Friday, June 1, 2012

Words, Words, Words in the Oxford English Dictionary

In last night's post on my other blog, I joked around about the spelling of the word grandeur, saying I was too tired to look it up in my Oxford English Dictionary. One of my readers from Ontario (hi, Ardyth!) found it amusing that I would look up a French word in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Ardyth's comment reminded me of this wonderful image I found on Pinterest last year:

English is a bastard of a language, isn't it? Or perhaps we should think of it like the Borg...assimilating all the interesting grammar and words it finds while roaming the galaxy.

Grandeur, along with a lot of other French words, does, in fact, appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED helpfully lists the first appearance of words in print (or manuscript) in an English-language work. Grandeur first appeared in print around 1500 in Melusine, an English translation of a German translation of a French fairy tale.

According to the OED, several attempts have been made to Anglicize the spelling, but because of its relatively late adoption into English (most French words were assimilated into English between 1066 and 1400), the French spelling remains.

A random and quick dig into the G section of the OED yields the expected high number of words with French, Old English, and Teutonic/Germanic origin...just what you'd expect from a language that started as an off-shoot of German and whose speakers were conquered by a Norman bastard who imposed his own language onto them in 1066.

By the way, the Norman conquest explains why our words for farm animals are from Old English (cow, pig, chicken) but our words for the meat are French (beef, pork, poultry). The Old English peasants worked with the animals, and their Norman French overlords ate the meat.

Fascinating, eh?

Without even looking hard, I found plenty of Latin and European words (Italian, Dutch, Irish, Celtic, Norse...though surprisingly no Spanish). Greek, of course, cropped up frequently. But I also found Australian, Tonga, Hindustani, and Persian words.

The result of all this theft/plunder/borrowing is a rich and complex language that tells a story all its own.

We word nerds truly have plenty to keep us busy for several life-times. What a gift never to be bored! Just get yourself a copy of the OED and start plundering.


  1. Wow! That's quite the lesson in language development! I love learning stuff like this - I missed out on all this fun getting my business/accounting degree. Glad I commented!

  2. This is very interesting. Can I suggest a book--one of my favorite reads of the year I read it--"The Professor and the Madman" by Simon Winchester. I actually listened to the audio book, but either way, I think you would enjoy it.

  3. Yes, I have already enjoyed it, Joyce. :)

  4. I also find dictionaries fascinating.
    Must still get my own OED.
    My home language is Afrikaans - I live in Cape Town(South Africa)- a language that started out as a mix of mainly Dutch and some Malay, a pinch of German, a handful of French and a spattering of English, spiced up with some local African words. Yes, a lovely 'stew'.
    What fascinates me is how some words found its way to Afrikaans and then some words went back to English.
    Yes, there is always something interesting to learn in all the words around us.
    PS. I have a multi language dictionary (6 languages) and is that a fun read! We have 11 official languages and a few other that is spoken by smaller groups.

  5. I used to read the dictionary for fun. I'd be lost for hours. What a great pastime. :)

  6. Fabulous and fascinating post! As a retired librarian, I love words and I do have an OED at home. I turn to it when I'm reading a book, but if I'm on the computer and I find a word I want to look up, it's so easy to do it on-line. But I'd never give up my print dictionary!

  7. Thanks Susan! I feel more educated for having read this post.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!