meat” was highly prized. There are many other examples of French food from my previous blog post.


Although many Old English words were lost in the face of new vocabulary from Old French, many words which came in with the conquerors happily settled into English and still exist alongside their older neighbours to this day. The differences in meaning and use are often subtle, and you can see for yourself how each doublet plays out. The situation is, in fact, further complicated by borrowings directly from Latin (often through Old French), with the result that we often have triplets! These examples will serve to illustrate the point:

English folk and French people; English stool and French chair (see how the stool is a diminished type of chair); English brotherhood and French fraternity; English kind and French gentle; English some and French several; English smell and French odour; English loss and French defeat;

English kingly, French royal and Latin regal; English twofold, French double and Latin duplicate; English guts, French bravery and Latin valour; English end, French finish and Latin terminate; English tell (cf bank teller), French count and Latin compute.

Throughout its history, French has rendered its Latin roots almost unrecognisable in some cases. Even those words which still bear a resemblance to Latin have undergone some major changes. Another development from the introduction of French into English has been a greater receptiveness to borrowing directly from Latin, or from Latin via Old French. As a result, we have numerous doublets from the two languages, essentially the same word in two forms: French sure and Latin secure; French poignant and Latin pungent; French chieftain and Latin captain; French count and Latin compute; French search and Latin circulate; French grief and Latin gravity; French frail and Latin fragile.

French has even given English doublets from different dialects of French. The Normans spoke a form called Old North French, which became Anglo-French after they settled down. However, many other Old French speakers arrived from other parts of France, mostly speaking standard Old French. Typically, Old North French had initial c- and w- where standard Old French had ch- and gu-, hence: carry and charge, both from Latin carricare, “transport, load”; catch and chase, from Latin captiare, “take, seize”, hence “hunt, try to take”; cattle and chattel, from Latin capitale, “property”; warranty and guarantee, from Frankish warand, “authorisation”; warden and guardian, from Frankish wardon, “watch”.

Meaning change

One of the things we have to remember about the words we've inherited from French is that we've changed the meanings quite a lot. Here are a few differences we shouldn’t forget when we venture to the other side of the Channel. In France, it's perfectly normal to demand things, as it simply means “ask” in French. If someone tells you they're désolé, they're simply sorry, not desolate. And never ask a man if he's embarrassé – men can't get pregnant, at least not yet. Also don't worry if your hotel maid deranges you. She'll just say sorry for disturbing you and come back later. It may not be sensible to fall in love in England, but it certainly is in France as being sensible involves the heart, not the head.


Perhaps one of the most radical effects of French on English has been pronunciation. It's long been a running joke about how the French and the English can't pronounce each other's language properly, and there's some truth to that. English loves to weaken and chop syllables in speech even more than French does. Also, English is a stress-timed language, which means you only hear the stressed syllables clearly, with unstressed syllables swallowed up in between, while French is syllable-timed, which means that no one syllable is heavily stressed, thereby reducing the force of others. What’s more, English likes to stress the first syllable as far as possible, while French prefers the last.

Suffice it to say that there have been numerous changes in the way words of French origin in English are pronounced. Have a look at these borrowings from French, and find out how the related words are pronounced in French, Spanish and Italian: Asia, azure, leisure, pleasure, pressure, temperature, furniture, comfortable, suit, suite, precious, fusion.


Last but not least, we come to spelling. By the time the Normans arrived, Old English was a fully-fledged literary language, with its own spelling rules. The Normans had to write texts in English for the general population to read, but the scribes preferred to use French as the basis, thereby introducing letters such as q and rewriting exclusively English letters and combinations of letters in their own way. Here are a few choice examples: cwic became quick; scip became ship; bricg became bridge; ðæt became that; hwæt became what; heofon became heaven; cese became cheese.


