Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Words of the month: Parker, Paliser and Parchementer: Anglo-Norman occupational surnames

One of the other changes in the dictionary entries that users might notice, aside from the new usage tags and the addition of references to cognate words in other dictionaries, involves the content of the entries. The addition that is likely to interest a wide variety of users is that we are beginning to note the use of certain terms as surnames, where we have attestations of such a use.

(Bede roll of the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1349-50), Parker Library)

The inclusion of surnames in dictionaries is not without difficulties. As we mentioned earlier this year in our discussion of the words pastry/pie, often the language of surnames is problematic: names frequently occur in lists which may follow a bilingual or trilingual text.
How then to determine the language of the name? In general, we try to err on the side of inclusion, as frequently surnames attest to Anglo-Norman (as well as Middle English and Latin) words far earlier than they appear in literary or administrative use. It is  the use of either the Anglo-Norman definite article ‘le/la’ or the Anglo-Norman spelling of the word that helps us determine whether a given word may be considered Anglo-Norman (though neither element is of itself an indicator of ‘Anglo-Normanness’, cf. Richard Ingham, The Anglo-Norman Language and its Context (2010), p. 136).

As you may be aware, a number of British surnames ultimately derive from medieval occupation names: Fisher, Smith, Potter etc. are all names which originated as occupations and the adopted as monikers to distinguish individuals.[1] It can be a challenge in a medieval context to determine if certain terms are functioning merely as a proper name, or if they still indicate that person’s occupation. There are several entries in the section of P- currently under revision that will include surnames – let’s look at some of our attestations from the occupational entries.

This refers to the person who makes or works with parchment. The word can be found as a gloss to the Latin membranarius (TLL ii 83) [DMLBS 1757b] but also in texts like the York Memorandum Book where the rights of, among others, the parchmenters are listed:

Ceaux sount les ordeignances et constitucions
novelment faitz en l’artificees des tannours gaunters et parchemyners d’Everwyk
par assent de touz les meistres des artificees
(YMB i 81)
('These are the ordinances and the constitutions
newly made in the guilds of the tanners, glovemakers and parchmenters of York
by the agreement of all the masters of these guilds')

(Copenhagen, Royal Library Ms. 4,2o f. 183v)

We also have two examples of the term being used as a surname in John of Gaunt’s registers, circa 1372-1383:

noz amez tenantz Johan Albon, Gamelyn Impheye, et Wauter Parchemyner de Chesthont
(Gaunt1 i 168)

Johan Parchemener de Leycestre
(Gaunt2 i 30)

Gaunt’s register also provides us with our sole attestation of the occupation of paliser, that is, one who makes fences (paleis), in an interesting list of medieval occupations:

touz les forestiers, parkers, guarrenners, palisers, bondgardes de nostre forest
(Gaunt1 ii 330)
('all of the foresters, parkers, warreners, palisers, boundary keepers of our forest')

We have found no attestations of this occupation as a surname in our A-N source material, however, the OED (sub paliser n.; MED paliser n. provides additional examples) notes two uses of the word as surname in 1315 and again in 1414 in the forms Paleser and Palaser. As the word is clearly Anglo-Norman, derived from the Latin paliciarius (DMLBS 2085c), these citations will be incorporated into our entry as further (and earlier) evidence of the existence of the word in Anglo-Norman.

(Codex s.n. 2644 Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, Austria)

As seen above, parker as an occupation, is well attested in Anglo-Norman, perhaps as a reflection of the importance of the position and of the parks to medieval British life. The term is mostly found in various legal and administrative texts, but also turns up in Seintz Medecines, an allegorical text of the mid-fourteenth century, as well as in Walter of Henley’s treatise on farming:

en trois gyses sont acoustomés ceaux veneours et les parkeres ou foresters a destruire cele male court de renars
(Sz Med 104.14)
('These hunters and parker or foresters are accustomed to destroy the fox’s earth in three ways')

si le seygnur  y met parker ou messer ou graunger [...]
(Henley 440.c56)
('if the lord places there a parker or steward or granger [...]')

The earliest use of Parker as a surname is found in 1199 in the Rotuli Curiae Regis (i,282) where the name Willielmus Parker can be found. We have also found a Johan Parker (Gaunt1 i 33), a Robert le Parker (Lett EPW 56) and a Huschon Parker (Port Bks 58).

These surnames once again provide early attestations of the use of the term, although their language remains difficult to ascertain.

