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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).

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Words of the month: ‘pedigree’, ‘pé de colum’ and ‘péage’

As was the case for the last two years, 2015 will see this blog continuing to highlight rare, interesting or curious words of the Anglo-Norman language, gathered in the process of revising the Anglo-Norman Dictionary. And we thought we'd start off the year with not one but three different words 'of the month' for January. Can they be any more different? Firstly, the English word pedigree is, broadly speaking, a synonym for genealogy or line of descent, often presented visually as a tree-structure or chart; secondly, the Anglo-Norman phrase pé de colum translates as ‘foot/claw of a dove’; and thirdly péage is a Modern French word used for the toll that’s payable on motorways in French speaking countries.

With the AND editors currently working on words beginning with the letter P (with Q, in un-alphabetical order published earlier this month!), it turns out that these words are related on an etymological level, and that, with a few surprises thrown in as well, they all derive from the same etymon.


Let us begin with pedigree. This English word has had numerous different spellings through the centuries, each of these possibly reflecting different (pseudo-)etymological interpretations. In some late-medieval and sixteenth-century English sources, for example, it can be found spelled as pedegree, peedegree, pedugree, or even divided into two words pee degree  – suggesting a link, perhaps, with word degree. Early etymologists struggled to explain pedigree as a conflation of par degrees, a French/Anglo-Norman phrase which could be translated as ‘by degrees (of relation)’ and thus refer to the ‘degrees’ or ‘steps’ in descent.[1] However seemingly plausible, this explanation is incorrect for two reasons: firstly, not only would it be very unlikely for the preposition par (cf. Latin per), especially when used as a prefix or conflated into another word, to lose its final ‘r’,[2] but also, the other attested spellings of the word are often too far removed from degree.

For example, also during the late medieval and early modern period, the word pedigree is often attested spelled quite differently as pettigree or petygrew, with the first two syllables suggesting an understanding of the first element of the word as an instance of French petit (‘small’) – rendered in English as petty.[3] As for the second half, gree is attested in Middle English (and later) as a synonym for degree, borrowed from Anglo-Norman gree1.[4] This interpretation is evident in two sixteenth-century attestations of the word, found in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (New Edition 1577-87), where apparently an attempt was made to express this explicitly in the spelling:

To fetch their petit degrees from their ancestors’ (Description of Ireland, vol. 1, p.33)
‘Twelve petidegrees of the descent of the crowne of England [,..] by the bishop of Rosse’ (vol. 3, Contin. 1370/2)

There is, however, no explanation as to why the degrees or steps in line of decent in pedigrees should be considered to be ‘petty’ or ‘small’.

(BL, Royal MS 14 B VI)

The initial attempts to discover the origins of the word pedigree seem to fall within the realm of folk etymology As the OED (third edition, 2005) confirms, the word first appears in English from the 1420s, with the earliest attestation found in Lydgate’s Troyyes Book (using a very intriguing spelling):

‘Who so liste loken and unfolde þe pe-de-Grew of cronycles olde [...] He shal fynde þat he is justly born To regne in Fraunce by lyneal discent’ - Troyyes Book v.3388

More than a century earlier, in a court document of 1308, the word is already attested in Anglo-Norman:

‘Jon E. et Luce porterent bref vers Willem et fesoynt un title et counterent par la pee de gru sicut patet - YBB Ed II vi ciii
(John E. and Lucy submit a writ against William and establish a claim, [which] they account for by means of the genealogical line, as follows [showing a brief family tree of the sisters Julia, Lucy and Alice and their children]).

It seems that Anglo-Norman and this early spelling as a locution, pee de gru, are the key to understanding the etymology: the phrase used here translates literally as ‘foot of a crane’ (cf. AND 1 and grue1). W.W. Skeat, in his early nineteenth-century Etymological English Dictionary already deduced that ‘we may feel sure it is French’ and that ‘there may be a reference to F. grue a crane’ (p. 430). That interpretation has persisted, and has been reinforced, with some hesitation perhaps still apparent in their use of the adverb ‘probably’, by the OED’s etymological discussion of the word (third edition, 2005) and the MED’s entry pedegru(e n.

