English Stew

Another Mystery for Sherlock Homophone

Posted in English Stew, General on October 25th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

How can a derby be both a hat and a horserace? In fact, it could have been a soft drink, too; so be grateful for minor confusion instead of complete chaos.

The original Derby is a middling city in the English Midlands. The Romans called it “Derventio” in reference to the area’s oak trees, which the bored legionaires probably counted for lack of any other entertainment. (Londinium wasn’t exactly Rome either, but at least it had baths and burlesque theaters.) And 15 centuries later, the social life of Derby has not improved. The city’s idea of sophistication is pronouncing its name as Darby.

Nonetheless, Derby and its adjacent Derbyshire had sufficient resources to support and indulge a family of aristocrats: the Stanleys. They have been the neighborhood Earls since 1485, when Lord William Stanley stayed at the sidelines of Bosworth Field until he decided who to betray: Richard III or Henry Tudor. Since Stanley was married to Tudor’s mother, perhaps he really didn’t have a choice; but Richard still seemed surprised when the Stanley forces attacked him. The grateful Henry promoted his stepfather to an earldom.

Despite the initial treachery that elevated the family fortune, the Stanleys proved to be a loyal lot. None of them were killed by Henry VIII, Mary or Elizabeth—an actuarial miracle probably unmatched in any other family of English nobility. One Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby, was killed by Cromwell; but that reflects only the Earl’s ineptitude, not his loyalty. The 8th Earl was so steadfast that he did not publicly complain when his wife’s second son looked like Charles II; however, the young man was written out of the Stanley will.

The 12th Earl is the hero of our story. If you believe the Gainsborough portrait of Edward Stanley (1752-1834), the Earl was an attractive and refined figure. You certainly would not recognize him as the short, fat slovenly man in the caricatures of London’s social gazettes. The Earl’s nickname was “Talley-Ho” so you get some inkling of the man’s cerebral nature. He did like the theater, if only for the actresses, but his chief enthusiasm obviously was for horses–breeding and racing them. To showcase his stable of thoroughbreds, he sponsored races. The Earl did not think it immodest to name one of the races the Derby Stakes. Indeed, the Earl would have been gratified to know that Derby is now synonymous with racing, although soapbox and demolition derbys might not be that flattering.

However, the Earl would be bewildered by the hat named for him. He never wore one; he never saw one. He died fifteen years before the hat was introduced. In 1849 the Bowler Brothers, custom hatters in London, were commissioned by the Earl of Leicester to create practical headgear for his gamekeepers. (Top hats tend to fall off when riding, and they look silly on anyone but aristocrats). The Bowlers produced the hat that sometimes bears their name; for some reason, no one wanted to call it a leicester. When that particular hat was introduced to the United States, however it was marketed as high fashion rather than practical headgear. Apparently, the name Bowler just did not sound chic, and Leicester could be a challenge to pronounce. (We literal Amercans would say Lei-cester instead of Lester.) So some marketing maven renamed the hat for the presumably dashing Earl of Derby, and that is how we Americans still identify the Bowlers’ claim to fame.

The real Derbys have demonstrated a remarkable stoicism or stupefaction over the misappropriation of their title. Certainly one of the Earls had to notice the dubiously-named hats . The 16th Earl spent 5 years on this side of the Atlantic, as Governor General of Canada. An avid sportsman (a genetic indisposition), he did not care to designate any dog sled races as Derbys. However, he was very impressed with another Canadian pastime: men flaying each other on ice. In fact, he even created a championship trophy for the brawls. Of course, he had to name it for himself; and if Derby had become grossly overused, his actual surname could suffice. (He was Lord Stanley to his friends.)

But how could the hat be confused with a soft drink? Remember that the Leicester family commissioned the Bowlers’ masterpiece. The surname of the Earls was Coke. In fact, it still is; the Atlanta conglomerate apparently has not sued them into extinction. Yet.

“Sakartvelo On My Mind”

Posted in English Stew, General on August 8th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Joseph Stalin would not want you to think that he was Southern. There were no Confederate flags decals on his troika, and he never mixed his vodka with Dr. Pepper. In other words, he would never call himself a Georgian. He and everyone from his native region called themselves “Kartvelebi“, the inhabitants of Sarkartvelo.

