Bourgeois burghers living in bergs

When you examine the names of towns in the United Kingdom, what will strike you is the amount of them which end in some variant of ‘burg’; Middlesbrough, Edinburgh, Scarborough and Glastonbury are but a few of such towns. The reason for its ubiquity is that it simply means ‘fortified place’. However, it is not until you look into the history of this word that you realise quite how widespread it is and the social assumptions it reflects.

‘Burg’ itself derives the Proto-Indo-European word bhergh, which means ‘high’. This word led to various derivatives referring to hills, forts and fortified places in general, and is also the root of the English ‘barrow’, as in Tolkein’s ‘The Barrow Downs’. As you might have guessed, Proto-Indo-European forms the root of nearly every European language, and as such you can find cognates for bhergh across the continent. As well as the English variants mentioned above, we have Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Bergen and Svendborg to name but a few. Similarly, Italian has borgo, which typically describes the built-up area outside of the old town, and its diminutive, borghetto, is from where we get the word ‘ghetto’. As you may have already guessed, the word iceberg is from the same root, simply meaning ‘ice mountain’.

It is fairly obvious that a word referring to fortification would crop up frequently in the names of our towns, but not so obvious that it would end up forming the basis of one of our most evocative words that refers to class – bourgeois. The word simply means ‘one who dwells in a town’, and came into fashion in the 1700s. Philosopher Jean Jacques-Rousseau, who despaired of the ‘effeminate’ and privileged lifestyle of the city as opposed to that of his ‘noble savages’, was particularly instrumental in shaping the word’s meaning to one of cosy and aloof living. The same etymology is found in the Dutch burgher, which came to refer to the wealthy merchant class in the Dutch trading cities, and even in the English ‘burgess’, one of the first words used to describe an elected representative.

In contrast to these wealthy city dwellers, we have the hated and mocked rural ‘peasants’. Peasant derives from the French paysan, which comes from pays (country) and ultimately the Latin pagus (also meaning country). It is from this same Latin word that ‘pagan’ derives, the early Church despairing of those who dwelt in the country and still worshipped the ‘old gods’. (It should be noted that ‘pheasant’ has no relation to any of this, and means ‘bird from the River Phasis’.) It is fascinating to see how this innocent suffix has ended up embodying one of the biggest divides in all modern nations – the gap between the ‘cultured’ metropolitans and the ‘backwards’ country folk.


What do the names of the Labour leadership hopefuls mean?

All my posts recently have been pretty serious, so allow me to present you with some pure trivia: the etymology behind the surnames of the Labour leadership candidates.

First up:


Cooper is a very common surname in the UK, and ultimately has its roots in Anglo-Saxon. It derives from kuper, a word meaning a craftsperson who makes containers. Simply put, ‘Cooper’ means ‘barrel-maker’.

Moving on:


A difficult name to pin down as it could have multiple meanings. Ultimately, it is a locational surname, meaning a person adopted it when they left their town of origin to seek work further afield – ‘I’m Andy, from Burnham’. The problem is that there are many different towns called Burnham in the UK, from Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset to Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. In most instances, the word comes from a compounding of burna (stream) and ham (homestead). However, regional variations mean the etymology varies – the ‘Burnham’ in Burnham-on-Sea derives from burnahamm which means ‘stream by the water meadow’. Therefore, all we can be sure about our Andy is that at some point one of his ancestors left one of the UK’s multiple Burnhams to seek greener pastures.

Next up:


There are two interpretations of this name’s origin, and it is likely that both of the derivatives have amalgamated into this surname and its multiple variations (Kendel, Kindel, Kendoll) today. The first interpretation is quite simply that it comes from the name of Cumbria’s county town, Kendal, which itself means ‘Valley of the Kent River’. The other, more interesting interpretation is that it comes from an Anglicised version of the old Welsh surname Kyndelw – modern Cynddelw – which means ‘exalted image’.

Last but not least:


Arguably the most obscure name in the leadership election and the hardest to pin down, not least because it’s traditionally spelt ‘Corbin’. Linguists are divided, some say it is locational and stems from towns in France called Corbon, but I don’t buy this. More likely is that it derives from the Old French for crow Corbin, and was used in reference to people with strikingly black hair or a raucous voice. Given Jeremy’s penchant for causing controversy and stirring the masses, I feel the latter definition is particularly fitting.

So there you have it, if you are still somehow undecided who to vote for after a month and a half of platitudes and evasive answers I hope this comprehensive document has allowed you to finally make up your mind.

Water snakes, weavers and weevils

I’m thoroughly tired of politics at the minute, so you’ll have to wait a bit for such gems as ‘What Sartre would say about the Labour leadership election’. Instead, today I have for you some completely arbitrary animal etymologies that I quite liked:


‘Næddre’ in Old English. This word comes from the PIE root ‘netr-‘ and is cognate with ‘natrix’ in Latin and ‘neidr’ in Welsh among others. It means water snake, and probably comes through association with ‘nare’, meaning ‘to swim’. Interestingly, this is one of the words that lost its initial ‘n’ due to a confusing of the article and the noun. When hearing ‘a næddre’ people assumed they were hearing ‘an æddre’ and over time this stuck. The same happened with the word ‘apron’ (originally a ‘naperon’) and the reverse happened with ‘a nickname’ (originally ‘an ekename’). Another factoid for you: dragonflies were originally called ‘adderbolts’. No one is quite sure of the reason for the change in name.


From Old English ‘Bitela’ cf. ‘bitel’ (biting). Literally: ‘little biter’.