A paneter was the official in charge of the pantry, known in English as the ‘pantry-man’ or the ‘panter’. Like parker, we have numerous citations attesting to its use, from the end of the thirteenth century:

qe nule liveree ne face le paneter
(Westm 244)
('that the panter make no deliveries')

(Luttrel psalter, BL Addit. 42130)

The MED (sub paneter(e n.) provides a lengthy list of examples of ‘le Paneter’ in various spellings used as a surname, beginning in the early thirteenth century. We have equally found a use of the name without the definite article in the records of the Goldsmiths:

[...] de Johan Panter pur un defaute en fesaunce d’esquilers - ij s.
(Goldsmiths 226)
('[...] of John Panter, for a fault in the making of spoons, fined 2 shillings')


Finally, we come to poor Mr. Petour, i.e. ‘Mr. Farter’. Two citations from the DMLBS were included in our entry for petour which implied that Roland was so named due to his memorable intestinal distress. However, in rewriting P-, it has been determined that his name was likely a variant of the word pestur, that is, Mr. Baker! We apologize sincerely to any of Roland’s descendants.

(Book of hours, KB 76.F.14, fol. 14r)

While we don’t currently have a semantic tag specifically for surnames, in the future, users should be able to find such information by either using the ‘occupation’ tag (a new semantic tag which we are currently in the process of adding), or for names that do not fall under that category, by searching ‘surname’ in the translation search available from our main page.

Those who are interested in medieval names may also be interested in having a look at the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources: www.dmnes.org (which concentrates mainly on first names), as well as FaNUK, an ongoing project that gathers 45,000 Family Names of the United Kingdom and investigates their elinguistic origins and geogroaphocal distribution (FaNUK). 


[1] See Gustav Fransson’s Middle English surnames of occupation 1100-1250 (1935).

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Words of the Month: giggling, jigg(l)ing gigolos

The starting-point for this investigation is on the one hand the Anglo-Norman gigeler, attested only in one text, William of Waddington’s Manuel des péchez, a didactic and moralising treatise from the last quarter of the fourteenth century. The verb gigeler, “to frolic”, is generally treated in the dictionaries as a derivative of the relatively well-attested giguer, itself apparently based on gigue, “a stringed musical instrument, smaller than a viol”, ultimately from Old High German gîga (modern German Geige; cf. FEW gîga, 16,35b). There is some (literary) evidence that the instrument came to France from Germany. Giguer itself, perhaps surprisingly, does not appear to be attested in Anglo-Norman, but the musical instrument gigue and gigur (the player thereof) both are; both, too, are borrowed into medieval English (MED ğige n.2; ğigŏur n.). (OED’s gigue, the musical composition, is not attested until 1685 and as the pronunciation reveals, is a later French borrowing.)

 (BL, Harley 4951 fol. 297v)

English giggle looks suspiciously as if it could or should be related. Alas, not so. It is described by the OED (giggle v.1) as “echoic”, and parallels are drawn with Germanic forms such as Dutch giggelen, and medieval then modern German gickeln, extensively described in the Grimms’ Deutsches Wörterbuch (DWB) under the entry gickeln. It seems unlikely that there is any link between Anglo-Norman gigeler, and English giggle: the latter is not attested until 1509 (a translation of Sebastian Brant’s 1494 Ship of Fools, or Narrenschiff) and the array of Germanic cognates points firmly towards a native word. OED’s giggle2, an obsolete verb meaning “to turn rapidly; make giddy” derives from gig n.1.

Then there is the matter of Englishjig v.. This may, the OED suggests (in an article largely unrevised since 1901), be related to Anglo-Norman and French giguer, but the case is far from clear. What is apparent is a phonetic similarity (perhaps the result of what the OED describes as “parallel onomatopoeic influence”), and some degree of semantic overlap, though not in the core senses of jig. Going somewhat against the linkage is chronology (the English word is not attested until 1598). The noun jig n.1 is found only a little earlier, in c1560: the same reservations are expressed in the OED etymology about its possible connections to gigue, with which jig, we are told, is “often assumed to be identical” (though by whom, is not made clear). Jiggle v. is later still and probably needs to be discounted without further ado.

(Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 264)
The Trésor de la langue française (TLF), under gigue3, gives the verb giguer (“vieilli et rare”), with the sense “courir, gambader, danser”, with one quotation from 1841. The hypothesis of a derivation from TLF’s gigue1 (the musical instrument) is rejected as “unconfirmable”. (This does raise the uncomfortable question of how often etymologies can ever be definitely “confirmed”.) The option of a connection with gigue2, “cuisse de certains animaux”, on which see below, is not discussed.