The real name of the alleged “Georgia” refers to the legendary figure Kartlos, the father of this misnomered people. So, how did his Kartvelebi descendants become confused with the Dukes of Hazzard. I know that this sounds too easy but “blame the Arabs.” The Arabs’ attempts to conquer the mountainous territory proved more difficult than they anticipated. (Not everyone was as effete as a Byzantine or as an incompetent as a Persian.) So, in begrudging respect, the Arabs referred to the region as a “land of warriors“–Gurjistan.

Our cartographers and geographers took the Arabs’ compliment as the actual name. Gurjistan became Georgia. The Russians made a similar mistake and called the area “Gruziya.” But a misnomer is the least that Russia has done to Sakartvelo–even now as I am writing.

The Armenians’ name for their northern neighbor is also incorrect but at least original. They refer to Sakartvelo as Vrastan, which invokes the ancient name of the area: Iveria. So it seems that Sakartvelo was fated to be confused with one region or another.

Doge Ball

Posted in English Stew on June 26th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

The city-state of Venice was a republic by default. None of its ruling families was able to eliminate or terrorize its rivals. So the aristocrats agreed to share power but only among themselves. Their idea of a republic would be our idea of a country club. The club—the Grand Council–had 450 members; and the rest of Venice’s population amounted to 140,000 waiters and caddies. (But the club members were good tippers.)

However, even the Grand Council did not govern Venice. The club’s steering committee and executive board managed the day to day affairs of the mercantile empire. There was also the club president: the Doge. The Doge was elected for life, but the election process would have bewildered a Byzantine.

It was as much a lottery as an election. First, 30 members of the Grand Council were chosen by lot.  From this group, 9 were chosen by lot. Those 9 members selected 40 members of the Grand Council; and from the 40, then 12 were chosen by lot. The 12 would select 25 members; and a lottery would pick 9 of them. They would elect 45 members, and then a lottery would choose 11 from them. The 11 would choose 41 members–who actually would elect the Doge. Oh, the Doge had to receive at least 25 out of 41 votes.

And you thought that our Electoral College was stupid. Yet, this convoluted system served Venice for five centuries, from 1268 to 1797.

Furthermore, this bewildering process did enrich our vocabulary. In the electoral lottery, each member received a wax ball which had to be broken open. If his wax ball contained a piece of parchment with the word “lector”, the lucky member proceeded to the next stage of the election. The word for these wax orbs was “ballotes.”

That does sound familiar.

The Road to Irrelevance

Posted in English Stew on April 29th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

Trivia literally means “three roads” in Latin. Seven roads led to a Roman education. The scientific routes were arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music. The literary paths were grammar, rhetoric and logic. Those three roads–the Trivia– were not as esoteric as they seemed. If you were begging Nero for your life, you would want to be grammatical and eloquent.

However, as the Roman Empire disintegrated and was inundated by barbarian invasions, a well-rounded education became irrelevant. The Goths, Vandals and Huns really did not care about proper Latin grammar, and they had felt that brute force had its own logic. Yet, arithmetic remained important; barbarians liked to count what they stole. And music was still esteemed; the Germans always thought that they liked music, although a nation of Wagner fans obviously has more patience than pitch.

But even literacy would eventually revive in the Middle Ages. Someone had to write the place cards for the Round Table. However, the classical standards of literacy had become irrelevant. The Latin language that once linked all of Western Europe had either fragmented into the pidgin dialects of French and Spanish or had been completely eradicated by unappreciative barbarians like the Angle-Saxons. Latin standards for grammar really could not apply to different languages. Rhetoric was too estoric for a society that settled debates with a broadsword. Logic actually could be dangerous; the Medieval Church suspected it led to heresy.

So, by medieval standards the Trivia had become meaningless, irrelevant and questionable. Today, grammar, rhetoric and logic have regained some respectability; but the term “trivia” has not.