So, I hope you've enjoyed my short account of the changes that the Normans brought to our language. We can still see many of them in action today, 950 years since they began. I would imagine they will continue for many years hence. If you're still around in fifty years' time, then I hope you can dig this out again, wherever it may be, celebrate the full thousand years, and remember that relatively small events in one place at one time can have massive consequences, not least the wholesale restructuring of so much of a language.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

More from the Normans: legal pagans and loyal peasants

This entry continues the theme of doublets – two words coming into English from the same Latin root, but with one of them radically changed in form and sometimes meaning by its passage through Old French and Norman French before nestling in the bosom of Middle English, and the other coming more directly from Latin, while preserving most of the original form and meaning. Basically, we're talking two, and occasionally three, for the price of one. It just goes to show how generous the Normans were with their vocabulary.

So, let's start with loyal and legal, for they are, indeed, essentially the same thing. Both these words come from Latin lex, “law”, and clearly, legal, arriving in the first half of the 15th C as a learned borrowing from Latin legalis via Middle French, carries the original meaning with it. Strangely enough, loyal, “faithful”, arrived almost a hundred years later directly from Middle French, having been rendered loial/leial in Old French from the original Latin form. However, Middle English had earlier borrowed leal, “faithful” from Old French and rendered it lel, and this form was supplanted by the later borrowing of loyal. The change of meaning in loyal was to do with the idea of carrying out legal requirements faithfully.

Moving on to pagans and peasants, these words share the same origins, at least linguistically, if not materially. In Roman times, a district in the country was delineated by fixed markers, which is why it was known as a pagus, literally a “fixed area”. From pagus came pagensis, “inhabitant of a country district”. In Vulgar Latin, pagensis came to refer to the territory that the district covered, becoming païs in Old French as well as in Spanish and Portuguese, and producing the modern word for “country” in all three languages. Old French also produced païsant, “country-dweller”, which came to us via Anglo-French paisant as peasant in the early 15th C. While peasant was busily divesting itself of its similarity to its distant ancestor, Late Latin paganus, “villager”, remained the same until it came directly into English, also in the early 15th C, but with the meaning of “heathen”.

So, why were some country-dwellers simply rustic types while others became non-believers? There are two possible reasons. When Christianity was adopted by the Roman empire, people living in country areas were less likely to take on the new religion than city dwellers, holding on to their old ways and gods, and therefore being seen as pagans. An alternative explanation is that country-dwellers were not seen as Soldiers of Christ, as the early Christians termed themselves, and were more likely to be termed non-believers. So a non-believer chewing a stalk of wheat while sitting on a farm gate could truly be called a pagan peasant.

Just as we have loyal and legal, we also have royal and regal. The Latin rex, “king”, produced regalis, “kingly”, which became roial, “royal, splendid”, in Old French. This was borrowed in the 13th C as royal, with the meaning of “fit for a king”. A century later, regal was borrowed from Latin via Old French. It's interesting that when the dust settled, we ended up with three words meaning pretty much the same thing – kingly (the original Old English root word), royal and regal, though royal has come to denote the nature of the monarch, while kingly and regal refer rather to appearance.

One thing that might happen to people if they crossed the monarch in the old days was imprisonment, which brings us to the next group – jail, cage and cave. Yes, I know they don't look very similar, but we can still see the links in the meanings. All three words came into Middle English in the 13th C. The Latin root was cavus, “hollow, hole”, which produced Old French cave, “cave, vault, cellar”, coming to us with more or less the same meaning. The other two words were fed through the French machine much more thoroughly. The Latin form cavea, “hollow area, animal enclosure, coop”, became cage in Old French, which it remained as it was handed over to Middle English with the meaning of “prison, retreat”. The form cavea also produced a diminutive form caveola in Late Latin, also with the meaning of “enclosure, coop”. This became gaviola in Vulgar Latin and then jaiole in Old French. The alternative form gaiole was used in Old North French, and both forms came into Middle English via Anglo-French, giving us both jail and gaol. So, one could say that the Birdman of Alcatraz had cages in his jail or jails in his cage. And if a caveman transgressed, was he kept in a cave or in a special cave-jail?

