Don't have a cow with beef & don't have a beef with cow

In this week's video I have a look at the words "beef" and "cow":

This video was inspired by the standard example that everyone (myself included) uses to show how the Norman Conquest affected the history of the English language (watch this excellent summary of the history of English from The Ling Space). I often trot out these pairs of words, cow/beef, sheep/mutton, etc., when explaining the history of English literature during the middle ages. This reflects not only historical linguistics, but also another branch of linguistics called sociolinguistics, specifically how languages from two different groups (in this case with two very different levels of prestige and status) interact. What often happens in these instances of language contact between unbalanced groups is that a simplified language called a pidgin develops, to allow for communication between the two groups, which takes the structure from the lower-prestige language but imports much of its vocabulary from the higher-prestige language. The word "pidgin" itself probably has nothing to do with the similar sounding bird "pigeon" (unless it's a metaphorical reference to the brief messages carried by messenger pigeons, as has been suggested). Instead it's derived from the word "business" in the phrase "business English" which was used in the pidgin that developed from English and Chinese to allow those two groups to communicate for the purposes of commerce. If a pidgin language becomes the native language of a new generation of speakers, it develops a more complex structure and we call it a creole, and has the properties of any other fully formed language. Jamaican creole is a famous example of this process. This is what happened with the Old English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons and the Norman French of William the Conqueror and his fellow Normans. Initially a pidgin would have developed, which eventually became the creole that is Middle English and the Modern English we speak today. So a lot of French vocabulary came into English, leaving us in this case with these English-French pairs of words which reflect the social realities of life in England about a thousand years ago. The interesting twist here, of course, is that in the case of cow and beef, if you go back far enough all the way to Proto-Indo-European, the two words actually come from the same root, and that long history of the word inspired me to write what is essentially a story about war and conflict.

Since I've promised to point out in these blog posts some of the recurring nodes and connections that come up often in the videos, I'll draw attention to the Crimean War, which plays a more central role in my earlier video A Detective Story ( or click here for the specific reference in the video). A few other points to call attention to: Bulwer-Lytton was a wonderfully colourful figure, as his Wikipedia biography attests to. Have a look here and here for some more entertaining bits of trivia about him. According to the Wikipedia, Bovril is particularly associated with British football culture, since thermoses of the hot drink are a good way to keep warm while sitting in the stands watching a match, though apparently thermoses of Bovril are banned in Scotland due to their potential use as projectiles -- another link in the war and conflict associations with the word "beef"? And of course the Beefeaters, guards of the Tower of London who were apparently unusually well fed,  have become an icon of Britain as well, and it has been pointed out (see here and here for instance) that there is a similarity between the word "beefeater" and the Old English term hlaf-æta meaning "loaf-eater", which is an interesting parallel with the Old English hlaford or "loaf-warden" leading to our modern word "lord", which I discussed in my last video on the word "loaf". With videos on the words "loaf" and "beef", you can now make an etymological sandwich. You're welcome!

So I'll leave you with one last related etymology that I didn't use in the video. The Proto-Indo-European root that leads to beef and cow also leads to Greek βούς (or bous), which also means "cow". This is the first element in the compound boutyron which means literally "cow-cheese" and give English the word "butter". Butter is, of course, the first element of the word "butterfly". But why is a butterfly called a butterfly? It's been suggested that it comes from a folk belief that the insects or witches who have taken on the form of butterflies like to steal butter, which might also be supported by the German word for butterfly, milchdieb, which literally means "milk-thief". Or it might come from the supposed similarity in appearance between butter and the excrement of butterflies, a theory perhaps bolstered by the Dutch word for butterfly, boterschijte, which means literally (ahem) "butter-shit". And so I'll leave you with that appetizing thought!

Using My Loaf

After a month off, it's back to posting new videos, and this week's word is "loaf":

This video is one of the earlier ones I made, but for various scheduling reasons I haven't released it until now. As a result, the structure and pacing of this one is a bit different from the style I'm settling into now, and my apologies if the pace is a bit too quick -- you can have a look at the transcript if anything went by too quickly to pick up on. This video was inspired by my teaching of Anglo-Saxon literature and explanation of the comitatus society that lies behind early Germanic culture, and of course the key point is the etymological connection with the words lord and lady. As I keep putting out more and more of these videos, the connections between the videos will inevitably pop up more and more often, so I'll try to point out some the interesting ones. Both this video and the Yule episode mention the 1815 eruption of Mt Tambora which led the Year Without a Summer in 1816, and both videos mention the Old English poem Beowulf and the Roman writer Tacitus, an important source on early Germanic culture.

"Loaf" and as it turns out "bread" are examples of words that have become more restricted in their meanings over time. "Loaf" used to be a general word for bread, and "bread" could refer to morsels of any food. Another example of this is the verb "starve", which in Old English meant simply "to die" and only later narrowed to mean "to die due to lack of food". In linguistics this type of change in meaning is referred to as "narrowing". Another similar example of this is the word "meat", which in Old English meant "piece of food" or simply "food", but now refers mainly to food that is the flesh of an animal. Interestingly, it either comes from a the Proto-Indo-European root *mad- meaning "wet, to drip", referring perhaps to "fat", or it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *met- meaning "to measure" and gives us not only the word "measure" but also "meter" and "meal", in the sense of food measured out into portions. So perhaps "bread", "meat", and "meal" all reflect the communal action of sharing food. Oh, and the word "mate" comes from "meat", so a mate is someone you share food with, much like the word "companion" that I mention in the video. I guess that's why go out on a romantic date you often have a meal together! Well, if all this discussion of loaves, bread, meat, and meals is making you hungry, make sure you don't starve!