To return to gigeler. Gigler is a fairly rare variant form of giguer, with the sense “to play a gigue”, in continental French (FEW 16/i,35b; DEAF G725). The sense found in our Anglo-Norman example is, however, absent on the continent. Gdf 4,278b giguer is given with the same basic sense (“folâtrer”) and a present participle used as an adjective seems to mean “expressing joy, pleasure”. Godefroy helpfully provides a whole series of modern dialectal instances of the verb meaning “to jump, to spring around”; these are confirmed by the FEW (16/i,36b).

What about etymology? The FEW puts in one article the senses of “musical instrument” and “part of a leg”. The etymological explanation of gîga is that it goes back to a verb *gîgan, “to go back and forth” (“hin und her bewegen”), a reference to the movement of the bow across the strings and the core sense of English gig v.2 in the OED. Gigue in the anatomical sense arises because of the visual similarity between instrument and leg, and is a back-formation from Middle French gigot (still in use in modern French in menus, cooking, and butchery, cf. gigot d’agneau). Since giguer antedates gigue “thigh” (the first attestation of which is not until 1655, FEW 16/i,36a), the likely explanation is that it does indeed derive from the musical instrument sense, again based on the to-and-fro movement involved in playing it. Broadly, the DEAF article gigue [Baldinger] which also covers giger, gigler (G724), agrees with the FEW. Tobler-Lommatzsch (4,318) has two articles for the verb(s) giguer, one for playing the gigue, one for dancing and jumping around, which is a semantically reasonable way to represent the situation in Old French, but not an etymological one.

(source unknown)

OED gig n.1, which the OED regards as “perhaps onomatopoeic”, and with a core sense of “something that whirls”, has a whole range of more or less figurative secondary senses including that of (II.4) “a flighty, giddy girl”, now obsolete but attested a1200 to 1780, and her male equivalent from 1777, “a queer-looking figure; an oddity”, described as “chiefly Eton College slang” and perhaps therefore lying somewhat outside our remit. But the MED (whose etymological note sub gigge n.1 suggests “? Cp. Fr. gigue a gawky young woman”) has the latter from a1387 (Trevisa’s translation of Higden’s Polychronicon), together with compounds with ‑laughter and ‑halter. Unfortunately, there is no trace of this sense claimed for French until far too late to be of relevance (cf. FEW 16/i,36a).

OED also has a probably entirely separate gig n.3., most likely to be again “echoic”, meaning “a squeaking noise”, and for which there is only one quotation, from Chaucer. Both the MED (ğīgen) and OED (geig v.) have the corresponding verb, which is phonetically a plausible cognate of gigue as its initial consonant is [dZ]. (MED wrongly refers to OED jig v., in any case not attested until 1598.) DWB’s gicken and the substantive gicks are probably the same word. The OED’s 1899 entry sidesteps the question of how the word is pronounced but the Middle English Dictionary (MED) has the word listed with the same sole quotation under ğigge n.2, i.e. [dZ-], with an erroneous cross-reference to OED guige (which is the equivalent entry to MED’s gīğe n.1, to which the OED correctly refers …), and a verb ğīgen, also with only one supporting attestation.

(BL, Royal 6 E VI   f. 58v)

Where, finally, do gigolos come in? As the FEW laconically observes, “Um gigue gruppiert sich eine grossse zahl von meist depreziativen ablt.” (FEW 16/i,36a), and French gigolette (ibid.) from 1864 is one of these: the TLF under this word offers two senses which a non-expert might easily confuse: “fille des rues”, and “jeune fille délurée, de mœurs faciles, fréquentant les bals populaires”. Gigolo (though found a little earlier, in 1850), is treated by the TLF as a derivative (with the characteristic slang suffix -o(t)) of gigolette. In both entries the TLF alludes to the pejorative senses attaching to English giglet, giglot, attested in Middle English from a1325 in MED’s entry ğigelot n. and in the OED’s giglet | giglot n.. The OED says nothing of this under gigolo n., where its first quotation is from 1922. However, the observation under giglet is surely pertinent: “the 14th cent. form gigelot(te seems to point to a French (or Anglo-Norman) etymon, but nothing satisfactory has been found”. Yet the word was productive in Middle English, yielding also a substantive ğigelotrīe which is equally missing in French, insular and continental. It is hard not to conclude that a medieval form must have existed in French, and that it underlies the forms which only resurface in the popular language of the nineteenth century. But that is to stray into a whole separate debate, about the historical origins of popular French, which would take us far from Anglo-Norman. 