The last entries in this post might well get you a long time in jail if you're not careful – poison and potion. One of the Latin words for “drink” was potare, which gives us potable. However, in medieval times, people seemed to be playing around with all manner of mysterious and magical drinks. Potion came into Middle English directly from Latin potio, "drink, drinking",via Old French, replacing an earlier borrowing, with the meaning of “medicinal drink, magic drink, poisonous draught”. Nowadays, we think of it as more of a magic drink liable to turn you into a frog in a fairy story. While potion was largely unchanged by its passage through French from Latin potio, poison most certainly was not. It came into Middle English slightly earlier than potion from the Old French poison/puison, with the meaning of “deadly potion”. Clearly, it wouldn't have done to visit a medieval hostelry and ask someone “what's your poison?” You'd never know what you'd get.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

What's the point?

Have you ever reached a juncture in your life where you just sit and think “What's the point?” Well, here I am to tell you what the point is, as well as the puncture, the pounce, the punch and much more besides. Plenty of Latin roots have passed on their offspring to us to enrich our language, but few have been as fecund as pungere (pronounced rather like poon-gay-ray), which has provided English with a whole family of words, the most important of which came via the Normans. You could say that the Normans have poked, pricked and stabbed us repeatedly with pungere since they first held us at the point of a sword at Hastings.

Pungere in Latin indeed meant “pierce, stab, prick”, basically the action of a sharp object making a hole. This produced punctum, “pierced, pricked”, which gave French point, “dot, mark, place”, and pointe, “sharp end”. When these came into Middle English from Old French in the 12th C, the two words fused and over time took on the numerous meanings the word point has today, including sharp end, full stop, dot, position, stage, important feature, mark, score, indicate, aim and direct, to name a few. I think you'll take my point.

Two words come to us from Old French ponchon, “piercing tool”, itself from a Latin form punctio, with the same meaning. This produced puncheon in Middle English, which was reduced to punch, a word we still use in expressions like hole punch. The verb punch, “make a hole” came from the Old French ponchonner, and was also used to mean “thrust, prod, poke”, later being extended to “hit with the fist”. Coincidentally, the Latin pugnare, which gave us pugnacious, is related to pungere, and meant “fight with fists”, so the later development of punch into fist-fighting is parallel to the earlier Latin use of pugnare. Incidentally, the drink punch is unlikely to have any connection with poking, thrusting or punching, but is said to be from the Hindi word for five, denoting the original number of ingredients. However, after a few glasses of punch, I'm sure a few other punches might ensue in the wrong circumstances.

An alternative meaning of Old French ponchon was “lance, javelin, spine”, and this produced Middle English pownse, which came to refer to the claws of a bird of prey. Even today in falconry, the front claws of a falcon are known as pounces because they pierce the body of the prey. However, over time, the action of the hunter in swooping on the prey changed the meaning of pounce from "pierce" to "seize with claws" and finally to "jump on", which is the meaning we use now.

A later borrowing in the 14th C from Middle French into Middle English was poignant, “stinging”, from the verb poindre, “prick, sting”. Originally, poignant referred to both physical and mental stinging and pain, especially sharp tastes, but over time it became reserved for feelings and other abstract ideas.

All of the above words were mediated by their passage through Old and Middle French before they reached Middle English, but words were constantly borrowed directly from Latin as well, which gives us some interesting parallel derivations alongside the French ones. Two such words, punctual from punctualis, "on point", and puncture, from punctura, "pricking", arrived in the 14th C direct from Medieval Latin. Being on point has become associated with time, hence punctual. On the other hand, getting a prick, or a puncture, in your car tyre might well affect your punctuality.

Rather later, in the 16th C, after English took in poignant, it borrowed essentially the same word directly from Latin in the form of pungent. However, this time although the pricking was originally associated with feelings, it gradually came to refer to the pricking of the nasal passages and the tongue. We could easily have ended up with pungent songs and poignant smells had the words taken different paths. Another thing we got from Latin around this time was punctuation, “marking with points”, to the eternal displeasure of schoolchildren everywhere. One final borrowing from around the same time is punctilious from Italian pontiglioso, “on point”, altered from the Italian to look as if it came directly from Latin.

So, we can see that although English started off at the sharp end of the Norman sword, it has a pointed history, punctuated by the borrowing of many different words, some pungent, many poignant, but all carrying a punch as they make their point