The Language Time-Machine

Writer and lexicographer John Ayto gives us a glimpse into  The Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins, a fascinating insight into words and where they came from

Have you got a tabby cat? Brown or grey with dark stripes? If you have, do you know why it’s called a tabby? If not, you could guess a thousand times and never find the reason:

Many hundreds of years ago there was an Arab prince called Attab. He had a palace in Baghdad, in what is now Iraq, and the area round the palace was called Al-attabiya, in his honour. They made cloth there, and the cloth came to be known in Arabic as attabi. French took the word over, as tabis, and applied it to a sort of rich silk material. By the 17th century fashionable gentlemen in England were wearing this cloth, which they called tabby. They had their waistcoats made of it, and they were especially fond of ones with a stripy pattern. People must have thought these men with their striped stomachs looked a bit like striped cats, because by the 1660s the word tabby was being applied to the cats.

We use the words of our language to mean what they mean NOW, at the present time – it would be terribly confusing if we didn’t. But words have a life of their own, stretching back into the past – some just a few months long, but others many thousands of years, when they could look very different and mean something very different from what they do now. Finding out about them can be like wriggling down a wormhole to a different time, and discovering what sort of things people did and thought about back then.

Take the words we use for food and drink. There are an awful lot of them. Some of them are fairly new, like blondie and smoothie, but there’s a handful of words that transport us back over 8000 years to the times of our distant Indo-European ancestors, who lived in the lands north of the Black Sea: ale, apple, bean, dough, honey, leek, loaf, meat, milk, oats, wheat. They’re all words that had their origins at the very root of our language. We need to be a little careful with them, because they didn’t all mean what they mean now: the ancient ancestor of English apple, for example, meant simply ‘fruit’, and the ancestor of meat meant ‘food’. But they give us a window on the sort of diet – nourishing and healthy, but perhaps not very varied or exciting by modern standards – that people had in those days.

What do words tell us about the sort of domestic animals the Indo-Europeans had? Well, they certainly kept cattle, sheep, pigs and geese, because several modern English words for them can be traced back to those earliest times: cow, ox, ewe, sow, swine and goose (as well as beef – which comes ultimately from the same Indo-European word as cow – and pork). They also had horses (although the only traces of their word for ‘horse’ in modern English are equestrian and equine), and they seem to have had domesticated dogs (the word hound goes back to those times). However, they didn’t know anything about donkeys, chickens or cats: we can tell that because none of the words for them in modern European languages date back that far.

That’s using our language time-machine to take us as far back as it’s possible to go. But we can also travel to the more recent past. For example, if we look at words relating to flying and aircraft in the early days of aviation, from the balloonists of the 18th century to the first powered flight at the beginning of the 20th century, we can see quite a few that were adopted into English from French, such as aeronaut, aeroplane, aileron, fuselage, hangar and nacelle. Why should that be? Well, many of the pioneers of flying were French, so many of the terms used to refer to it were created in French, and all English had to do was borrow them. The language opens a small window on the earliest days of a new technology, and suggests that at that time English-speakers viewed it as something coming from across the English Channel.

If you want to take a journey on the language time-machine yourself, why not try and use it to see how Arabic science, mathematics and technology had a great influence on Western nations in the Middle Ages*; how a word can tell us that our ancient ancestors had religious ceremonies involving blood sacrifice**; or what sound they thought best represented a twisting, turning movement***.

  • Arabic, p.256

** bless

*** wrong

John Ayto is a freelance writer and lexicographer. He has written many reference works such as The Oxford Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of Modern Slang, and the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. He was a contributor to the Oxford Companion of Food. John has always had a profound interest in language and cookery. He lives in London.

Word Origins The Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins is out now.

One thought on “The Language Time-Machine

  1. trinitygrau says:

    Wow! That is a long time! My mom would probably love this book, she is an educator and loves learning more about those quirky words we use today. Thanks for posting about such a great book.

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