The Quality of Mercy

Posted in English Stew on February 25th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Mercy was the stock and trade of the Roman Empire. True, an Empire of mad Caesars, blood-crazed mobs and well-fed lions would not seem very charitable or lenient. (You could ask a Carthaginian if there were any left.) However, in its original Latin, mercy had nothing to do with virtue. It meant “trade.” The Latin word “mercari” proved remarkably versatile, the root for market, merchant, mercenary and even the name of a God. Fleet-footed and sleight-of-hand, Mercury was the patron of traders…and thieves. Mercari also provided France a way to say “thank you.” Finally, and unintentionally, mercari became the English word for clemency.

Let’s begin this mercurial odyssey. The Romans introduced “mercari” to Gaul but it hardly made a good first impression. After all, at Roman insistence, the Gaulish traded their liberty, land and livestock in exchange for the right to keep breathing. For four centuries, mercari meant supplying the local garrison with wine and pornographic pottery. Beginning in the fifth century, however, the word was reinvented, “new and improved” by a software company called Christianity.

Its sales force understood the principles of marketing. Prospective converts needed an incentive if they were to trade Jove for Jesus. So, the missionaries offered their customers a mercedes. No, it was not a deluxe German chariot, but it was a miracle of marketing. The word mercedes , in fact, was a variation of mercari, but its meaning had been embellished and burnished. A mercedes was more than a mere trade; it was a bargain, a reward, a blessing!

Those missionaries made a compelling sales pitch, guaranteeing morality and salvation. All that paganism could promise was provocative theater. The Gaulish realized which religion was the mercedes. In the fifth century, the conquering Franks came to the same conclusion and traded in Wotan. Since mercedes was synonymous with reward or blessing, the French began saying it to express appreciation. They did abridge it to two syllables-“merci”-but the French were never long on gratitude.

The English learned “mercy” from the Normans, and the lesson was in both Latin and French. The Norman conquerors included bishops as well as barons. The new prelates of England were bound by the tenets of Christianity, and the Church still promised “mercedes.” However, after six centuries in the Dark Ages, the Church really wasn’t feeling chipper. In this bleak 11th century perspective, the world was sinful, and mankind was unworthy of God’s mercedes. Such blessings were an undeserved favor. Of course, the Norman clergy were eager to terrorize their conquered congregations, promising eternal damnation unless the English proved abjectly servile. Even then, their hope of salvation was slim, dependent upon the generosity of Heaven. Any fate other than Hell was an act of mercedes.

Living under the Normans, the English already had a familiarity with Hell. The Normans were descended from Vikings who had overrun France. Over a century, they had acquired a facade of French culture, although the Norman idea of Christian conduct was limited to shaving. Now the new masters of England, they made no attempt to endear themselves to their subjects. On the contrary, the Normans routinely terrorized the English to teach them their place-with the livestock. The battered and cowed English became accustomed to abuse and degradation.

Then, the unexpected occurred in the 12th century. It might have been during Lent or in the wake of the Chivalry craze. An English servant had just finished his debasing drudgery (perhaps licking the stables) and now expected to receive a slap or a kick from the Norman lord or lady. Instead, the Norman muttered “merci.” The servant kept waiting for some affliction but nothing happened. The Norman repeated “merci” and waved the Englishman away. The amazed and relieved servant had never before heard the word “merci” but he could guess its meaning. The Norman was saying, “I won’t hurt you.”

By the 13th century, the distortion of mercedes and the misinterpretation of merci had converged into our meaning of mercy. So, from Roman greed, medieval gloom and Norman arrogance, we derived an expression of virtue. Whether or nor mankind is inherently sinful, we are habitually ironic.

Hedda Gobbler would be a great name for a turkey

Posted in English Stew, General on November 23rd, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

Yes, to answer that endemic question of  Thanksgiving, the main course was named for the country. Europeans of the 16th century thought the North American bird resembled a fowl common to Turkey.   

The Turks, however, never thought of naming the fowl for themselves. They call it the Hindi, which refers to India. (I have no idea what the real Indians call the bird but it might be something vindictive about Pakistan.)