(BL, Royal 10 E IV   f. 72)


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Word of the Month: Penthouse

Some Modern English words have a linguistic history that is straightforward to follow: formally, they have a transparent etymology, and semantically, they have a sense that has more or less remained the same throughout the centuries. Many words, though, take unexpected turns: some revert to very different spellings, twist their forms, and/or acquire new connotations or even meanings. The result is that for such words the root, or etymon, may turn up in quite unexpected places. One clear example of the latter – of a word ‘hiding’ its etymological and semantic origin – turned up during the current revision of AND of words beginning with P-: penthouse.

The Modern English word penthouse is defined in the OED (third edition, updated in 2005) as ‘a flat, apartment, suite of rooms, etc., occupying the top floor or floors of a tall building’, with the addition that the word usually has ‘connotations of wealth, status, etc., typically suggesting a luxuriously appointed apartment offering expansive views’. As they state, that sense is originally American, attested from the late nineteenth century, but has been taken over (and has become common) also in British English and beyond.
(BL, Royal 6.E.VI, fol.148v)

Although the word looks very English, it is not. As it turns out, its origin has nothing to do with the word house, but can be traced back to the Anglo-Norman word pentis (defined in AND#1 as ‘pentice’ and ‘small building’). This word, pentis, is an aphetic form (i.e. a word that loses its prefix, a process which is not uncommon in Anglo-Norman) of apentiz (also listed, separately, in the AND as ‘penthouse’ or ‘outbuilding’).

The word apentiz derives from the Latin verb appendere, (‘to hang on, be attached to’, DMLBS 105b), and more specifically from the related adjective appendicius (‘attached, adjoining’, DMLBS 105b). That, in turn, produced the noun, attested in twelfth-century Latin texts, with the sense ‘attached building, lean-to, penthouse’, DMLBS 105b). The equally related appendix is also found in Medieval Latin, slightly later, but with that very same sense of ‘penthouse’ (DMLBS 105c).[1]
From the early thirteenth century (the earliest attestation is from 1211), the aphetic form is also found in Medieval Latin from British sources as penticium/pendicium, specifically with the sense ‘structure appended to a wall of a building’ (DMLBS 2183b). The coincidental dating of the earliest Latin and Anglo-Norman attestations leaves it unclear whether this was an independent process in Latin, or (as was frequently the case) whether the medieval Latin word was influenced by the vernacular.

In Continental French, the word appears as appendis, appentis, appentise, and is defined in the DMF as ‘Construction sommaire, avec un toit en pente d'un seul côté, qui prend appui sur une maison plus importante’. The FEW, under appendere (25/i,33a-b) confirms that these forms and senses appear in Romance languages from the twelfth century, and adds variants and/or derivatives like arpentif, appendige and appension. Interestingly, no aphetic forms are listed, which suggested that these were indicative of an exclusively Anglo-Norman phenomenon.[2]

(BL, Oriental 2737, fol. 62v)

