WuToWu #101: Middle English Philology

Hi J and E,

I’m sorry for the delay in posting; it looks like I’m the first one to miss the deadline. So Jessica, I look forward to the challenge you will assign. Anyway, let’s get on with the post.

I hope you had a restful long weekend (whether you had Friday or Monday off), and that you were able to have some fun! Since my last blog post, we’re gone through a little over a month of school, and during that time my English class has spent a lot of time thinking about the etymology of words. My professor has been described to me as a philologist, which is some one who studies language in historical written sources. Therefore, we’ve been encouraged to do some research into the origins of the middle English words that appear in the texts we have been reading. I’ve found that exercise surprisingly fun, and I thought I would share the words that I’ve researched with you.

wood (wode) – this word means madness, or out of one’s mind. I was intrigued by the word, because it is spelled “wood” in the version in the anthology, and I had never seen that combination of letters refer to anything besides a forest or the substance of a tree. It turns out that it comes from the Old English word wōd, and started falling out of use in the 1800s. It’s used in “The Miller’s Tale,” by Chaucer, to refer to a man pretending to be madly transfixed by the moon. I think it’s a nice coincidence that we use the word “wooden” to describe some one who is stiff or paralyzed, and the sign of madness is being “wooden.”

hasard – this is the name of a game of chance played with dice, and is used in “The Pardoner’s Tale” to criticize those people who waste time gambling, or make gambling part of their decisions in political rule. It’s from the Old French word “hasart,” which reminded me of the french phrase “au hasard” which means randomly. I think it’s interesting that the word “hazard,” for us, means something dangerous. Back then, “hasard,” was used as an example of something negative, but was still first and foremost a game. Now, the game is gone from our understanding, but the idea of a dangerous risk remains.

steven – This word means voice, most broadly. There are a lot of interesting definitions, and this is by far the word with the longest dictionary entry, so I won’t go through every single one here, although I encourage you to check out the link. The word appears in the Wakefield “Second Shepherd’s Play”, when the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds in the field to tell them of the birth of Christ. The angel is described as having a “quaint steven,” or “marvelous voice.” One of the many definitions of “steven” is the sound that characteristic of a person’s voice. I think it’s amazing that there is a word so appropriate to the experience of the shepherds, who know from the voice alone that there is a glorious angel speaking to them.

Knowing words on an individual level is something that makes the study of English enjoyable to me, and I hope I was able to give some of that to you.



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