Amazing articles on just about every subject...


Language And History - The Modern Period

( Originally Published 1912 )

By the end of the XIVth Century the English language had absorbed into itself the greater part of the vocabulary of medieval learning, and had been formed into a standard and literary form of speech for the whole nation. But from the point of view of vocabulary, the XVth Century marks a pause. England, exhausted and demoralized by its disastrous conflicts abroad in France, and by the Wars of the Roses at home, had little energy to devote to the higher interests of civilization, literature languished, and the vocabulary of this period shows but little advance on that of the previous age. Some medical and chemical terms were added to it, the poems of Lydgate at the beginning, and the works printed by Caxton at the end of the century contain many new words; but we cannot find in them many signs of new conceptions, or of any great additions to life and thought.

Perhaps the most curious of these new terms are the words derived from medieval games and sports, and the large accession of sea-terms, borrowed from the Dutch, which make their appearance at about this time. Among hawking terms had already appeared, in the previous century, the word reclaim, derived through the French from the Latin reclamare. Reclamare, however, meant in Latin "to cry out against," "to contradict"; it acquired in hawking the technical sense of calling back a hawk to the fist, and so the notion of calling back or "reclaiming" a person from a wrong course of action. Among XVth Century hawking words may be mentioned rebate, which meant to bring back to the fist a "bating" hawk; to allure, from the older lure (of obscure etymology), an apparatus for recalling hawks, and to rouse, used first for the hawk's shaking its feathers. Haggard is a somewhat later word, and being used of a wild hawk, has been derived from the French word for hedge, haie, but this etymology is doubtful. Among early terms borrowed from the chase is the word to worry, which meant "to seize by the throat," and the curious verb to muse, which is believed to be derived from the same word as muzzle, and to mean originally the action of a dog holding up his nose or muzzle to sniff the air when in doubt about the scent. The early word scent (derived ultimately from the Latin sentire) was first a hunting term; and the later word sagacious, meant originally in English "acute of scent." Retrieve, the French retrouver, is also a hunting term, and our verb to abet is supposed to come through the French, from the Norse beita, "to cause to bite"; and if so is, perhaps, like tryst, another hunting term, one of the few Scandinavian words preserved by the Normans after their settlement in France. Its original meaning was "to bait or hound dogs on their prey and then, from the action of inciting some one to commit a crime, it acquired its present meaning. A relay was originally a set of fresh hounds posted to take up the chase; a couple was a leash for holding two hounds together; ruse (which is the same word as rush) was a doubling or turning of the hunted animal; and the hounds were said to run riot when they followed the wrong scent. Our verb to rove is a term of XVth Century archery, obscure in origin; it meant originally to shoot arrows at a mark selected at random, and has no connection with rover, a sea-term word borrowed from the Dutch, and cognate with our old word reaver or robber.

These words give us a little glimpse into the sports of our medieval ancestors; and we may add to them the verb to check or checkmate, a chess term, derived through the Arabian from the Persian Shah or king. The later terms derived from sports are bias, the colloquial phrase to bowl over, and the word rub in the familiar phrase "there's the rub "—all from the game of bowls: while crestfallen and white feather come to us from the cockpit.

