Horses sweat, men sweat, and ladies sweat just the same

I stumbled across this very interesting titbit the other day: English generally affords more prestige to words of Latin origin than to words of Saxon origin. For example, we are taught to think of perspire (from per spirare, Latin) as being a more elegant term than sweat (from swat, Old English). That sort of delightful insight makes me want to throw all else to the four winds and bury my nose in linguistics for the rest of the year!

If you’re unfamiliar with English history, you may not be aware that the royals and nobility in Mediaeval England actually spoke French, not English, because the Normans, who invaded and conquered England in 1066 and consequently became the country’s rulers, naturally spoke French. French is a Romance language, meaning it developed off the back of Latin. We can thus speak of those English words introduced by the Normans as being Latinate or, more specifically, Anglo-French words.

It was the commoners who spoke Old English, a language that arose from the Germanic Saxons who came to England in waves during the Dark Ages (i.e. after the Romans had abandoned Britannia but long before the arrival of the Normans). We therefore speak of Anglo-Saxon words.

With that bit of history under our belts, we can better enjoy some more of the partisan sentiment given to Latinate words over their Anglo-Saxon equivalents, as presented by The Word Detective:

“Many of the words we use for livestock (“cow,” “pig,” “sheep,” etc.), for example, are short, blunt Anglo-Saxonisms of the sort used by medieval peasants, while the names of the finished products (“veal,” “beef,” “mutton,” “pork,” etc.) are rooted in the Anglo-French of the gentry who could actually afford the meat.”*

I was spurred into thinking of similar examples on my own. I came up with:

–          help (helpan, OE) vs. aid (aidier, OF),

–          sea (sæ, OE) vs. ocean (oceanus, OF), and

–          king (cyning, OE) vs. monarch (monarcha, L) or regent (regens, L).

Can you think of any others?

The dramatic rise of the English language to global dominance would have been quite a surprise to anyone living in the Middle Ages, as it is a relatively young language when compared with other contenders for world domination, like French. Since everyone likes an underdog (or should I say undercanine?), bravo to English for tackling the centuries so well.

One of the reasons why English has flourished while other similarly provincial languages often decline or die out is that it turned out to be extremely willing to absorb words and ideas from other languages. It is not a snooty language – it borrows from all over the show. Such adaptability is key to survival. It is however interesting to note that even with its seemingly egalitarian sponge-like tendencies, English still grants a nod to its feudal past when native speakers continue to lend greater respect to Latinate words over their Saxon counterparts. Why else would many still trot out the silly phrase, ‘Horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow’? To which I find myself wanting to say: I am a lady, but I know full well that at times I have sweated enough to match a racehorse!


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in Exaltation of doves & destruction of wild cats: mediaeval collective nouns and The impact of The Pilgrim’s Progress.


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