(Cranes, BL, Harley 4751, fol. 39r)

The suggestion is that this sense arose from the use of a conventional three-line mark in medieval manuscript genealogies to indicate succession and/or kinship. This symbol could be interpreted as the three toes of the bird, or, suggested elsewhere, its tracks. From this, the word for the symbol then came to refer, as a pars pro toto, to the entire genealogical representation.

Although this explanation seems to be generally accepted now, I have not seen any examples of the use of such a symbol in medieval genealogies. I would be very grateful to any medievalists or genealogists who could provide us with examples of these ‘crane’s feet’ in manuscript genealogies, and help us to corroborate this theory.

The same word or word group is not found in Latin[5], and is also absent from Continental French until the nineteenth-century, when pedigree is borrowed directly from English.[6] Therefore, it appears that pedigree is an insular formation, originating in Anglo-Norman and appearing a century later in English. It seems it quickly lost its original association with the claw-like symbol, only to be subjected to various forms of (mis-)understanding of its original significance and re-interpretation of its spelling.

(Harvard University, Houghton Library MS Typ 216)

Further editorial work on the (large) AND article for 1 (‘foot’) is bringing together other Anglo-Norman word groups that, similarly, refer to feet of birds: pé de cok (cf. cok1), pé de colum (cf. colum), pé de corf (cf. corf1) and pé de corbel (cf. corbel1). Ironically, just as for pé de grue, none of these seem to be attested designating the actual feet of cockerels, pigeons, crows or ravens. To take pé de colum (‘dove’s foot’) as an example:

‘Et memes ceo fait un herbe que est apelé pié de columb’ - A-N Med i 64
(And the same is achieved (=to cure anthrax) by a herb which is called ‘dove’s foot’)

(Doves, The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16, fol. 81v.)

In this case, the ‘dove’s foot’ is the name of a plant, and the same phrase is still used in English to refer to the Geranium molle, also known as (rather confusingly in the present context) the ‘crane’s bill’. Medieval Latin produced pes columbinus (DMLBS 386a) with, apparently, the same sense. Medieval botanical names can be notoriously difficult to pin down precisely, and additional Anglo-Norman attestations (usually from medicinal recipes) gloss the same pé de colum with Latin herba fetida (‘stinking herb’) and English maewort (probably mat-wort, if not med(e-wort or mug-wort) and culverfot (culver). Ultimately, it is the name of a type of wild Geranium, which in the shape of either its leaves or its flowers must have been reminiscent to the medieval mind of the bird’s foot.

Similarly, all of the above Anglo-Norman birds’ feet are in fact plant names, sometimes also attested in English, but never, according to the DMF, in medieval Continental French. The present AND article for 1 already confirms that animal feet seem to have been a prime source of inspiration for plant names, with other examples such as pé de cheval (‘coltsfoot’, cf. cheval), pé de leun (‘lion’s foot’, cf. leun2), pé de levere (‘hare’s foot’, cf. levere1), and pé de pulein (also ‘coltsfoot’, cf. pulein1).

(early fifteenth-century representation of possibly a Geranium plant
Voynich MS, Yale, Beinecke Library) 

The third word, péage, now seems quite a departure from the above discussion on genealogy, birds’ feet and plant names. It is included here, because it is, after all, less out of place than one might expect. Firstly, the word is already well attested in medieval times, and appears in Middle English, Continental French and Anglo-Norman with the same sense of 'road toll' – a fee paid in exchange for the right to use a certain road or bridge:

'quietes de toun et pontage et passage et paage et stalage, et tayllage' - Three Chronicles 22
(exempt from toll, bridge toll, passage money, 'péage', stall-fees and tallage)

