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MercatorNet: A history of English ... in five words [NEW SECTION OF "HUMANISMS"] once in a while

MercatorNet: A history of English ... in five words

A history of English ... in five words

The diverse origins of our global lingua franca.
Simon Horobin | Feb 26 2016 | comment 7 

In 1582, Richard Mulcaster, headmaster of the Merchant Tailors’ school, wrote that “our English tung is of small reatch, it stretcheth no further than this Iland of ours”. It didn’t stay that way. Today, English is spoken by more than a billion people all over the world.

It is a colourful, vibrant and diverse tongue, that long has picked up words from the many languages with which its speakers have come into contact. Here are five words that illustrate the English language’s fascinating history.


The English language originates in the dialects spoken by the early Germanic tribes – the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – who began to settle Britain following the departure of the Romans in the fifth century AD. The Angles established themselves in the kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria and it is from them that the word English derives.

Its ultimate origin is the Latin Angli “the people of Angul” – the name given to an area of Northern Germany (now Schleswig-Holstein) where the tribe originated. It was so-called because of the peninsula’s hook-like shape (the same root lies behind angler “fisherman”).

When Pope Gregory the Great (590-604AD) encountered a group of young Angles at a Roman slave market, he remarked that they looked more like angeli “angels” than Angli, prompting him to send St Augustine on a mission to convert the English to Christianity.


Although roast beef is seen as a quintessentially English dish, the word beef was introduced from the French boeuf during the Middle Ages. It was one of a group of words, including porkvealvenison and mutton, that were taken from the speech of the French noblemen who settled in Britain following the Norman Conquest of 1066, and whose only encounter with these animals was at the dining table.

   A slice of history. Shutterstock
The Anglo-Saxon peasants, by contrast, who tended to the living beasts continued to call them by their Old English names: cowpigcalfdeer and sheep. This distinction was alluded to by Walter Scott in his historical novel Ivanhoe, set during the reign of Richard I (1189-1199), in which a jester explains to a peasant that:

Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet while he is under the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him.
Although Scott’s depiction is something of a romantic simplification – Shakespeare has Shylock compare his flesh to that of “Muttons, Beefes, or Goates” – it does capture the extent to which the language of English cuisine (from the French for kitchen), is indebted to French. It is also interesting to note that the French now brand the British les rosbifs.


Dictionary is a borrowing from medieval Latin dictionarius liber “book of words”; it first appeared in English in the 16th century, along with numerous adoptions from Latin and Greek, reflecting the rebirth of interest in classical learning.

Although it is the most famous, Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is not the earliest; the first English dictionary was Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604). Unlike a modern desk dictionary, Cawdrey set out to gloss only the most unfamiliar words – concinnatedeambulatepactationrefractarie – whose meanings would have caused problems for those not educated in Latin and Greek, an audience Cawdrey described as “Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other vnskilfull persons"”.

Although Dr Johnson was revered by his contemporaries as the ultimate authority, whose work would fix the English language and prevent further change, he was less sanguine about his achievements; he defined a lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge” and poured scorn on the folly of trying to “enchain syllables” and “lash the wind”.


Tea was first imported into Britain early in the 17th century, becoming very popular by the 1650s; London diarist Samuel Pepys recorded drinking his first cup in 1660.

 As English as… Shutterstock
By the 18th century it had become a symbol of fashionable society and a staple of the coffee house culture; Dr Johnson was a self-confessed “hardened and shameless tea-drinker”.

The word tea derives from the Mandarin Chinese word chávia the Min dialect form te. The Mandarin word is also the origin of the informal char, as in a nice cup of char. A love of tea is so ingrained in British life that the phrase cup of tea has come to stand for anything viewed positively. We express dislike by saying: it’s not my cup of tea, we comfort the bereaved with tea and sympathy, and gloss over any social faux pas with the phrase more tea, vicar?


Emoji were originally developed in Japan in the 1990s for use by teenagers on their pagers; the word emoji derives from the Japanese e “picture” + moji “character, letter”.

The future of English? Shutterstock
Its successful integration into English has been helped by its similarity to words with the e- “electronic” prefix, such as e-mail and e-cigarette. E-communication is a form of writing that resembles casual conversation more than formal prose, often situated in real time with a known recipient, but lacking the extra-linguistic cues such as facial expression, tone of voice, hand gestures, that help to convey attitude in face-to-face interactions.

The emoticon (a blend of emotion and icon), or smiley, enabled the transmission of a restricted range of attitudes in bulletin boards of the 1980s. Emoji have replaced the comparative crudity of the emoticon, enabling the representation of a greater range of expressions with less ambiguity. But, despite the Unicode Consortium’s official listing of emoji and their functions, users are finding creative new ways to employ them. Emojis are just another example of the evolution and spectacular diversity of English.

Simon Horobin is Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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There is important news from the United States today. Sheila Liaugminas reports that, “finally”, the United States Congress and the State Department have acknowledged that the violence directed against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities by ISIS is genocide.

On Monday, the House of Representatives passed a resolution of Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) to that effect unanimously. It took Secretary of State John Kerry until the March 17 deadline set by Congress last year to follow suit. His staff were still reviewing the evidence. Don’t they read the newspaper?
Sheila, who has been interviewing people all week about this concludes:
Congressman Fortenberry told me what he’s been saying to everyone listening lately, that this is a threat to civilization itself. As of today, the U.S. has risen to join a growing international coalition of voices and forces that can, finally, do something to stop the spread of that threat, reverse it, and protect innocent people and the existence of whole populations. What can be done is newly on the table. What will be done comes next.
Still in the Middle East, Marcus Roberts concludes his informative highlights from a Pew survey of Israel’s religiously divided society (Jews and Arabs both seem to worry about economic issues as much as about violence); and Christopher Szabo reports the (rather positive) comments of former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres on peace in the region.
There’s lots more good reading in the other articles too. Enjoy your weekend!

Carolyn Moynihan

Deputy Editor,


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US House of Representatives, State Dept, acknowledge genocide

Sheila Liaugminas | SHEILA REPORTS | 18 March 2016
Finally. This is a big deal.

Girls Just Want to Be Born

Marie Smith | FEATURES | 18 March 2016
The ongoing gendercide of sex selective abortion.

It’s about autonomy, not pain

Cristina Alarcon | CAREFUL! | 18 March 2016
A Canadian euthanasia trail-blazer has openly admitted that pain is not behind most requests for death.

An Israeli view of prospects for peace

Christopher Szabo | FEATURES | 18 March 2016
Views on peace in the Middle East and South Africa by former Israeli PM Shimon Peres

Israel’s Religiously Divided Society: Part II

Marcus Roberts | DEMOGRAPHY IS DESTINY | 18 March 2016
A second look at the Pew Research Centre's Report into Israelis' political views

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