Our language shows the close connection that existed from early medieval times, between England and the Low Countries. Pack (from which package and packet are derived) is an early word in English, used in the wool trade, and apparently came to us in the XIIth or XIIIth Century from the Dutch or Flemish traders. Spool, stripe, and the verb to scour are thought to be technical terms brought by the Flemish workmen whom Edward III settled in England to improve English manu-factures. Tub and scum are possibly early brewing terms borrowed from the Dutch or Flemish, like the word hops, which came to us from the Low Countries in the XVth Century. But many of the most important Dutch words in English are sea-terms; indeed, our nautical vocabulary is largely Dutch in origin, and shows how much our early sailors owed to the mariners and fishermen of the Low Countries. Among the words that have been traced, with more or less certainty, to Dutch, Flemish, or Low German sources, bowsprit and skipper are found in the XIVth Century, while in the XVth appear hoy, pink, scout, keel, and lighter, for the names of boats; pump and leak (both first found in nautical use), orlop, mar-line, freight, and buoy. The connection between Dutch and English sailors long remained a close one, and among later additions to the English sea-vocabulary which are probably Dutch in origin, are reef, belay, dock, mesh, aloof, and flyboat, which appear in the XVIth Century; and the XVIIth Century words sloop, yacht, commodore, yawl, cruise and cruiser, bow and boom, keelhaul, gybe, and avast. If the XVth Century made but few additions to the vocabulary of English thought and culture, the century that followed this period of intellectual barrenness was one of unexampled richness and splendour. It was in this century that the effects of revival of learning reached England, and the study of classical Latin and Greek soon exerted a powerful influence on the language. Although the learned words borrowed in the XIVth Century were most of them ultimately derived from classical antiquity, they may yet be compared to the architectural forms and ornaments which were borrowed by Gothic architecture from Roman buildings, but which were transformed and assimilated by the Gothic spirit. These words were Greek or Roman in origin, but medieval in sentiment and meaning, and served, like the borrowed architectural forms and ornaments, to build up the great religious and Gothic edifice of medieval thought. But now, just as classical forms began to replace Gothic architecture, so Latin and Greek words began to appear in English, not borrowed through the medium of Low Latin or medieval French, but taken direct from the classics. We note in this century the appearance of many Renaissance words like Arcadian, Dryad, Hesperian, Elysian, which brought with them the echoes of the great poetry of Greece and Rome. At the same time a secular meaning was given to many old words which had had hitherto only a religious use and signification.

It was, indeed, in this century that the foundations were laid of the new and modern world in which we live; old words were given new meanings, or borrowed to express the new conceptions, activities, and interests which have coloured and formed the life of the last three centuries. To the more fundamental of these conceptions, and their immense effect on the-vocabulary of English, we must devote a special chapter; but first it will be well to mention the deposit of words left in the language by the various historical and religious movements and events of the XVIth and the succeeding centuries.

The first great modern movement was, of course, the Protestant Reformation. The name Protestant came to England, probably from Germany, the old word Reformation was given a new use, and the derivatives reformed and reformer were made from it. Evangelical and sincere were new words much used by Protestants of their doctrines; and now, by their unfortunate identification of the Hebrew Sabbath with the Christian Sunday, they fastened on that day the sabbatic law of the Old Testament. Godly in its modern sense is first found, with the new derivatives, godliness and godless, in Tindale's writings; religion, which was used before of rites and observances or of monastic orders, was given by the Protestants its new and important abstract meaning of belief, and the state of mind it induces; pious was another of their new words, and the old piety, which had been sometimes used for pity, acquired from them its modern meaning. These words are a testimony of the new and inner religious life of the Protestants; and the Roman Catholic words mission and missionary (which were first used of the Jesuit missions) show the zeal of their opponents. This zeal showed itself also in a new crop of controversial words; pernicious, faction, and factious first appear in the writings of Catholic controversialists, who, however, were soon eclipsed by the superior linguistic powers of the Protestants. It is in terms of abuse, as we have already noticed, that the gift for language is most vigorously displayed; and Tindale, Coverdale, and Latimer, to whom the English Bible and the Church Service owe so much, made liberal use also of their word-creating faculty to invent terms of obloquy for those who opposed their views.