Furthermore, but for a slight Byzantine miscalculation, we would be referring to that misnamed bird as the Anatolia.

Until the 11th century, there were no Turks in Turkey.  In fact, the peninsula then was known as Anatolia.  It was a nice, thoroughly Greek region, and one of the most lucrative parts of the Byzantine Empire. In 1071, however, a Greek aristocrat named Andronicus Ducas became the inadvertent founder of Turkey.

The Byzantine general simply wanted to kill his emperor Romanus IV but was too finicky for an assassination. Ducas waited until the imperial army was fighting Turkish nomads in eastern Anatolia, near the town of Manzikert. He then ordered a retreat, abandoning the emperor to the enemy. Ducas rushed backed to Constantinople to install his cousin on the now empty and available throne.

(In fact, the Emperor Romanus was captured alive. Under the circumstances, the Turkish Sultan could coerce a favorable treaty. Romanus was soon after released; but his return to Constantinople was unappreciated by his usurping successor. The Byzantine retirement package consisted of blinding and exile.)

Unfortunately, the Byzantine Empire was in just as miserable shape. Andronicus Ducas had overestimated the army’s ability to retreat. It disintegrated, leaving Anatolia–half of the empire– defenseless. The Turks weren’t nomads after that.

And we won’t be trying to digest an Anatolia on Thanksgiving.

The Candidate and the Idiot

Posted in English Stew on October 10th, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

The candidate has always been conscious of his image. In the days of the Roman Republic (509 B.C.-27 B.C.), long before there were press releases, the aspiring politician announced his campaign for public office by putting on his very best-whitest-toga and proclaiming his virtues in the Forum. There was a term for this spectacle, “candidatus” meaning clothed in white. Unfortunately, Roman politics were so tumultuous that “candidates” increasingly found it safer to wear armor than togas. Indeed, by 100 B.C. and for the remaining five centuries of Rome’s dominion, civil war was the most common method of election. By the Middle Ages, the idea of a “candidate” had lapsed into Latin obscurity.

Seventeenth century England revived the idea.  The growing power of Parliament attracted ambitious men. Many were tantalized by the prospects for social-climbing and the opportunities for graft. The Puritans wanted to impose their principles on everyone else. All of these aspiring megalomaniacs were vying for seats in Parliament. Whether this new occupation was a career or an affliction, it still required a name.

Fortunately, the Renaissance had revived literacy, and some English scholars remembered the term “candidatus.” Of course, the term was not meant literally. At the time, the only white clothing would have been shirts, which also served men as their pajamas and underwear. (The Roman practice of hygiene had yet to be revived.) The idea of publicly parading in only a shirt would have disqualified the Puritan politicians. Candidate now was a generic term.

The scholars had also revived the Roman word for white: candidus. People like John Milton always flaunted their erudition, and so they would speak of a candid cloud. Ironically, “candid” soon began its evolution, first mixing with other synonyms for white and then acquiring its distinct definition. To phrase it as etymological formula: Candid=white=shining=clear=open=frank. This evolution proved surprisingly quick. By the end of the 17th century, candid had assumed its current meaning. So, the similarity between the words “candid” and “candidate” is not an accident: it just is an oxymoron.

The voter was not always treated like an idiot.  On the contrary, in Ancient Greece the epithet was applied to those who didn’t vote. Idiot is derived from the Greek word, idiotes, meaning private citizen. In its broadest and snobbiest definition, it applied to any citizen not in the ruling class. Of course, in a democracy-like Athens– every citizen was in the ruling class. (However, not everyone was a citizen: the women and slaves learned that.) From the Athenian perspective, an idiot was that myopic, apathetic soul who did not participate in the city’s democracy.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone who could witness the birth of Democracy and yet be oblivious to it. There was as much drama in Greek politics as in any amphitheater. Combining politics and theater, the Greeks had created the art of rhetoric. Pericles and Demosthenes treated the public like an audience, flattering, moving and dazzling the citizens. And the citizens were expected to argue back and debate the issues. Think of the topics that those Athenians decided: building a fleet, the construction of the Parthenon, war with Sparta. (The latter was not Athen’s most brilliant decision: imagine Meryl Streep starting a fist fight with Vin Diesel.) Yes, the Athenian citizens probably discussed zoning ordinances for chariots, too. Even classical Athens had its mundane matters.