English originally borrowed the word, presumably from Anglo-Norman but possibly with some influence of medieval Latin as well, as pentis – the aphetic form. Although the MED lists attestations as early as 1232,[3] the earliest unequivocally English uses date from 1400. Subsequently, in the fifteenth century the word seem to become more common, with variant spellings such as pendise, penteis, pentace, pentesse or peintiz. The OED suggests that the shift to ‘penthouse’ happened at a later stage, in post-medieval times: through  a process of folk etymology (or re-analysis of the meaning of a word through popular but historically incorrect interpretation of its origin) the word was now understood as a compound of pent (French pente for ‘slope’) and the English word house, probably because it was used with reference to a small house or annex with a sloped roof – which, as the dictionaries suggest, was one of the interpretations of what a medieval pentis could be.[4]
The earliest attestation of this English re-interpreted form (pent + house) in the OED dates from 1530, in John Palgrave’s L’Esclarcissement de la langue francoise, where he defines the French word appentis as ‘Penthouse of a house’ (253/1). There is, however, a clear indication that the development must be much earlier than that, found, somewhat surprisingly, in an Anglo-Norman text of 1371-75.
nostre dit seignur ad baillez […] al dit Thomas toute sa pescherie deinz l’eawe de Severne, ovesque pentthous et touz autres appurtinances           - GAUNT#1 i 9.
(‘our said lord has entrusted the said Thomas with all his fishing grounds in the river Severn [...] together with ‘penthouses’ and all other purtenances’)
The word hous is not Anglo-Norman,[5] so even though the context is Anglo-Norman, this example must be considered an instance of code-switching, where the Anglo-Norman matrix-language text reverts to a Middle English word. This particular word has clearly been subjected to the aforementioned specifically English folk-etymology, more than 150 years before it can be found attested in any English-language context.
(BL, Royal 20 B.XX, fol. 21)
Briefly returning to the sense of the word, penthouse, with its implications of wealth and luxury, seems to have moved away considerably from what it was in medieval times, and defining the word in the AND as ‘penthouse’ may be rather misleading. A pentis seems to have referred to any kind of structure appended to the wall of another building, and the evidence suggests that this structure may have been anything from a covered walkway, projecting porch, or shelter to a shed, annex or outhouse.[6]
Et qe les pentyz et getiz des measouns soient autresi hautz qe gentz as chivalx puissent par desouthe chivacher      - Lib Alb 271
(‘And that the ‘pentyz’ and jutties/projecting parts of the houses must be high enough for people on horseback to be able to pass underneath’)
In this case, the pentyz are structures appended to the wall of a building (in the form of a shelter, extended eaves or a sloping roof) possibly in order to provide a covered area or gangway between buildings. They may have been full extensions of the entire upper floor creating a covered gallery underneath, or they may have formed simply a porch or shelter above the door, as is suggested by the vernacular gloss found to porticus in a manuscript of Adam of Petit Pont’s Latin De Utensilibus: ‘gallice pentise vel porche’ (TLL ii 61).
(Medieval Merchant's House, Southampton)
Similarly, in an attestation found in the Merchant Taylor Accounts for the fourth regnal year of Henry V (1417):
pur .ij. okenbordes as .ij. pentises en l’ostell ové les petitz stuples - .vj. d.    - Mch Tayl Accs 4HenV
(‘for two planks of oak wood towards two ‘pentises’ for the (guest-)house /stable[7] with the small steeples: 6 d.’)

two wooden planks can have been barely sufficient for more than a simple covering for a door or a window.
(Loubressac, France)
In contrast, in an indenture from 1321, detailing the masonry works to build a hall in Hamsey (Sussex), the word seems to refer to part of a much more elaborate structure:

le dit Johan fra un mur de pere e de chaux a sesse pees du but de la sale de trentesis [pees] de loung e dis pees de haut pur receivre un pentis qe serra outre la panetrie e botelerie           Building 427
(‘the aforementioned John will build a wall with stone and lime at sixteen feet off the wall of the hall, which is 36 feet [i.e. ca. 10m] long and 10 feet [i.e. ca. 3m] high, in order to support a ‘pentis’ which will be above the pantry and the wine-cellar’)

Here the word ‘pentis’ refers to at least the roof of a proper annexe or building attached to wall of another one but also having its own supporting wall.
(Château de Guedelon (France) - modern reconstruction of a medieval castle)
Finally, in the aforementioned John of Gaunt attestation, no other buildings or walls are mentioned, suggesting that the ‘pentthous’ belonging to a fishery may have been small independent shelters or outbuildings used by fishermen.
In conclusion, in Anglo-Norman, a pentis or penthouse could have been anything from a small shelter or covering to an elaborate extension. So anyone thinking of buying an Anglo-Norman house ‘with penthouse’ (these adverts seem to appear on the internet from time to time) would be strongly advised to go and check this feature out before making any purchase.


[1] Together with ‘(?) book cover’. The modern senses of ‘an addition to a document or book’ or the anatomical ‘extension of the large intestine’ are post-medieval, cf. OED appendix n..
[2] Remarkably, English does not have the pre-fixed form, with only one attestation of appentice found in an English text from 1600, cf. OED appentice n..
[3] Its earliest attestation is the word appearing in the name Willelmus de la Pentic’ (from the Close Rolls of Henry III), which looks suspiciously Anglo-Norman. Other early examples show the vernacular word in a Latin context, and may equally be interpreted as Anglo-Norman.
[4] Of course, the first half (pent) may have retained its association with Latin pendere, as the sense ‘to hang from’ may be equally relevant.
[5] In the AND hous can be a variant spelling of houce1 (‘holly’) or the plural of houe1 (‘hoe’). Furthermore, A-N house can be found in the entries hose1 (‘hose, leggings’), huce1 (‘tabard, mantle’) and us2 (‘door, gate’). None of these entries/senses are relevant for the present word.
[6] Another (purely military) sense of penthouse as ‘a makeshift portable shelter formed of soldiers’ shields above their heads’ is post-medieval, attested, according to the OED, from 1600.
[7] For the many possible senses of this word, see AND ostel.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Word of the Month: PIE!