Dunce (which was derived from the name of the scholastic philosopher, Duns Scotus) first appears, with Romish, popery, popishness, in the works of Tindale. Duncely, monkery, popishly, were used by Latimer; Luther's word Romanist was apparently introduced by .Coverdale, who also seems to have invented for his own use duncical, Babylonical, and Babylonish. Other terms of Protestant vituperation which belong to this period are Babylonian, malignant, papish, papistical, monkish, with terms that are now obsolete, such as popeling, duncery, and the once common abbey-lubber. Bigoted and bigotry are words of Protestant abuse of a somewhat later date. The history of Roman Catholic is a curious one. The terms Roman, Romanist, and Romish, had acquired by the end of the XVIth Century so invidious a meaning, that the need for a non-controversial term was felt, and Roman Catholic was adopted for this purpose. It was employed, as the Oxford Dictionary states, for conciliatory reasons in the negotiations for the Spanish marriage of Charles I, and thus found its way into general use.

While still engaged in their quarrel with the old faith, the Protestants soon began those controversies among themselves by which the English vocabulary has been enriched; and already in the XVIth Century we note the words Puritan, precise, and precision, and also libertine, which was first used as the name of the antinomian sect of Anabaptists. Reprobate is a sinister word which belongs to this period, being a Calvinist term for souls rejected by God, and foredoomed to eternal misery.

To turn, however, from these old controversies to secular matters, we find that the English language became, after the middle of the XVIth Century, greatly enriched by far-fetched and exotic words, gathered from the distant East and West by the English travellers, merchants, and adventurous pirates. The English people, who had so long used their energies in the vain attempt to conquer France, found now at last their true vocation in seamanship, and their true place of expansion in the trade, and finally the empire, of India and America. The exotic words that had found their way into English before this date, had, as we have seen, come almost entirely at second hand by the way of France; but now that England was forming a more independent civilization of her own, and Englishmen were getting for themselves a wider knowledge of the world, the French influence, although still strong, was not paramount, and these travellers' words were borrowed either directly from native languages, or-from the speech of the Portuguese, Dutch, and Spaniards, who had preceded English sailors in the distant countries of the East and West. Of our words belonging to this period, and derived from the languages of India and the Far East, calico was taken from the name of Calicut, coolie and curry seem to have come through Portuguese; the Malayan words bamboo, cockatoo through Dutch, junk through Spanish or Italian, and gong (another word from Malay) was probably a direct borrowing. Indigo is from Portuguese; monsoon is believed to be an Arabian word, but it came to us from the Dutch, who had borrowed it from the Portuguese. Typhoon is also Arabian, but ultimately Greek in origin. From the near East, coffee is an Arabian, and dervish a Persian word, reaching us through Turkish, while harem and hashish and magazine were borrowed direct from Arabian. Banana is sup-posed to be a native African word from the Congo district; it reached us, like negro, through Portuguese or Spanish. The early words from the languages of the West Indies, Mexico, and South America, all come to us, as we might expect, from the language of the early Spanish conquerors and explorers of these countries. Alligator is a popular corruption of the Spanish name for the lizard, el or al lagarto; chocolate, cocoa, tomato, are Mexican; cannibal, hurricane, hammock, savannah, and potato are from the island of Hayti, and guano from Peru. All these come to us through the medium of Spanish.

Cannibal and canoe are of interest to us, as words brought back to Europe by Christopher Columbus; and in cannibal, as in the name West Indies, and in Indian for the American aborigines is embodied the geographical error of the time, when Columbus believed that in his voyage across the Atlantic he had reached what are now called the East Indies. For when he heard the name Caniba (which is simply a variant of Carib or Caribes) he thought that it signified that this savage people were subjects of the Grand Khan of Tartary, whose domains he believed to be not far distant. Other words associated with early travellers are mulatto, which is first found in the account of Drake's last voyage, and breeze, which in the XVIth Century was an adaptation of the Spanish briza, a name for the north-east trade-wind in the Spanish Main, and which first appears in the account of one of Hawkins's voyages. With these old sailors' words we may associate the words brought back to England by Captain Cook from the Pacific in the XVIIIth Century, tattoo, kangaroo, and taboo. Sassafras seems to be the earliest word borrowed from North America (if, indeed, it be not a corruption of the Latin saxifraga), and came into English through the Spanish. The XVIIth Century words from North America, moccasin, persim mon, opossum, tomahawk, hickory, terrapin, were borrowed directly from Indian speech by the English settlers of North America.

