Sunday, June 7, 2009

Timely words

Warning: I don't edit blogs. What I think is what you get. Proceed at your own risk.

In the previous blog, I mentioned a word that I thought too modern for my time period, but didn't give it as I couldn't recall it at the time. Going over my manuscript, I found the word, and, just to be certain, checked it again. Still fits.

The word is mitigate. My fifteenth century heroine wants to mitigate damage done her lord by an unthinking (and uncaring) woman. My etymology dictionary assures me that, used to mean lessen in severity; make milder, came into being in the fourteenth century. Works for me.

But not all words are as accommodating. One of the funniest I've found is the word hussy.

According to the Medieval Word Book by Madelieine Pelner Cosman (page 124), a hussy refers to a household bound woman--the female counterpart of a husband, shortened from housewife. It only took on the meaning we use today, loose woman, harlot, in the Renaissance age.

Of course, we won't tell the networks this, or they'll be doing a new reality series: Desperate Renaissance Hussies.

Another word that changed it's meaning is dun.

In A Dictionary of Medieval Terms & Phrases by Christopher Coredon with Ann Williams, a dun is defined as an Irish fortified dwelling. Perhaps it is the color of said dwellings that led to things being called dun-colored. (Unfortunately, the etymology doesn't make this clear so this is pure supposition on my part.)

Regency writers, however, are more accustomed to using dun as a repeated demand for payment, a seventeenth century usage.

Why this word evolved from a fortified dwelling to a creditor's demand is obscure. It may have been a blending of languages that made one word perform disparate tasks, but there is no way to be certain.

Many words we use are derived from names. These are called eponyms, and they pepper our language. Something jamesian refers to a styling or reflection reminiscient of either the novels of Henry James or the philosophy of William James. Why do I mention this? Because a word very common in schoolrooms harkens back to a name.

A thirteenth century theologian by the name of Johns Duns Scotus finds himself the unwitting origin of the word dunce. It seems his views fell out of favor in England during the Reformation, especially his defense of the papacy. William Tyndale first used the word Dunsman as an epithet, but it, like so many words, was shortened over time to the form we use today meaning ignorance and stupidity. (A Dictionary of Medieval Terms & Phrases. Pg 108)

And, last, I'll include the word precinct. While still in use, commonly in conjunction with the jurisdictional boundaries of law enforcement, in medieval times a precinct meant a cathedral close (Cathedral lands, usually walled) with all of its auxiliary buildings.

Of course, canon law had long tentacles, so perhaps this usage isn't so different after all.

Have you discovered any words like those above? Please share. We strengthen ourselves when we share knowledge.


Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I love seldom used word. I've been sending my Dutch grandsons words as gifts and have found many I adore plus they are learning a lot of English. I don't know the origins of the words I send them or what they meant in the beginning like you talked about, but think it would be fun to learn more. My most favorite word is PROPINQUITY and my grandsons loved it when I gave it to them as a gift. Thanks for mentioning your thoughts on this. Now I need to do some digging.

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Great word, Paisley! My youngest had a thing for Perspicacity--in all it's forms--so I appreciate what you mean by a favorite word.

Your grandsons are lucky boys. Thanks for stopping by.

Kimberly Killion said...

I love this topic. A word I use in my latter Medievals is 'Wowf'. As in, "Are ye wowf, mon?"

The meaning would be akin to crazy, insane, etc...

I don't know where I came up with it or maybe I made it up, but I was curious to know if you had anything of it?


Evangeline said...

According to the online etymology dictionary-- dun (v.):"to insist on payment of debt," c.1626, perhaps related to dunnen "to sound, resound, make a din," or shortened from dunkirk (1602) "privateer," a private vessel licensed to attack enemy ships during wartime, from Dunkirk, French port from which they sailed. Yet another, less likely, theory traces it to a Joe Dun, supposedly a London bailiff famous for catching defaulters.

so that usage is much earlier than the Regency era.

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Hi Kim,

I'm hot on the trail of "Wowf" and wondering if it might be dialectic since none of my "at hand" books have anything. Fact is, I've seen it used--and not just in your book *g*. Somewhere I have a book with various curses though the ages that includes things like this, but some of my books are still in storage and my shelves here are two and three deep so it may take a minute or two. I'll get back to you.
Thanks for stopping.

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...


Yes, I know dun, as in demanding payment, was used before the Regency. I only meant that Regency writers would be more familiar with this usage. However, since I went into detail with the other words, I can see where this might have been misleading. My bad.

Thank you for stopping by and making me aware of the problem. I appreciate it.