Anyone so indifferent to this vital and dramatic process deserved contempt. The apathetic citizens were neglecting their rights and self-interest, abandoning their role in the democratic state. The word idiot became their stigma. Twenty-five centuries have broaden the word’s application but not improved its meaning. Of course, democracy and idiots are the not our only political legacy from Greece. We also have inherited a term for anyone whose politics differed from yours. The Greek word for fool is moron.

Surviving an Excursion

Posted in English Stew on October 2nd, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Excursions once offered short trips to death. In antiquity, invasion was the most common form of tourism. If the residents of a besieged city preferred not to be souvenirs, they would attempt an “ex cursio.” The Latin phrase means to run out, and its purpose translates to a surprise attack.

The excursion would rush forth from the city gates and hurl itself upon the enemy, who theoretically would be routed. Of course, the enemy was rarely so accommodating. Although ex cursio was a Latin term, it was not a Latin intention. The Romans had created the empire by doing the besieging. From their perspective, excursions simply made good target practice. By the end of the first century, the Mediterranean world had succumbed to the Roman choice of death or aqueducts.

Excursions might have had a revival in the fifth century, however, when the Romans were the ones cowering behind city walls. Unfortunately, if a Roman officer wanted his soldiers to attack the besieging barbarians, the legionaries usually responded by killing the officer. Their idea of strategy was to surrender to the Goths in preference to the Huns. Excursion lapsed into Latin obscurity.

Then, the Renaissance and desperation revived the word. In recalling the glories of Elizabethan England, the army is always omitted. Its successes consisted of escorting Jesuits to execution. Its problems stemmed from commanders who were better gigolos than soldiers. Queen Elizabeth selected her officers on their ability to flatter her. The aspiring commander was required to fawn in several languages, and his tactical skills were demonstrated by dancing. This trial of charms produced officers who could read Latin, French and Greek, but not maps.

Their incompetence would not have mattered if they had limited their duties to inspecting halberds at Greenwich Palace. Of course, being incompetent, they were unaware of it; so, they were eager to fight overseas. In the Netherlands, the English wanted to help a brave, persecuted people win their freedom from foreign oppression; and in Ireland, the English wanted to do the opposite.

Although the campaigns differed, the results were similar. The Elizabethan army made a tradition of being in an Irish ambush or a Spanish siege. Of course, there was another military tradition, one that is still observed: in the face of defeat, twist the facts into a victory. The English officers needed a euphemism for their ineptitude, and their knowledge of Latin provided one. So, instead of confessing that the English had blundered into a trap and barely fought their way out, the commanders would boast, “We made an excursion.”

Although Queen Elizabeth was susceptible to charming adventurers (and so was James I!), Parliament was not. It grew tired of subsidizing excursions and other debacles.� When Charles I wanted money for yet another military escapade in Ireland, Parliament demanded to choose the commanders. (They had to be devout Protestants who would enjoy their work in Ireland.) The King, however, would not compromise his prerogatives, and he threatened the Parliament with his army. Of course, Parliament could afford an army of its own, and Charles soon found himself making an excursion from London.

The English Civil War was to decide whether the monarch had divine rights or constitutional idiosyncrasies. Upholding the traditions of the royal army, and losing the war, the Cavaliers preferred an excursion to France rather than a visit to an English scaffold. Their exile lasted more than ten years, until 1658, when Oliver Cromwell obliged the royalists by dying. After enduring a decade of Puritanism, England longed for pageantry and syphilis, and Charles II could offer both.

The Restoration had a libidinous urgency; accelerated adultery had to compensate for all the missed opportunities. So, when a gentleman felt himself besieged by monogamy, he would attempt an excursion. Of course, bad morals still required good manners. A gentleman would graciously lie to his wife, disguising his excursion as a visit to the theater rather than to the actresses.