There is much in the history and etymology of words that is. merely curious and quaint, and possesses little but an archaeological interest. That trowsers should be traced back to the Greek thyrsos, and that banjo and goloshes should also be able to boast of an illustrious Greek descent, is certainly interesting; but these associations can do but little to add poetic dignity to such words. Other words there are that gain immensely in value when we know their history; and among them must be counted these exotic words of Elizabethan travel and adventure, cannibal, hurricane, alligator, savannah, breeze, monsoon; and we still may fee! some of the strangeness of remote people and places that echoed in them, when far-travelled seamen brought them back to English seaports from the Indian Ocean or the Spanish Main.

To the war with Spain in the reign of Elizabeth we owe the Spanish words embargo and contraband, and the Dutch word freebooter. Among other Dutch or Flemish terms that were, perhaps, brought back to England by soldiers from their campaigns in the Low Countries may be mentioned furlough, cashier, leaguer, sconce, onslaught, drill, and domineer. Comrade is a Spanish word, but seems to have been a soldiers' term learnt in the Low Countries and forlorn hope is a military phrase, being the Dutch verloren hoop, in which hoop means a troop, and is cognate with our word "heap."

The separation from Rome, the founding of a National Church, the war with Spain, and the great victory over the Armada, did much to awaken Englishmen to a sense of national pride and consciousness. In the Middle Ages England shared in the cosmopolitan civilization of Europe, with its Catholic Church and its ideal of a universal empire; dynastic pretensions were paramount to those of nationality, and even the claim of English kings to the French Crown was supported by a considerable part of the population of that country. But in the XVIth Century the ideal of nationality, of political unity and independence, began to take the prominent place in men's thoughts and feelings which it has since preserved, and we can trace this growth in the curiously late appearance in the English language of what we may call "patriotic" terms. Nation was an early word, but it was used more with the notion of different races than that of national unity, and was indeed commonly employed to de-scribe any class or kind of persons. It gained its present meaning in the XVIth Century, and late in that century we find the adjective national formed from it; and we can note at about the same date the appearance of such terms as fellow-countryman and mother-country. Fatherland and compatriot appear a little later, and patriot and patriotic belong to the middle of the XVIIth Century, but did not acquire their present meaning until a hundred years later, at which time patriotism is found.

Public in the sense of "public-spirited" belongs to the early XVIIth Century, but public-spirit and public-spirited are somewhat later.

If we turn to literature, we find, as we might expect, that the age of Shakespeare brought with it a large accession to our literary vocabulary, lyric, epic, dramatic, blank verse, fiction, and critic. We note, too, in the XVIth Century, the beginning of our modern political vocabulary; political itself belongs to this period, and politics, and politician (in the older and more dignified meaning of statesman) and Secretary of State and the adjective parliamentary. This political vocabulary was largely increased with the growth of political institutions in the XVIIth Century. The words politician and minister began to acquire their present meaning in its earlier years, and legislator was borrowed from Latin in the same period. Cabinet Council was apparently introduced at the accession of Charles I in 1625, and we hear of the Cabinet about twenty years later. Privy Councillor and cabal belong to the period of the Civil War and the Common-wealth; and the phrase the Army came gradually into use with the formation of a standing army at this time, and was first applied to the Parliamentary forces in 1647. We can trace, too, to this period, the first beginnings of the vocabulary of modern democracy. Populace was, indeed, borrowed in the XVIth Century by means of France from the Italian popolaccio, but like other Italian words ending in accio, it was a term of abuse; "the populace" was used in England as an equivalent for "mob" or "rabble"; and the adjective popular had something of the same depreciatory meaning, The people, however, in its modern sense appears during the Civil War, when Parliament made a solemn declaration that "the people are, under God, the original of all just power." It was at this time, too, that the late Latin word radical, used first in medieval physiology for the inherent or "radical" humours of plants and animals, and in the XVIth Century applied to mathematics and philology, came to acquire some-thing of its modern meaning of "fundamental" or "thorough." It was, however, at this time a theological term, being used in the Puritan phrase radical regeneration. It was not definitely applied to politics till about 1785, and soon became, in the reaction after the French Revolution, a term of low reproach, more or less equivalent to "black-guard "-a meaning it is said still to preserve in some remote or exalted regions.

