Thank the Middle Ages

One of the things I enjoy is learning the origins of English words and phrases. Not surprisingly, many English phrases are of biblical origin. Biblical illiteracy being what it is today, I am sure that most people who say things like “bite the dust”, “by the skin of your teeth”, or “sour grapes” have no idea as to their Christian origins. The contribution of William Shakespeare to the treasury of English idiom is likewise enormous but mostly lost on contemporary English speakers. Shakespeare, immersed in the language and thought of Christendom, was also influenced by the English Book of Common Prayer, another important literary stream from which we have received gems like “speak now or forever hold your peace”, “till death us do part”, and the most commonly known version of the Lord’s Prayer, recited also by English-speaking Catholics.

A good many words in English come to us from the Age of Faith, popularly known as the Middle Ages. Here’s a website that lists a few of them, and I offer the following samples:

BANK/BANKRUPT- In mideaval times Italian moneylenders used benches in the marketplace to conduct business. Latin for bench was Banca, which transferred to English as bank. These lenders were required to publically break up their benches if their businesses failed, the Latin expression being banca rupta-, becoming bankrupt in English.

BEDLAM:- Bethlehem hospital in London was built to house the mentally ill. As most commoners were at best semi-literate, they mangled the name so that it emerged as “bedlam,” with the implication of chaos deriving from the insane antics of the residents.

BLACKMAIL- Sixteenth century Scottish farmers paid their rent, or mail, to English absentee landlords in the form of WHITE MAIL (silver money), or BLACKMAIL (rent payment in the form of produce or livestock). The term blackmail took on a bad connotation only when the greedy landlords forced many poor farmers to pay much more in goods than the they would pay in silver. Later, when robbers along the borders demanded payment for passage and “protection” the farmers called this extortion blackmail as well.

CURFEW- Despite the modern perception, Medieval cities were actually rather well regulated places, with municipal ordinances governing many aspects of public life to maintain order and safety. However, even the best maintained cities were mostly built of wood, fire was a constant danger, and most cities experienced a devastating fire every few decades. To help provide some protection against fires, many cities required that fires be banked at night. On his first rounds of the evening, the night watchman would remind all the citizens to cover their fires. In Old French this was covre feu, which became coeverfu in Anglo-French after the Norman Conquest, courfeu in Old English, and eventually our modern “curfew,” with the meaning of a limitation.

HAVOC- A medieval war cry signifying “no quarter.

MAUDLIN- Another attempt by Medieval Londoners to pronounce a hospital name, this time it being “Magdalene.”

TAWDRY- On the Feast of St. Audrey it was common to give as gifts little trinkets –religious medallions, charms, and such– of no great value. As a result, the phrase “a St. Audrey” came to mean something cheap, which eventually, became “tawdry.”


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