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 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.

Posing as a rabbit, telling tales of salads and other French idioms.

I feel I’ve been neglecting the language side of the blog a bit recently, so I thought I’d rectify this with a post on French idioms.

Many are basically the same as English. Par exemple: ‘être malade comme un chien/to be as sick as a dog’,  ‘avoir la main verte/to have green fingers’. But then there are plenty that have no direct equivalent. Here are some of my favourites:

‘Raconter des salades’:

Literally, ‘to recount of the salads’. Translates better as ‘to tell tales of salads’. Meaning: to tell lies/to exaggerate. Apparently deriving from street vendors attempting to sell pedestrians salads by claiming their salad was full of wonderful ingredients which were better than the other vendors on the street.

‘En faire un fromage’: 

Literally, ‘to make a cheese out of something’. Its closest equivalent in English is ‘to make a mountain out of a molehill.’ The meaning here seems to derive from the idea of taking a lot of small things (ingredients) and turning them into a big thing (a cheese).

‘Broyer du noire’:

Literally, ‘to pound at the darkness’. Meaning feeling deeply melancholic and depressed. Originally from the argot of painters and chemists.

‘Poser un lapin’:

Literally, ‘to pose as a rabbit’. Originally meaning to see a prostitute and leave without paying, this now means ‘to stand someone up’. The exact origin is unknown, but it has been speculated it is after the fashion of rabbits to wait until you are nearly close enough to touch them before they bolt. Close, but not close enough.

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:

Some etymologies of English towns and cities

It’s that time of year when we get together with family, snap at each other, drink heavily etc. and customary to this time is making quizzes. This year I made one using the actual etymologies of English towns and cities and it struck me just how Germanic (and how much cooler) most of our place names are. Here is my list, with answers and explanations.

Deer Village – Derby.  Djúr (Old Norse: animal or beast, later deer) + bȳ (Old Norse for a farmstead or village)

White Village – Whitby. White + bȳ.

Grimr’s Village – Grimsby. Old Norse personal name + bȳ

Open land by the River Sheaf – Sheffield. Self-explanatory.

Open land by the River Maun – Mansfield. Self-explanatory.

Wulfrun’s high town – Wolverhampton. Saxon personal name + hēah (Old English: high) + tūn (Old English: town)

Village of Beorma’s people – Birmingham. Saxon personal name + -ing- (Old English: people of) + hām (Old English: village)

Cofa’s Tree – Coventry. Saxon personal name + trēow (Old English: tree)

Swine Hill – Swindon. Swīn (Old English: swine) + dūn (Old English: hill)

Reada’s People – Reading. Saxon personal name + -ing-

Haesta’s People – Hastings. Saxon personal name + -ing-

Beornmund’s Island – Bermondsey. Saxon personal name + ēg (Anglian: an island)

Broken Bridge – Pontefract. Pons (Latin: bridge) + fractus (Latin: broken)

Stag Pool – Hartlepool. Heorot (Old English: a hart/stag) + pōl (Old English: pool)

Thick Muddy Pool – Liverpool. Lifer (Old English: liver, referring to thick, clotted water) + pōl.

Middlemost Fortication – Middlesborough. Middel (Old English: middle) + burh (Old English: fortification)

Skarthi’s Fortification – Scarborough. Old Norse personal name + burh.

Skeggi’s Headland -Skegness. Old Norse personal name + nes (Old Norse: headland)

So-called for two sandbanks at the mouth of the river, thought to resemble bovines -West and East Cowes

Predictably, we can draw plenty of comparisons from these elements with modern Germanic languages:

Djúr – djur (Swedish) – dier (Dutch) – Tier (German)

Bȳ – by (Swedish)

Heorot – hert (Dutch) – hjort (Swedish)

Burh – Burg (German) – borg (Swedish) – burcht (Dutch)

So there you go, English really shows itself as a Germanic language when you look at our geography. Hope you found this as interesting as I did. Merry Christmas.

(All credit to the University of Nottingham for this fantastic map giving the information.)