Language tells us who we were – from who we’ve interacted with, what trends we’ve enjoyed to how we define ourselves. Here we present five English words that remind you who English speakers have interacted with over the centuries.
Language of Origin: Proto-Germanic (translation: Gothic)
Linguists debate whether ‘bread’ came from the root word of brew, referring to the bread’s leavening, or the word ‘braudsmon,’ which refers to pieces. Many English words are either children or siblings of German and Danish words: bread is no exception.
For historical context, German and Danish words were integrated into English when the Vikings ruled England starting in the late 8th century. They incorporated themselves into the lives of the native islanders, even intermarrying with them (the English word “husband” is Danish in origin). The strong everyday Scandinavian social influence ensured that by 1200 A.D., the ordinary Old English word for that cooked loaf of flour, hafl, died out. During dinner time, when you use the term “pass the bread,” you can thank the Vikings and the Goths.
Language of Origin: French
The word “Chauffer” in French means ‘heater’ or ‘stoker,’ because the driver of a French car in 1899 would operate a steam engine.
The word came into English around the same time the steam engine car did, because the wealthy English-speaking elite often used French words for expensive cultural terms. By 1902, the word extended to mean paid driver.
As an aside, why did the educated English, in both America and England, prefer French terminologies? The French had also once ruled England in medieval times, but rather than incorporate themselves into everyday life, they became a segregated, educated upper class, bringing academic words like “anatomy” and “intellect” into English.
Language of Origin: Hindi
When the British ruled India, they took the term “pai jamahs” in and gradually altered the spelling to the modern British usage “pyjamas.” They adopted the Indian clothing primarily for sleeping–presumably because the imperialists preferred their own cultural clothing in daily social situations–and took the word along into history because of the simple practicality and popularity of comfortable sleepwear. Americans have thrown their own accent on the word, and spell it pajamas.
Language of Origin: Finnish
The Finnish Sauna Society says that the word sauna may have originally meant a heated, partially underground winter dwelling. The dwelling evolved into a bathhouse, and when English speakers adopted the bathhouse, they decided to keep the name, too.
Language of Origin: German
The medieval Germans used the word “dwerghe” to signify madness or an evil spirit. Many medieval Germans believed that children with lesser heights had this same evil spirit. The word may have also evolved from two famous Scandinavian dwarves, Dvalin and Dulinn, whose names mean “mad” and “foolish” respectively.
This word demonstrates how powerful poetry can be in the development of a language. Many of the linguistic analyses of this word relate to usage in poems, idioms, and poetic prose in legal or advice writing. The word stuck in English because of its power in stories, and while it has never lost its mythical mystery and beauty, it has lost some of the more negative, superstitious connotations.