'Derechef je quit, e enfraunchi [...] touz les pelerins Engleys, alanz e venaunz par mon poer, ou que seit; e voille que il soient frans e delivrés de totes maneres de paiage' - Foedera i 504 
(Henceforth, I exempt and relieve all English pilgrims, coming or going, under my jurisdiction, wherever that may be; and I wish them to be free of and exempt from any kind of 'péage')

Since péage is a type of payment extracted, the word may very easily have acquired an association with the verb paier in Anglo-Norman - 'to pay' in English. After all, Anglo-Norman spellings of that verb include paer, peer or peier. In the early stages of working on the P- revision, the editors almost made exactly that mistake, including the substantive in the group of words going back to the Latin etymon pacare. However, when confirming its etymology,[7] it soon became obvious that once again this word was related to 1, 'foot'. The post-classical Latin word for this toll is pedagium (DMLBS 2163b),[8] which is a clearly a derivative of pes (and its declined form ped-): ‘foot’. Late Medieval and Early Modern English also has spellings like podage or pedage that leave that link more apparent. In Anglo-Norman we also find petage, which is probably the same word:

‘lui avoit donné [...] le dit pourvosté d’Ax, ovesqe le petage et autres revenemenz et profit et molimenz apertenauntz a cele’ - Rot Parl ii 214
(he had given him the aforementioned stewardship of Ax, together with the ‘péage’ and other revenues, profits and dues that belong to it)

(Medieval gate tower to collect bridge toll on Monnow Bridge, Monmouth)

The thought-process behind this word, originally, must have been not so much that it was a ‘payment’, but that that the toll was paid for travelling ‘on foot’ or for ‘setting foot’ on certain roads or bridges. Then again, a word like paiage must have sounded like a perfectly acceptable synonym for paiement, and there are numerous examples in Anglo-Norman where it seems to have meant just that:

‘por celui paiement fere as termes […] le devantdit E. lui eit assené et obligé le devantdit paage en la manere, qe est contenue en la devantdite lettre’ - Foedera i 48
(in order to make a payment to him in installments [...] the aforementioned E. had assigned and obliged him to make the aforementioned payment in the manner stipulated in the aforementioned letter)

To conclude, just like pedigree also peage not only turns out to have a somewhat unexpected etymology leading back to the word for ‘foot’, but also has that origin eclipsed by later competing etymological interpretations – which, in turn, were influenced by or produced variant spellings. Part of revising the AND is to detect and disentangle these etymological families, and to classify these words in the correct categories.

(One-legged sciapods in Jacob van Maerlant's Van Der Naturen Bloeme,
The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KA 16 (XVI 9869))


[1] See for example the brief note by S. O. Addy in Notes and Queries  9:5 (1900), p. 233, which refers to the mid-fifteenth-century Promptorium Parvulorum and its definition of the word as ‘a lineage in steps’.
[2] See for example the (obsolete) interjection perfay, borrowed in English from Anglo-Norman par fei, and meaning ‘by my faith’. The word (or sometimes phrase) is attested in English from the early-fourteenth until the mid-nineteenth century in a great variety of spellings, though always starting with par-, per-, pur- or even pro-.
[3] English still has expressions like petty cash or petty jury.
[4] Both vernacular words, gree and degree, ultimately derive from the same Latin etymon gradus (‘step’, ‘stair’, etc., DMLBS 1091b), with degree adding a de- prefix (degradus (‘stairway’), DMLBS 596a).
[5] The DMLBS lists pes originationis as a expression meaning ‘pedigree, lineage, descent’ (pes 2251b). However, this phrase is attested only once in a text from 1461 and is not relevant for the present discussion.
[6] TLF pedigree.
[7] FEW pes 8,300b
[8] The DMLBS also includes paagium (2073a) which has the same sense and appears to be a Latinized form of the vernacular word, and pedaticus (2164a).