Scriptural is a Puritan word of the XVIIth Century; and so also are independent and in-dependence, which soon acquired a political meaning; while demagogue is a Royalist term which first appeared in the Eikon Basilike. As this defence of Charles I was supposed at the time to have been written by the King himself, the great word-coiner Milton, in his answer to it, abused it as a "goblin word," and declared, somewhat illiberally, that the King could not "coin English as he could money." Plunder is a German word meaning originally "bedclothes" or "household stuff"; it was much used during the Thirty Years' War, and became familiar on the out-break of the Civil War, being especially connected with Prince Rupert's raids-the "plunderous Rupertism" of Carlyle's eccentric coining. Tory was originally a term of reproach for the half-savage bog-trotters in Ireland supposed to be in the King's service; Royalist and Roundhead date, of course, from this period; Cavalier was adopted by the Puritans as a term of abuse for the swashbucklers on the King's side, to whom also applied the Protestant word malignant. Prelatry, prelatize, goosery, fustianist, were terms coined in the controversies of this time by Milton, who was as highly gifted for vituperation as he was for poetry. Sectarian was first used by the Presbyterians for the Independents, but was soon applied by the Anglicans to the Nonconformists. Cant, as we use it now, and fanatic are abusive terms introduced by the Royalists; and although they were defeated in the field, we must on the whole give them the crown of victory in this linguistic contest, as their terms of vituperation have been more widely accepted, and have gained a much larger circulation than those of their Puritan opponents.

At the Restoration, when Charles II re-turned to England, he brought the spirit of mockery with him; and in the reaction against the austerity and zeal of the pious Puritans, a large number of mocking words arose or became current. To this period belong the verbs to burlesque, to banter, to droll, to ridicule; nouns like travesty, badinage, and adjectives like jocose and teasing in their modern use; while prig was borrowed from rogue's cant to describe a Puritan or a non-conformist minister. As typical of this time we may quote Anthony ŕ Wood's description in 1678 of a new set in academic circles, the "banterers of Oxford," "who make it their Employment to talk at a Venture, lye, and prate what Nonsense they please; if they see a Man talk seriously, they Talk floridly Nonsense, and care not what he says; this is like throwing a Cushion at a Man's Head, that pretends to be grave and wise."

Of the more serious side of the Restoration period, the immense revolution in thought caused by the foundation at that time of modern science, and the growth of a scientific vocabulary and of a scientific view of the world, we shall speak in another chapter; there remain, however, a few words in which are embedded events or aspects of XVIIth Century history. Bivouac, like "plunder," is a word that arose in the Thirty Years' War, although it did not come into English until the beginning of the XVIIIth Century; campaign, recruit, commander-in-chief, and the military sense of capitulation appear in the Civil War; and many other military terms, parade, pontoon, patrol, bombard, cannonade, barracks, brigadier, fusilier, etc., were borrowed in the later part of the XVIIth Century from the French, who were now the masters in the military art, as indeed in most of the arts at this period. Refugee came into the language with the Huguenot refugees; excise is apparently a Dutch word and, although borrowed earlier, came into general use when this system of taxation was borrowed from Holland in 1643; it long remained unpopular, and Dr. Johnson defined it in his Dictionary as a "hateful tax," "levied by wretches." Drub, used originally of the bastinado, is supposed to be an Arabic word, brought, in the XVIIth Century, from the Barbary States, where so many Christians suffered captivity, and where they learnt the expression from the cudgelling of their Mohammedan captors. We can trace, moreover, to the XVIIth Century the beginnings of our modern commerical vocabulary. Capital, investment, dividend belong to the earlier, insurance, commercial, and discount to the later part of the century, and the great words bank, machine, and manufacture begin to acquire their modern meaning.

