Fun Etymology Tuesday – Lord & lady

Eala, folcgestællan!

It’s Tuesday, and, as per long tradition, we have a Fun Etymology ready for you!

This week’s words are of noble stock: “lord” and “lady”.

These two noble titles, ubiquitous in films set in Ye Olde Merrie Englande, have surprisingly lowly origins: they both have to do with bread.

The word “lord” comes from old English “hlaford”, itself a contraction of “hlafweard”, literally “loaf-ward”, or “bread protector”, while the word “lady” comes from “hlæfdige”, which could be rendered as “loaf-dey”, or “bread kneader” (though it must be noted that this last etymology is disputed by the OED. However, nobody seems to have a better one, so there).

So the lady made the bread, while the lord stood there with his sword on the ready should any bread thieves dare tamper with their nutritious wheat derivate.

As an Italian, though, I must say that ladies were apparently not too good at making bread, considering the flaccid, sweetish mess English bread ended up being. No “hlafþeóf” would be interested in that.

Perhaps that’s why lords and ladies ended up moving on from baking to the far more profitable business of oppressing peasants.

Sherlock Nouns and the Case of Morphological Declension

Ah, nouns. Classically defined as “people, places, and things,”1 these little (and sometimes not so little) words can carry a lot of meaning, encompassing everything from cats to triskaidekaphobia2. Pair them with verbs (those things you do), and you’ve really got something.

In English, there’s a comforting solidity to nouns. Not like verbs, that throw on endings and even, le gasp, change vowels like they’re trying on hats. Nouns, now—nouns are dependable.

Or so you thought. When you change the form of a verb to reflect who’s doing what and when, that’s called conjugation. Here’s the bombshell: nouns can do that, too. It’s called declension.

In some languages, the form of the noun changes to indicate its role in a sentence. For example, a noun may have one form when it’s the subject of a sentence but have a different form when it’s the object. (As a refresher: in ‘Rebekah wants haggis’, ‘Rebekah’ is the subject, and ‘haggis’ is the object.) These noun forms are called cases. Adjectives, pronouns, participles, numerals, and demonstratives (this or that) can also decline. Declension occurs in languages like, oh, English. Or Spanish. (Just a little bit.)

In English and Spanish, the presence of cases is most evident in their pronouns:

English Spanish
subject he él
direct object him lo
indirect object him le
possessive his/hisn su/suyo
reflexive himself se

(Hisn is a dialectal form like mine for the third person.)

For regular nouns, English only distinguishes between singular and plural and between possessive and non-possessive. Spanish distinguishes between singular and plural and declines for grammatical gender (e.g. the adjective blanco will become feminine blanca when describing la tortuga blanca ‘the white turtle’). The diversity of their pronoun forms3 is a remnant of their parent languages, Old English and Latin respectively. These older languages had full, healthy case systems that affected all their nouns. They in turn inherited their noun cases from a common ancestor, namely Indo-European (IE).

The Indo-European Noun Cases

Based on the structure of its surviving daughters, linguists have determined that Proto Indo-European had eight noun cases:

case role example in an English sentence
nominative subject amīcus ‘boy’/puella ‘girl’ (Lat) The boy plays.
accusative direct object amīcum/puellam He loves the girl.
dative indirect object amīcō/puellae He gives the girl a flower.
ablative movement away from amīcō/puellā She runs from the boy.
genitive possessive amīcī/puellae The boy’s tears
vocative addressee amīce/puella Boy, where art thou?
locative physical or temporal location domī ‘at home (Lat) She stays at home.
instrumental by means of which something is done þȳ stāne ‘with a stone’ (OE) He raps on her window with a stone.


This is a rather simplified representation of the situation. The actual distinctions and usages of the cases vary from language to language, particularly because very few IE languages utilize all eight cases (like Sanskrit does). It’s the nature of languages to change, and cases have a propensity to merge, a process called syncretism4. It’s like when you’re working on a group project, and half the group doesn’t show up, leaving the kids who want a good grade to pull double duty and fulfill the delinquents’ obligations as well as their own. For example, in Old English, the dative case fills some of the same uses as the ablative case in Latin because Old English doesn’t have an ablative.

The case of noun cases shook out a little differently across the Indo-European language family. As previously mentioned, Sanskrit has eight cases. Latin has seven. Old English has five. Icelandic and German have four (although German doesn’t show it on nouns so much as on articles and adjectives). And languages like English and Spanish don’t so much have cases anymore as much as they have pictures of their old case-infused relatives hanging on their walls.

A college classmate of mine once stated rather authoritatively that the reason the modern Romance languages have generally done away with cases is because it’s too hard to decline all those Latin nouns in your head. To be fair, Latin has five different groups of nouns (called declensions), all with their own endings for Latin’s seven cases. And it is true that many modern IE languages employ far fewer cases than their ancestors, if any at all. But the idea that cases are too hard for our brains to manage in everyday speech? Hogwash. Russian, another IE language that is very much alive and kicking, has six cases. Our friend Finnish (of Uralic descent) has fifteen. (You should also take from the example of Finnish that noun cases are not unique to the Indo-European languages.)