Who doesn’t love pie? The love of meat pies, or pasties, dates back to the Middle Ages – the OED notes that the earliest use of the word pasty dates from 1296, first used as a surname. Do you think Adam Pastey was so named because he made pasties or because he loved to eat them?

Image from the 15th century chronicle of Ulrico de Richental

The OED suggests that the word pasty came from the Anglo-Norman word paste. Paste derives from the Latin pasta [FEW 7,744a; DMBLS 2138b pasta] and is used for dough, as well as things that are pasty, like glue, mush for animals or medicinal pastes.[1] Amid these senses, the idea of ‘meat pie’ stood out like a sore thumb.

We decided to have a closer look at the citations currently defined in the AND as ‘pie’:

poucyns, musserons, estornelx, roitelx, pestiez en graunde pastez Man Lang ants 7.21
(chicks, sparrows, starlings, wrens, baked in big pies)

Et qe nulle pestour qi fait payn tourt vend sa flour as keus pur pastes faire Lib Alb 265
(That no baker, who makes large loaves of unsifted meal, should sell his flour to cooks in order to make pies)

While these were originally read to be paste, the editors now think that these citations represent the word pasté, that is, that the final syllable was accented. The word may have begun as a past participle of the verb paster, 'to bake'. These will now be given their own entry, and their etymological link to the English pasty is more evident.

Despite all the baking and kneading going on in Anglo-Norman – you’d have a pasteir or pasteler or pestriser to paster or pestrer your pies – we were having difficulty locating any pastry.  The OED suggests that the word is a derivation of paste or perhaps related to the Latin pasteria ‘kneading trough’ [DMLBS 3128c]. Within the OED’s entry, we found a use of the Anglo-Norman word (and a Middle English one!) within a Latin text (this type of cross-language borrowing is very common for the period):

De j tabula pro le pastree, vocata pastrybord Test Ebor iii 112
(One table for the pastry, called a pastry-board)

A thirteenth-century pastry-board in action (J. Paul Getty Museum MS 14, fol. 8v)

Additional proof of the Anglo-Norman word was found in a series of glosses on the Latin word pastillos (vendendo clericis pastillos; ‘clerks selling pies’ TLL i 198) glossed as pasteus (pastel, ‘pastry, pie’), pastriesz and pasteys. Here pastriesz seems to be used in the sense of ‘pasty, pie’.

The revision of P has turned up a number of words that are alluded to in the OED’s etymologies, but which seemed to be missing from the AND. If you would like to hear more about paste, pasty, pastry and other ‘missing words’ in Anglo-Norman, the editors are giving a presentation on this topic at OxLex 4, at Pembroke College, Oxford, on March 25th.


[1] A reminder: all of the AND entries beginning with P- are currently under revision. One has to be careful not to confuse this word with past, meaning ‘food, meal’ which derives from the Latin pascere [FEW 7,697v]. Also, pasta in the modern sense of strands, sheets or other shapes used in Italian cooking, though ultimately deriving from the same etymon, is a later creation (attested in Italian from the end of the fifteenth century, but borrowed into English only from the first half of the nineteenth century).

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Word of the Month: Fitchews and mitching

Despite what is often thought, Anglo-Norman’s influence on English extends well beyond the domains of the court, the law, and towns, with an interesting number of modern English dialect words ultimately being traceable back to the language of the Norman invaders.

Two such are fitchew (“a foumart, polecat”, Mustela putorius), which the 1896 article in the OED derives from “OF fissel”, and mitch v., tentatively associated in the same dictionary with Anglo-Norman mucier (AND’s muscer): “Apparently < Anglo-Norman muscer, muscier, mucer, mucier, muscher and Old French mucier, (chiefly Picardy and north-east.) muchier to hide, conceal (oneself)” (OED article from 2002). Both words, now, are regional. Mitch is so designated in the OED (“regional”) and the sense which concerns us here (“to absent oneself without authority; (esp.) to play truant from school” is described (rather imprecisely) as “now Brit. regional and Irish English”.

