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.