We’ve discussed before (repeatedly) that one language isn’t really harder than any other; they’re just different. The human brain is well equipped to utilize any of them it can get its neurons on. If our homo sapien super computers couldn’t handle a given linguistic structure, it wouldn’t develop. Easy as pie.

To Word Order or Not to Word Order?

Now, a robust system of noun cases (and verb conjugation) in a language can affect more than just the morphology. Because so much important information is embedded in the words themselves, word order is less important and more flexible than in languages like Modern English.

In Old English, ‘Se hlāford lufaþ þā frōwe’ and ‘Þā frōwe lufaþ se hlāford’ both mean ‘The lord loves the lady.’ In Modern English, ‘The lord loves the lady’ and ‘The lady loves the lord’ have very different meanings (although, for the sake of romance, one hopes that both statements are equally true). To say ‘The lady loves the lord’ in Old English, you would decline the nouns differently and say ‘Sēo frōwe lufaþ þone hlāford.’ (Maybe this wasn’t the best example as there aren’t noticeably distinct ending on the verbs, but you can see the difference in case in the demonstratives.) This is not to say that Old English doesn’t have rules about word order, but it’s less crucial than in today’s English.

Languages that rely on declension and conjugation (both types of inflection) to convey meaning are called synthetic languages. Languages that rely more on word order are called analytic. These distinctions are not binary but rather are a matter of degree.

So, there you have it. (It being a brief rundown on noun cases.) As parts of speech go, nouns are pretty straightforward. But like a duck paddling on water, nature’s got a lot of beautiful stuff going on underneath the surface.


1 Thanks to Schoolhouse Rock.
2 A fear of the number 13.
3 Pronouns generally resist change (the stubborn things), hence the moderate survival of cases where they were generally lost throughout the rest of the language.
4 This phenomenon is propelled by things like sound change. If the endings for two cases start to sound identical, it becomes hard to distinguish them as separate forms.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Hypocrite

Hello peepz!
It’s Tuesday and, as usual, it’s time for our regular appointment with words and their wacky histories!

Today’s word is a word nobody likes to be called: “hypocrite”.

We’ve probably seen many of this kind of people in our lives (*cough*politicians*cough*), and we all know what they are: people who say one thing and do the opposite, who preach well but do wrong.

It’s no wonder then that the word comes from the Ancient Greek “hypocrites”, meaning “stage actor”.
This word is itself a nominal form of the verb “hypokrinesthai”, a compound of the words “hypo-“, ‘under’, and the middle voice (sort of like a reflexive) of the verb “krinein”, ‘to discriminate, separate’. So “self-under-separation”, if you like, or, in plain English, to separate yourself from your true self; i.e. playing a part.

Don’t be actors, people. Do what you say you do.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Coffee

People of the netz!
It is Fun Etymology day, and I know you’ve been waiting for this, so let’s get started!

Today’s word is “coffee”.

Ah, coffee. Some people swear they couldn’t live without it, others, like me, only drink it occasionally.

The coffea arabica plant, from which the coffee seeds are taken, is native of Ethiopia and Yemen, from which it was brought to Europe in the 1500. In fact, Yemen became so rich from the export of coffee that its laws decreed that no living plant or seed could be taken out of the country, in order to protect the monopoly they had.
When it arrived in France and England in the late 1590s, it sparked what can only be called a coffee mania, with more than 3000 coffee houses opened in England alone by 1670. These places were a popular meeting place for intellectuals and philosophers, because they offered a more egalitarian atmosphere from the clubs and universities of the time.

The word “coffee” is a borrowing from Arabic “qahwah”, itself of uncertain origin, filtered through Turkish “kahveh” and Italian “caffè”.
Some say the word originally meant “wine”, others that it comes from the Ethiopian region of Kaffa, one of the homelands of this incredible plant.

Whatever the origins of its name, we can all agree that love it or hate it, the world would not be the same without this black, powerful beverage.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Penguin

Hello, our internet friends!
It’s Fun Etymology day!

Today’s word is a weird one: “penguin”!

The word “penguin” is yet another of a long string of borrowings in the English language, and that is rather unremarkable. What is remarkable though, is the language it probably comes from: Welsh.

Now what could the Welsh be doing naming a bird that lives on the opposite side of the Earth from Wales?

And the original meaning is even weirder: it comes from the words “pen”, ‘head’, and “gwyn”, ‘white’, but most penguins’ heads are black!

Well, it turns out that the name didn’t originally belong to the penguin, but to another bird: the Great Auk, a bird which is unfortunately now extinct and which lived in the northern Atlantic, and which happened to look very similar to a penguin.
Its head was also black, but it sported a very prominent white mark on its beak, which was probably the origin of its name.

It appears that sailors exploring Antarctica noticed the similarity between the two birds and were too lazy to give the newly discovered one a new name.

And that’s how a Celtic word meaning “white head” came to mean a black-headed bird from Antarctica.

Words. We never get tired of them.