Fitchew is not labelled as regional in the OED and it is not listed at all in Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905). In the mid-twentieth-century Survey of English Dialects (IV.5.7) it is only attested in Warwickshire, north Devon and Cornwall. This is a geographically strange distribution which points to the word having once been more widespread; perhaps that is why the OED does not indicate that it is regional, because it was not a regionalism at the end of the nineteenth century, whereas it was by the middle of the twentieth (and it is now probably obsolescent). For its dialectal distribution, see the map in the section of our website for “non-specialist visitors”, and map 108 in Harold Orton/Nathalia Wright, A Word-Geography of England (London, Seminar, 1974).


Anglo-Norman has a surprising number of words available to designate the polecat: fitchewfulmardfoliartfwyneputois and mauputoisEnglish has even more names for it: polecat (1320); foumart (c.1400) and a dialectal variant, thummart (1696); fitchew (1418) and variants: fethok (1424); fitchet (1535); fitch (1550); fitchock (1616); martret (c.1450); boussyng (1481); flewen (1494), the last two from Dutch. It is perhaps noteworthy that none of these is attested before 1400. That may just be a documentary accident – polecats are probably not something very often written about – and the range of words available suggests perhaps that if not well documented at an early period, they must have been widely discussed: there would not otherwise be so many words for them.

To return to Anglo-Norman. Foliart may well be a corruption of fulmard (folmard?), itself a Middle English word derived from the Old English *fúl mearð, “foul marten”, and the only attestation of mauputois, in Bibbesworth’s vocabulary-teaching treatise (“E maudist seit li mau putois ... ”) is possibly to be read (as the editor, William Rothwell, takes it) as mau putois, “the evil polecat”. But what Anglo-Norman – like English – shows is the retention of words from several languages: putois is from French put, “stinking”, a reference to its odour (the word survives most notably in pute and putain, both meaning “prostitute”); fwyne is French fouine, originally from *fagina (Old French fou, “beech-tree”, replaced in the northern half of France by the Germanic hêtre), and means “beech-marten”, Martes foina.

Weasel in thirteenth-century Bestiary, Thérouanne, Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV 3, fol. 91v

The marten and weasel families are now distinguished by zoologists, but used not to be. There is a fair amount of confusion which probably goes back at east to Pliny’s Natural History.[1] Old French has two words for weasel: mustele from the Latin, and belet(e), originally a diminutive meaning “fair little one”, which is what the Trésor de la langue française calls a “propitiatory antiphrasis”, i.e. a nice name given to a nasty little animal, in the hope that it will somehow be made to seem (and who knows, become) less nasty. Both mustele and belete are found in Anglo-Norman and so is the one-off diminutive mustelete, in Philippe de Thaon’s Bestiary of c. 1130 (Philippe has a particular fondness for diminutives, especially at the rhyme). Fitchew, the term we are interested in, derives from Latin vissio, a noun meaning “stink”, and it thus obviously emphasizes the smell of the polecat, as indeed do putois and foulmart. Fwyne is in fact the only “neutral” term in Anglo-Norman. The most immediately recognizable French dialectal forms which look like English fitchew are from Picardy in the north-east – and we know that Picard dialect did influence and contribute to Anglo-Norman.[2]

The underlying meaning of fitchew and Anglo-Norman ficheu, referring to the malodorous nature of the animal, is entirely “invisible” in both English and medieval French: in neither language is there any connection with any related word falling within the same semantic field and speakers will be unaware of the etymology or its sense of “stink” (unlike French putois, or English foulmart, where the word contains elements familiar to the modern speaker). Vissio survives only in Gallo-Romance (French and Occitan), and is absent from the other Romance languages. Within France, it covers a range of animals: weasels, dormice, martens, polecats, ferrets. In Virton, close to the French border in Belgium, it can mean a badger. What this suggests is a familiar pattern in pre-scientific medieval languages: a broader semantic range than modern animal taxonomy would regard as acceptable. In parts of north-eastern France (Metz) and Belgium (Mons) the word has an extended meaning of a “wily individual”. Clearly, popular culture associates with polecats, weasels and their ilk, smelliness, malevolence, and cunning. Weasels in particular have various metaphorical connotations in a range of languages including English, Greek and Japanese; it comes as no surprise that they are the baddies in The Wind in the Willows.

