Words don't come easy

He knows that hotch-potch comes from Old French, that we get the word 'idiot' from 13th Century Greek (via Latin) and that English, German and Swedish have similar slang for breaking wind.

Steven Russell

He knows that hotch-potch comes from Old French, that we get the word 'idiot' from 13th Century Greek (via Latin) and that English, German and Swedish have similar slang for breaking wind. Fred Sedgwick has a way with words, as Steven Russell discovers

PRESENT the average schoolboy with a new dictionary and chances are his first thought will involve looking up rude words. Old habits die hard, so former Ipswich headmaster Fred Sedgwick's new book on word origins is a temptation too far for me. And I'm not disappointed: he hasn't chickened out. “Frankly, I had to decide if I was going to put the taboo words in, and I decided I would,” he reports. “My great hero is Samuel Johnson” - the Dr Johnson of 18th Century writing and lexicography fame. “When his dictionary came out, after many years of hard labour, a very respectable women said to him 'Ah, Dr Johnson, I see you have not put in the vulgar words.' And Johnson replied 'Ah, madam, I see you have been looking for them!'

“The most extreme taboo, the dreaded C-word, has a fascinating history. It's in Chaucer, in The Miller's Tale and The Wife of Bath's Tale, spelt queynte. It's not exactly respectable, but it's quite common. It was common in its modern form in street names in Oxford and London. It became taboo much later.”

Fred has long been fascinated by words and where they come from. He remembers Latin master Mr Cooper telling his London grammar school class that sincere came from two Latin words: sine, meaning without, and cera, meaning wax. To stress that a jar for sale in the market was sound, rather than a broken one glued back together with wax, a stallholder might say it was sine cera - without wax, and therefore genuine.

“I was only about 12 and I loved it. He was quite wrong, however!” laughs Fred. “What he's got there is a faux etymology. People will tell you that butterfly comes from flutterby, which it doesn't. And Michael Caine on the telly, apropos of absolutely nothing, said marmalade comes from the fact that when Mary Queen of Scots was ill, the only thing she'd eat was this stuff. People in the palace would shout 'Ma'am est malade' - and that's the origins of marmalade. Which is absolute rubbish! It comes from the Portuguese for quince.”

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Fred was thus delighted when his publisher agreed to an A to Z on where words come from.

“I wrote down 500 or 600 definitions I knew - but those were all the fun ones and easy to do! Then, about a year ago, I had to get serious. I've got a stack of reference books in the other room. 'What am I going to start with? A: aardvark.' (About 19th Century; from the South African Dutch aard - earth - and vark: pig.) Then it was a long, long graft . . .

“I decided food, love and sex, religion and animals were my main categories, because those seem to be what we are about, essentially.”

The former head of Downing primary school in Ipswich, and Bramford, is convinced his list of the everyday, the esoteric and the plain curious will appeal. (The portents look good: The Saatchi Gallery in London has ordered 100-and-something copies, apparently.)

“I'd like it to be approachable. I'm involved in a lot of poetry, but if you're in the pub or at a dinner party, no-one's interested in poetry - or very rarely. But I've been talking about the book and people have been interested in the origins of words.

“Children always like to know the origins of their name. Chloe never knows that hers means green shoot, or that your name is, I think, 'bright and shining.' [My parents were at least optimistic, if not astute judges.] Mine is Danish for peace.

“Interestingly, Muslim children always seem to know what their name means. Fatima will tell you she's the daughter of a prophet, and so on - though I have to say I've never met a Leah who knew her name came from the Hebrew for cow, or was happy when she was told!”

In fact, knowing the provenance of words can root us in our culture and history - giving us a sense of foundation, stability and worth. That's something that seems to be lacking in our busy, dog-eat-dog world, he feels. “I think the decline of religion has left a hole in that sense for many people.

“I don't want to get all corny and 'grouchy old man' about it, but the total materialism of society . . . even people who don't realise it have, I think, got a hunger for something less crude and coarse than reading about Peter Andre, Jordan and Paris Hilton.”

A deeper look at the language we use every day, often without thinking too hard about it, shows how rich and colourful it is, and how far back in time its roots can stretch. It's also fascinating in itself.

“The great thing in English is that we are unique: we've got both Latin and the Anglo-Saxon. Recently I rewrote my will. When you look at the document, it says 'will and testament.' The reason it says both is that 'will' is the old Anglo-Saxon word and 'testament' is the Latinate word. So in Norman times they kept both. Law, because of that, is full of tautologies.

“A guy called John Cheek tried to translate the Bible back in the 1700s, I think, and he had this militant anti-Latinate approach. He said we shouldn't use words like centurion, which is from the Latin. When Jesus heals the centurion's servant, Cheek calls the centurion a hundreder. Of course, it didn't catch on!

“The poet William Barnes said later 'Oh, too much Latin!' When the bicycle became fashionable in Victorian times, he was one of the first to ride one, and he called it a wheel-saddle.

“Because all the people who invented these things had classical educations, things like the computer and television are all classically-derived words. Bicycle is Greek. If Barnes had had his way, he'd have called a telephone a far-speaker - which I'd have quite liked.”

Start thinking about words and your journey never ends, as Fred's discovered. Take the butterfly . . .

“I was very disappointed to hear that it didn't come from flutterby. It's Old English. They thought this insect stole butter from the dairy.

