The Hidden History in Our Words

May 16, 2019
Stephen A. McCoy

Often the history of the words we use tells us interesting facets of our own history. This is why etymology is so interesting. English is a wonderfully weird language, it is Germanic in origin but in the Middle Ages had a very hard collation with the Romance Languages, so much so that English, as a whole, uses 10% of direct Latin words and as much as 60% of vocabulary derived from Latin and Greek.

It is because of the collation between Old English and the Romance Languages (mainly French and Church Latin) that English sounds so little like the other Germanic Languages, yet at the same time, English does not sound like a Romance Language.

Again, English is weird, but weird is interesting. The major reason for this linguistic shift of English was the Norman Invasion of 1066. When William the Conqueror came from Normandy and won the English Crown, he brought his court and his people to rule England. He and his people spoke French. For three hundred years the ruling class spoke French, and the common folks spoke English. This is when much of the Romance Language infusion into English occurred (and a major reason the 8th century Beowulf looks nothing like the 14th century Canterbury Tales).

Yet it is not in the derived words based on other languages, but in how the meanings evolved that we can find some fascinating stories. Here, in brief, are just two of them:

First, English is rare in the fact that the common name for the farm animal and the name we use when we eat the animal is different.

We raise a cow but eat beef. We raise a chicken but eat poultry. We raise a pig but eat pork. This is a direct result of the Norman conquest. A farmer would raise a cow, a chicken, or a pig, and the French nobles would eat “beuf,” “poulet,” and “porc.” That old class system is forever cemented in English language history.

What did you call me?

A second example that is far subtler is the word “sinister.”

Sinister is related to the Latin word sinestra, which means the direction left. To be left-handed was seen as being off, in part because it made you different. There was a negative connotation with using your left hand, whether it be general nonconformity or the fact that that was the hand often used to wipe oneself after using the bathroom. Also, there was a thought that if you were using your left hand, it was because you were hiding something in your right.

All these prejudices caused the Latin word for “left” to become in English a word meaning the often-subtle impression of evil. It is also not difficult to find references in literature indicating the idea of left = bad.

I totally shouldn’t have taken that left turn.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of stories in the history of our words, all of which can give us insight into our own cultural history that would have otherwise been obfuscated by time. Some examples are fun like: the plural of mouse is mice, but the plural of moose is moose. This is because mouse and mice are derived from French and use the French grammar forms in its plural change, but moose is a word borrowed from Native Americans, which had no grammatical analog.  

Other examples are a bit darker: decimate is derived from Latin and is understood to mean to destroy. Yet, it literally means in Latin “to take (kill/punish) one of ten.” It was an extreme disciplinary technique used in the Roman legions to quell a group found guilty of rebellion. It has also been used to describe a tithe or tax of 1/10th of everything one owns. In decimate, the use of dec- is the giveaway for “10,” like a decagon has 10 sides, a decade has 10 years and December… should be the 10th month… and why it isn’t is in itself a fantastic story.

Our words hold historic stories, and they are worth finding.


Stephen McCoy has worked as a teacher, tour guide, historian, writer, and pirate—at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World. He earned a B.A. in History from Elon University, an M.A. in History from Loyola University Chicago, an M.Ed. from Lesley University, and an M.A. in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University. He runs a history blog at historicalperceptions.com.

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