Bibl. Nat. de France, fr. 1951, fol. 7v

Mitching is an activity which is possibly cunning, though probably not by and large malevolent. It seems to refer quite specifically to playing truant from school and it appears to be (now) quite geographically restricted. It is (for example) in current use amongst schoolchildren in Aberystwyth, but a Welsh colleague says it is not part of her (north Wales) English. The English Dialect Dictionary (mitch vb. and sb.1) says it was (in the late-nineteenth century) “In gen. dial. use in Irel. Eng. and Amer.”. In other words, widely distributed, but recognizably “dialectal”. Quotations for the sense of “to play truant” are given by the EDD from Ireland, Herefordshire, Pembrokeshire, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Clive Upton's BBC Voices project, which asked people to send in words which they use and consider 'local', has as one of its concepts to play truant, and mitch features in the ten most common words. The distribution (Choose the theme 'what you do' and then the concept 'to play truant' in order to generate the map) reflects that of earlier surveys: south Wales, south-west England, and Northern Ireland. The underlying sense of the suggested etymon, mucier, is “to hide”, and it is is one of a number of Old French verbs with that meaning.

The underlying sense of the suggested etymon, mucier, is “to hide”, and it is is one of a number of Old French verbs with that meaning. The medieval language seems to have a wider vocabulary for the concept than does modern French: see, for example, AND’s abscondre, celer3, conceler, tapir, atapir, cuter, acutir …. English mitch used to have a far wider range of meanings than it now does, although attestations before 1500 are rare (one from Gower’s Confessio Amantis, one from the 1440 Promptorium Parvulorum (a sort of dictionary) and one from Wynkyn de Worde’s Dives & Pauper. All these mean “to steal, pilfer”; sources with the core French meaning of “to hide” are not found until 1558 (in a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid) and not until 1580 do we find the modern regional sense of “to absent oneself without authority”, especially from school. So it rather looks as if the reflex of Anglo-Norman mucier found its way into English – and into written texts, only belatedly – with the central Anglo-Norman meaning of “to hide”, before undergoing semantic extension to cover also the idea of “to play truant”. Now, in modern English, that is its only meaning, and only in certain areas. The connection to “hiding” is probably lost because that core sense has fallen out of use, and it is highly unlikely that its French origin in mucier is known to truanting[3] schoolchildren.

Mitch, like fitchew, belongs to that susbtantial number of English words which derive from Anglo-Norman, but from Anglo-Norman words whose French equivalent has now become obsolete.[4] As a result, even English-speakers with a decent knowledge of modern French are unlikely to make the connection between the words they use, and their distant French (or Anglo-Norman) ancestors. Thus is lost not only part of the history of English, but also part of the story of the role, and the extent, of Anglo-Norman as an influence on English.

Some further reading on Anglo-Norman and its influence on English dialects:

David Trotter, ‘L’anglo-normand à la campagne’, in Comptes-rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, Paris, juin 2012, 2012, II (avril-juin), 1113-1131.

David Trotter, Saunz desbriser de hay ou de clos: clos(e) in Anglo-French and in English’, in Claudia Lange/Beatrix Weber/Göran Wolf (eds.), Communicative Spaces: Variation, Contact, and Change: Papers in Honour of Ursula Schaefer (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2012), 197-214.

David Trotter, ‘Tout feu tout flamme: le FEW et l’anglais few’, in Yan Greub/André Thibault (eds.), Dialectologie et étymologie galloromanes. Mélanges en l’honneur de l’éméritat de Jean-Paul Chauveau (Strasbourg: ELiPhi, 2014), 245-258.


[1] See Lewis, “Ancient Names of the Cat”, Notes & Queries 196 (1859), 261-263.
[2] There is an interesting parallel with English (now dialectal) urchin, “hedgehog”, for which the closest corresponding French parallel is also Picard, in the form of (h)irechon.
[3] “Truant” is also an Anglo-Norman word, related to but not entirely synonymous with French truand, “petty criminal”. See the AND entry truant.
[4] For which, see Edmond Huguet, Mots disparus ou vieillis depuis le XVIe siècle (Paris: Droz, 1935 and [Geneva: Droz] 21967), available via GoogleBooks, p. 81 (musser) and Hugo Brüll, Untergegangene und veraltete Worte des Französischen im heutigen Englisch (Halle a. S.: Niemeyer, 1913), p. 122 (*fisse > fitchew), p. 176 muce (> mitch).