If it's occurred to you to wonder about the other meaning of the word "loaf", in the sense "to laze about, be idle", it's not related to the bread word. Instead, it seems to be a backformation from the word "loafer". Though there's some disagreement as to where "loafer" comes from, one suggestion is that it's an Anglicization of German landläufer meaning "vagabond", from land and the verb laufen meaning "to run". Or it might be related to Old English laf which means "what is left, the remainder", which is related to the verb "to leave", and is an element of the name of the character in Beowulf called Wiglaf (literally "the remainder of battle"), who unlike uncle Beowulf himself, survives the final battle with the dragon (sorry for the spoiler). Either way, this sense of "loaf" has nothing to do with bread, but it may still be connected to the poem Beowulf.

When writing the scripts, inevitably some material gets left out, so here are a few extra tidbits that were interesting but didn't make the cut. The word "companion" which I pointed out as a interesting parallel for "lord" is particularly significant as a reflection of Germanic culture as well. Though the word is Latin, it's probably a translation of an earlier Germanic one, as it first appears in a Frankish text, an early medieval Germanic tribe, and the Gothic language has a word related to "loaf" that means something like "messmate". The expression "to take bread and salt" means to swear an oath, and may be related to an old, possibly eastern, tradition of eating bread and salt once an oath was taken.  In Slavic cultures bread and salt is a sign of hospitality and is offered to guests. The expression "to take bread and salt" was a new one on me, but it's listed in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable.

The use of loaf to mean "head" (or by extension brain) as I've done in the title of this blog post with the common expression "use your loaf" is probably from rhyming slang: loaf of bread = head. Interesting, this rhyming slang also gives us loaf of bread = dead. All the discussion of the different senses of "loaf" and "bread", particularly with metaphorical senses related to money, were inspired by playing around with the OED, and particularly the historical thesaurus feature (also available separately as The Historical Thesaurus of English). It's lots of fun looking through various terms and euphemisms for basic concepts like money that were used over the years. If you know of any other bread expressions that I didn't mention in the video, feel free to share in the comments.

One final note about the bubbles in beer: I've been unable to find a satisfactory answer to the question of whether or not beer historically would have been fizzy. Today beer is usually artificially carbonated, but historically beer could be made fizzy by allowing it to continue fermenting in the bottle (as homebrewers often still do), but this would require bottles that could be properly sealed to maintain the fizz. But I would speculate that even in barrels that weren't fully sealed, some amount of fizziness might remain, particularly if the beer was consumed relatively quickly after fermentation, rather than stored for a long time. But if there are any food historians out there who could shed some light on this in the comments below, I'd be very interested to hear.

Merry Christmas and Happy Yule!

Wæs þu hal! This week we have a very special Christmas episode of The Endless Knot all about the word Yule:

The etymological key to everything I talk about in this video is the two possible sources for Germanic word (and festival) Yule. Yule might come from a Proto-Indo-European word that meant 'to turn', in which case it's referring to the turn of the year that is the winter solstice, or from  a Proto-Indo-European word that meant 'to speak' and by extension 'to joke' or 'to play', by way of the sense of festivities and celebration. Together these sources highlight Yule as a time associated with fertility festivals and celebration, which are exactly the elements of the Germanic Yule that are now commonly associated with Christmas. These elements work well symbolically with the Christian story of the birth of Christ, of course, which also has the theme of the renewal of life. And indeed it was a very intentional decision to borrow from various pagan traditions and incorporate these elements into a Christian holiday. For instance, Pope Gregory the Great advised Augustine the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons, to adapt and adopt the Germanic customs and places of worship into the Christian tradition, rather than to try to simply suppress them. I also point out the possible etymological connection between Yule and jolly, as in the "Jolly old elf" of Clement Clark Moore's Twas the Night before Christmas (more properly A Visit from St Nicholas), and the fact that "elf" too is a Germanic word and pagan connection. You can learn more about the elf etymology in my earlier video on the word "Album":

I was reminded of another medieval literary connection here (in addition to Beowulf and the Norse stuff), in a Twitter conversation with my friend and colleague Damian (@IPFWMedieval), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is also set around Christmas and New Year's, and also draws on the imagery of the evergreen holly. In fact there are a number of parallels between Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with the Green Knight lining up well with Grendel (and the Grinch). And similarly to Beowulf, the Old Norse sagas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight features a strange supernatural being visiting the hall at Christmas and causing trouble. And evidently Ted Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) was a student at Oxford University while JRR Tolkien, a notable scholar and translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf (as well as Lord of the Rings author), held the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. Thanks for the extra connection, Damian! If you want to read more about the Grinch/Grendel link, there is at least one article published on the topic (to my knowledge), Robert L. Schichler's "Understanding the Outsider: Grendel, Geisel, and the Grinch". You can find the full bibliographic info for this article, along with other useful sources on the various topics in this video, on the show notes page. Though I couldn't work Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into this "Yule" video, I have covered the poem in some detail in an earlier video called "A Detective Story":

One last programming note: I'll be taking a bit of time off over the holidays, and regular video releases will resume on January 13th, 2015. So in the meantime, Happy Yule! And as a final Christmas present, here are a number of other fun and interesting videos about Christmas with an etymological or historical angle!