“Other words have travelled far: like 'nice'. Every teacher says 'Find a better word!' The root of nice is the Latin ne - a negative - and the sci is there in our word science, or knowledge. So nescius in the 13th Century meant lack of knowledge, or ignorant.”

And then, over the years, it had more makeovers than the pop singer Madonna. Its meaning at different times has included delicate, coy, difficult to please, over-particular, trivial, dainty, delightful, kind.

“And it also became 'precise', which we still have: 'That's a very nice distinction.' And then it descends to the modern meaning.” Nice, says Fred, “is an exemplar of the way words change in their meanings”.

Some words have changed in our own lifetimes. Like gay. “Its history is extraordinary. It's always had a dodgy connotation. If you said a woman was gay in Victorian times she was, as my mother would have put it, not everything she should be. So if you, as a person of either sex, were wearing gay clothes in Victorian times, you were probably putting it about a bit.”

Other words are the result of battles for supremacy between languages and cultures: Saxon v Latin, for instance.

“Here's an example where an Anglo-Saxon theological words has beaten the Latin - a rare thing. Atonement simply means at-onement. So to become atoned to God is to become at one with God, or someone you've had a row with.”

Meanings change all the time, Fred points out. “I've got a friend who's so rigid about words and what they mean, and of course it's all rubbish! They change constantly. Like me, he goes to an old-fashioned Anglican service most Sundays and we say 'Prevent us O lord in all our doings,' where prevent is 'pre' before 'vent' - go. So: dear God, go in front of us in all our doings. A beautiful meaning. It's only more recently it's come to mean 'stop'.”

In a few years, he quips with a nod to the MPs' allowances scandal, the word 'moat' might well have taken on another meaning . . .

Our language is, of course, heavily influenced (and poetically improved) from outside. Bungalow, for instance, was brought back from India by soldiers and means 'house from Bengal'. Canoe is from the 16th Century Haitian, canoa, while anorak owes its existence to the 20th Century Greenland Inuit for a piece of clothing: anoraq.

“One fascinating word is dog, which doesn't exist for a long time. The word is hound, or hund, from the German. All of a sudden 'dog', in the 1500s, leaps up. Nobody knows where it comes from. No other European language had a word like it, though some later borrowed it. The best bet is it's a local dialect word from somewhere. But it's lovely - such a basic-sounding word.”

Fred likes 'star', too, which is there everywhere in Indo-European languages. The connections can easily be seen in the German stern (we get our word from a Germanic source), Italian's stella, the Spanish estrella and stjarna in Swedish.

“I love the thought some bloke 5,000 years ago held his little kid up and pointed at the sky and said 'Stjr', or whatever it was.”

The great joy about vocabulary is that its rhythm and quirkiness adds so much colour.

“One thing about English is that we have a fondness for words like namby-pamby; willy-nilly; itsy-bitsy. There was a sentimental 18th Century poet called Ambrose Philips, and [Alexander] Pope and the other poets didn't like him - I think he was effeminate and his verses were a bit . . . well, airy-fairy! - so they called him Namby-pamby!”

The (18th Century) fourth Earl of Sandwich, meanwhile, was so addicted to gambling that he would avoid formal dinner and eat his meat between slices of bread while at the gambling-table.

Where Words Come From is about Fred's 30th book, give or take. (He's written many about education, such as How To Teach With A Hangover.) As well as writing, he also still teaches in schools - both the supply kind and encouraging children in creative writing. For the past five or six years he's had a book project on the go most of the time, but not now. There are proposals in, but nothing signed, sealed and delivered - and he's not enjoying this becalmed period.

“It's like looking over the edge of a cliff; I just don't like it!” he smiles. “There's a lot of the Puritan in me. I like to be on the go.”

A random selection

Bloomers: A 19th Century word after Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), a pioneering feminist who wore long loose trousers

Dungaree: From the 18th Century Hindi word dungri

The F-word: Two folk etymologies suggest it is an acronym - For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge or Fornication Under Consent of the King. “Both rubbish, of course,” says Fred Sedgwick. It's probably Scandinavian in origin. A Norwegian dialect has fukka for copulate, while a Swedish dialect has focka

Influenza: 18th Century Italian for “influence” - or “outbreak”. So “influenza di catarro”, for instance, means outbreak of catarrh

Kiosk: A 19th Century word from the Persian kusk - a palace! The French is kiosque - a bandstand . . . “which,” says Fred, “seems to bridge the dignified with the commonplace”.

Mattress: From 13th Century Arabic matrah, for mat, which derives taraha - so, something thrown on the floor

Nausea: From 16th Century Greek naus (ship) and, later, nausea - sea-sickness

Nicotine: Fourteenth Century. “The dubious honour goes to Jacques Nicot, French ambassador at Lisbon, who introduced tobacco to France in 1590

Palaver: From 18th Century Portuguese word palavra (speech) and Latin parabole

Pukka: From 17th Century Hindi pakka - ripe

Pyjamas: From 18th Century Urdu pay jama - leg clothing

Salary: Latin sal - salt - from 14th Century. A Roman soldier was paid in salt, which was precious because it kept food fresh

Where Words Come From - A Dictionary of Word Origins is published by Continuum at �9.99. ISBN 978-1847062741