One of those rare animals that is recognisable in most European languages (Spanish: avispa, German: Wespe, Dutch: wesp, Norwegian: veps etc) the wasp has its very own adjective and of course gives it name, via Italian, to the iconic Vespa scooter.It is thought that the root is in PIE ‘webh’, which is itself the root of ‘weave’. If this is the case, it surely refers to the intricate makeup of their nests.

What links the eastern Black Sea coast, singing and breaking wind?

Yes, it’s that time again where I get wearisome of politics and throw some etymologies I enjoyed out at you. Today we focus on birds, and some fairly strange ways in how we have arrived at the modern words: swan, pheasant and partridge.


This one is the most obvious, yet slightly counter-intuitive. The word comes from Proto-Germanic, swanaz, meaning singer. This ultimately stems from Proto-Indo European swen, to make sound. While we do not typically associate swans with singing, we do of course have the phrase swansong. Allegedly, this is because swans are mute most of their life, but emit a beautiful song before death. The Greek philosopher Aristotle put this down to their joy at returning to Apollo, the god which they consecrated to.


While the word comes into English from the French, faisan, the roots of this word are Greek. It comes from the River Phasis, a waterway that flows into the black sea. The birds were said to have lived here in abundance, giving them the title Phasianos, (literally, Phasis Bird).


This word ultimately comes from the PIE root perd-, meaning ‘to break wind’. It comes from Greek perdix, which was related to the verb meaning ‘to break wind’: perdesthai. Apparently, the reason for naming it such is the whirring noise the bird’s wings make as they take flight. If the word had come into English via the usual p to f sound change we see from Latin to Germanic languages, it would be called a fartridge.

The intriguing pervasiveness of ‘dogfish’

I’ve ranted enough recently, so it’s time for a nice break in the form of some etymology. Currently at university I am doing a group anthropology project on the history of dogs, how they relate to humans and vice-versa. Naturally, I asked to do the section on language. I’ve come across a number of interesting origins of sayings – for example, ‘the dog’s bollocks’ is said to come from Northern Meccano factories, where some witty production line workers realised what you got when you swap the first letters of ‘box deluxe’ around and say it in a northern accent – however, my favourite is the origin of dogfish.

I’d always wondered if their name had anything to do with dogs, and a little research shows it does. Apparently we called them such because, like dogs, these small sharks are vicious and hunt in packs. However, what I was more interested to find was that it was not only the English who hit on this metaphor. Right back in antiquity, Pliny referred to sharks as ‘canis marinus’, and similar constructions are found across Europe and Asia Minor. Italian has ‘pescecane’ (fishdog), French, ‘chien de mer’ (sea dog), Dutch, ‘hondshaai’ (houndshark), Turkish, ‘köpekbalığı’ (dogfish), Russian, ‘морская собака’ (sea dog) are only some. The fact that so many peoples have hit on this idea of naming a vicious hunting animal after a dog even though it is nothing like it shows how we regard (or did regard) dogs themselves.

Interestingly, as a side note, the word dog itself was almost certainly something like ‘kuntos’ in Proto Indo-European and was an extension of ‘kwon’ (tooth). Whatever we think of them now, it certainly appears that in history we saw dogs primarily as vicious hunters rather than canine companions.

Otters, hydras and foul-smelling beasts

We’re well into the new year so it’s time for my second etymology post. While researching the etymology of ‘rose’ for an anthropology project, I was overcome by a mad desire to look into the etymologies of as many animals I could think of, so I did. Needless to say, they did not disappoint. I have four (ish) definitions for you today.

Firstly, ‘bison’ and ‘weasel’. While you would have no idea today, from either the words or the animals, these two words are cognate – meaning they share the same meaning and/or common root. They can ultimately be traced back to the Proto-Germanic ‘wisand-‘, meaning ‘foul-smelling, stinking animal’. We all know weasels are meant to smell pretty vile, but apparently bison smell pretty bad when they’re rutting too, so there you have it.

Secondly, and this is my favourite: ‘otter’. Otter has so many cognates linguists were able to trace it back to proto-Indo-European (the ultimate root language of English, German, Latin, Hindi etc etc). The ultimate root is ‘udros’, meaning ‘water creature’ and has such cognates as ‘utter’, ‘odder’ ‘lutra’ and ‘udrah’ (Swedish, Danish, Latin and Sanskrit respectively). But my favourite cognate by far? Greek: ‘hydra’. Yes, there you go, the mythical beast slain by Hercules is cognate with our beloved otter. Fantastic.

Until next time.

Source is, as ever, the fantastic:

Vogels, fugols and fowls

I’ve started this year by beginning the Swedish course on Duolingo. I’m happy with how my French is going so I decided to have a look at Swedish as I like Germanic languages but find German complex to say the least. One of the first things that struck me was the Swedish for bird is ‘fågel’. As it happens, bird is one of the words I do know in German: ‘vogel’. Likewise it is ‘vogel’ in Dutch and ‘fugl’ in Danish. Contrast this with ‘oiseau’ (French), ‘uccello’ (Italian) and ‘pájaro’ (Spanish). So I had to wonder, where on earth do we get ‘bird’ from?

A little research unveils that apparently bird comes from the Saxon word ‘bridd’, a name given to nestlings and small birds. No one knows the exact root of this, but at a guess I’d say it’s imitative of the cries of chicks. However, more interestingly, the Old English for bird was indeed ‘fugol’. For some reason, this died out and was replaced by bird, but it does remain in the English word ‘fowl’, which we occasionally use as a collective noun for birds.

So there we have it. Stay tuned for more ill-formed ramblings about etymology throughout the year.