As both an alibi and a euphemism, excursion disseminated through the gentry. The ladies either were tactfully naive or making excursions of their own. The word certainly meant a short trip for pleasure, no matter what the motive. By the 1680s, the word had spread to the middle class, and so lost its venereal intent. Even today, however, excursion retains a trace of its military context. Consider how tour guides always stray from the itinerary to steer you to souvenir shops: excursions still tend to be ambushes.

A Mystery of the Map

Posted in English Stew on October 2nd, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Most countries have plausible names. After all, there are Italiani in Italy, Urduniya in Jordan, and somewhat united states in America. The billion citizens of Bharat might be annoyed by the common misnomer for their country but at least they recognize the name India as one of their major rivers. However, there are no Germans in Germany and there was never a Teutonic hero named Gerry. More than 80 million people called themselves Deutsch and insist that they live in Deutschland. But no one else seems to believe them. How did they develop this identity crisis?

As a start, blame the Romans. They put the name Germania on the map to designate the vast and rough territory east of the Rhine. The alternative might have been Barbaria. However, the meaning of Germania is a matter of conjecture. Some of its native tribes were known as the Herminones and the Hermunduri. For the Romans, the pronunciation of H was just as alien and hostile as the tribes themselves. Rome might have transliterated a more palatable G on the Hermans.

Another possibility is derived from the Gauls. Before they mutilated Latin into French, they spoke a Celtic language. The similarity between the words Gaelic and Gallic is not a coincidence but a family resemblance. The Gaelic word for neighbor is “gair.” Was that also the Gallic term for the horde across the Rhine? If the ancient Gauls spoke of the “gair Hermionones”, Roman efficiency or impatience might have compressed the term to the name we would recognize. Rome never conquered Germania– three legions were massacred trying-but it did impose a lasting name on the territory. In English, Russian and Italian, the country is called Germany.

However, that is only one misnomer for Deutschland. The French call their unnerving neighbor Allemagne. The Spanish echo it with Alemania and, in Iberian unison, the Portuguese speak of Alemanha. The obvious question is “Why?” There actually were Alamanni, a confederation of tribes that lived in southwestern Deutschland. The Romans regarded them as more obnoxious than ferocious. Throughout the third and fourth centuries, the tribes’ looting sprees into Gaul were usually thwarted and punished. In the fifth century, the Roman Empire no longer had victories; but the Alamanni proved to be underachievers. They could have “toured” such ripe lands as Italy or Spain; instead they just moved across the Rhine into Helvetia. That is the reason the Swiss now speak Deutsch. It is the Alamanni’s only actual legacy. Yet, they had such a miserable reputation that their name became an epithet for all Deutsch.

Of course, you might wonder why the Deutsch did not assert their real name. As history repeatedly proves, they are not a shy and unassuming people. When the barbarians were imposing their peace terms on the vanquished Rome, they could have added the demand “And don’t call us German!” In the fifth century, however, the tribes had no concept of a Deutsch people. Goths, Vandals, Angles and Franks shared a common culture and language, but their identity and loyalty were constricted to their tribe. Indeed, they had never heard the word “Deutsch.” It was first used in the ninth century by the Church.

As part of its civilizing mission, the Church intended to transform Germania from tribes into dioceses. In this new Christian society, a people bound by the same language and culture received the generic designation of Deutsch. The word literally meant “people” and in its original context only applied to the commoners. The term was synonymous with peasant. When medieval society progressed beyond the Dark Ages, so did the definition of Deutsch. The word reflected the growing prosperity and literacy of the culture. Ironically, the common Deutsch identity did not surmount the tribal identifications. Bavarians, Saxons and Prussians could quote the same poets and still hate each other. It would take a thousand years of rivalry and war before Deutsch became a nationality as well as a culture.

Being German emigrants themselves, the Angles and the Saxons certainly were aware of the old homeland. The English referred to their eastern cousins as the Dutch. It was an honorable attempt at pronouncing Deutsch. The term was vague, however, and didn’t distinguish the natives of Holland from the peoples east of the Rhine. In the 16th century the English were eager to acquire Renaissance sophistication; so they began to affect Latin and Italian terms whenever possible. The English now referred to those central Europeans as Germans. The almost correct designation of Dutch was dropped, a victim of human vanity. Then, as now, people would rather be fashionable than accurate.