This commercial vocabulary was largely increased in the XVIIIth Century; bankruptcy, banking, currency, remittance, appear before 1750; in this period the old word business acquires its present meaning, and we hear of bulls and bears, and of trade being dull or brisk. After 1750 consols, finance, appear, and bonus and capitalist. The vocabulary, too, of modern politics grows with the development of political institutions; we hear of the Ministry in the reign of Queen Anne, of the Premier in that of George I, while in the early years of George II's reign the administration, the budget, the estimates appear, with party, as the word is now used. Prime Minister was borrowed from the courts of despotic sovereigns and applied to Walpole as an abusive term, but this title was expressly disowned by him, as it was by Lord North under George III. It fell more or less out of use, being replaced by Premier or First Minister, until about the middle of the XIXth Century, and it only received official recognition in 1905.

At the end of the XVIIIth Century and the beginning of the XIXth, some of the vocabulary of the French Revolution was imported into England; aristocracy came now to be contrasted, not with monarchy, but democracy; the words aristocrat and democrat were borrowed from French, and the old word des-pot acquired its present hostile meaning, and despotism was enlarged from the rule of a despot to any arbitrary use of unlimited power. The verb to revolutionize and the slightly later terrorize, with royalism and terrorism, are words of the French Revolution; conscription gained its present meaning from the conscriptions of the French Republic, and section in its geographical use, and the XIXth Century word sectional, are derived from the division of France into electoral sections under the Directory.

Even the most superficial survey, however, of the XVIIIth Century must not be dismissed without a reference at least to its contributions to our vocabulary of literature and social life. Literature itself only acquired the sense of literary production in this century, and literary (which is not included in Johnson's Dictionary) has till this time only the meaning of "alphabetical." Of ;new formed words, or old words that acquired their present meanings between 1700 and 1800, may be mentioned editor, novelist, magazine, publisher, copyright, the verb to review, and the great word the Press. Of social life, in this Golden Age of good society, we find, as we might expect, many new characteristic terms, the words season, polite, and club take on new meanings, we hear of callers and visiting cards; and the immense number of compounds formed from the word "tea" (tea-room, tea-party, tea-drinker, etc.) would afford much material for the student of social customs. In the new compounds, moreover, which were now formed from the old word sea (sea-beach, sea-bathing, the adjective seaside, and the use of sea-air as a cause not of sickness but of health) he would find evidence of that discovery of the sea as a source of pleasure and wellbeing which we also owe to this period. The earlier sea-terms in English, sea-man, seafaring, seacoast, etc. (many of which date from the Anglo-Saxon period), are all of a practical and unromantic character. The Renaissance compounds, sea-green, sea god, sea-nymph, are translations from the classics, and show the influence of the classical feeling for the sea. Although Shakespeare's epithets for the sea, rude, dangerous, rough, etc., are generally hostile, he yet shows in such adjectives as silver and multitudinous, and in phrases like beached margent and yellow sands, a sense of its beauty beyond that of most of his contemporaries. The popular love, however, for the sea and its shores dates from the XVIIIth Century, and finds its latest expression in XIXth Century compounds like sea-smell and sea-murmuring, which we owe to Tennyson.

The XIXth Century has provided us with an amazing wealth of characteristic terms, and a chronological list of these, and of the ones which have made their appearance since 1900, would, if we had space to give it, show us a curious picture of our own age, and all its interests and developments. But there is

another aspect of the subject which is even more important—the development, as mirrored in our language, of modern ways of thought and feeling and to this we must devote our last chapter.



Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com