The Travails of Travel

Posted in English Stew on October 2nd, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Every word has a story. We might assume that the English language emerged fully developed from a business lunch between William Shakespeare and Noah Webster. In fact, language evolves. Words migrate from one culture to another, and their meanings mutate and deviate over time. French is based on Latin slang, and English is a complete linguistic hodgepodge: the ripe fermentation of barbaric German, Norwegian-accented French, second-hand Greek and punchlines in Yiddish. Our language is an ongoing odyssey.

Two thousand years ago, there was no England or an English language. Britain and the Germanic dialect of the Angle-Saxons had yet to meet. The language of Roman Britain would have sounded like a Welshman singing Verdi. Fifteen hundred years ago, the Angle and Saxons, not wanting to miss out on the fall of the Roman Empire, invaded Britain and imposed themselves and their Germanic language on the Romanised-Celtic populace. The linguistic consequence is called Old English and would sound like a Welshman gargling.

Of course, as everyone should know, in 1066 the Normans conquered England and grafted their smorgasbord French onto English. That hybrid is called Middle English. Its vocabulary was a scramble of French and German, and the language still had that Germanic tendency to elongate words by pronouncing each and every letter as a s-y-l-l-a-b-l-e. Perhaps the Bubonic Plague gave people the incentive to speak quickly; for whatever reason, five hundred years ago, Modern-recognizable-English had evolved. If thou met William Shakespeare, thou could understandeth him. However, his accent might sound like an audition for The Beverly Hillbillies, and he would be just as dumbfounded by the alien syntax from your mouth. Our language is in continuous ferment.

Let’s continue this travelogue with the word “travel.”


Travel is literally a form of torture. Two thousand years ago, some Roman soldiers in Gaul were grumbling about the drudgery of building aqueducts, roads and other future tourist attractions. They compared their back-breaking labors to a bout on the rack.  The Latin word for that chiropractic device was “tripalium.” An eavesdropping Gaul, whose ears were sharper than his Latin, misinterpreted the Romans’ slang as the word for work. In time, all the Gauls were misusing the word, which they mispronounced as “travail.” The Gauls then misinformed the Franks, who misinformed the Normans, who misinformed the English when they weren’t slaughtering them.

French modesty and Viking charm are clearly oxymorons; and that dubious heritage was evident in the Normans’ rule of England. The conquered and cowed English may not have understood their overlords’ French but they learned to give it the worst possible meaning. Travail, the French word for work, became the English word for hardship. Among medieval life’s many travails were the burdens and dangers of going on a journey.

Even the Normans acknowledged the risks. Where there were roads, the wayfarer found that robbers had the right-of-way; and he risked contracting whatever diseases were being served at the roadside inn. The English Channel also seemed to be God’s way of saying that a journey should be done only under duress. Considering its inherent burdens and dangers, this particular travail eventually acquired its distinct definition. Since medieval spelling was never constrained by consistency, travel appeared as “trauayl,” “trawale,” and “trauaile.” There was an equal flexibility in pronunciation, so Chaucer had no trouble making the word fit in with his rhyme scheme.

The Renaissance, with its wondrous sense of inquiry and innovation, sanctioned both the idea of travel and the letter “V” to spell it. The printing press, another novelty of the period, helped to promote Oxford University’s idiosyncrasies as the standard for English grammar. Among the university’s scholars and spoiled rich kids, travel evidently was preferred to trauayl. Four centuries later, the spelling hasn’t changed but now travel is regarded as a pleasure; the ads assure us of that.

Yet, we still have those medieval forebodings of dysentary-flavored cuisines and French arrogance. Indeed, many of us suspect the modern form of the Roman rack is called “flying coach.” Whether it is etymology or irony, travail and travel remain synonymous.


(Adapted from “The Traveler’s Dictionary” published in The Toastmaster, 2003)