30 January 2009

Stuff About Words & Things

Christopher Orr’s post and comments on the subject of name forms and derivations reminded me of something I’ve often thought about before. What is obvious or well-known to one person, even a very little thing, may be totally new to someone else (Umberto Eco says something similar in ‘How to Justify a Private Library’, How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, trans. William Weaver [San Diego: Harvest, 1995], pp. 115-6—an essay I’ve mentioned before). I for one was tempted to be embarrassed when I first learned that, for instance, ‘Madeleine’ is a Gallicised form of ‘Magdalene’, as in ‘St Mary Magdalene’, and the word ‘maudlin’ comes from the same source, but I don’t really think there’s any reason to feel that way. We all have to learn something for the first time at some point.

So, while many of my readers may be so familiar with the history of words and names and such that they can no longer be surprised, here are two interesting things that I learned just within the last six years or so:

First, the well-known symbol ‘&’, the ‘ampersand’, is a ligature of the letters ‘e’ and ‘t’—that is, of the Latin word ‘et’, meaning ‘and’. While one is hard-pressed to see this in many versions of the ampersand due to the stylisation of the charactre, I think it was more apparent in 18th-c. typefaces. The word ‘ampersand’ comes from the expression ‘and per se and’ (don’t get me started on the rampant misuse of the phrase ‘per se’ in our time!), in other words, ‘and [the symbol which] by itself [is] and’. In Scotland the same symbol is called ‘epershand’, from ‘et per se and’. I first discovered this about the ampersand when I was reading an 18th-c. text and saw the following—‘&c.’—used for the phrase ‘et cetera’. One can read an article about the ampersand from a Russian perspective here (which concludes, predictably, that Russians don’t need the ampersand), and there is a blog of various ampersands here.

Second, the words ‘Welsh’ and ‘Vlach’ (as in the Romanian provice of ‘Wallachia’, or the Greek surname ‘Vlachos’) are derived from the same source. I learned this from Tolkien’s lecture ‘English and Welsh’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monster & the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien [London: HarperCollins, 1997], pp. 162-97). Tolkien believes that to the ancient Germanic peoples the Celtic and Latin languages were phonetically similar. He explains that the word ‘wealh’ (whence ‘Welsh’) was used by the Germanic Anglo-Saxons to refer to the speakers of what we would call a Celtic language, but that forms of it were also used in other Germanic languages to refer to speakers of Latin. It was thus that it came to be ‘borrowed in Old Slavonic in the form vlachŭ’ and ‘applied to the Roumanians’ (Tolkien, p. 183). (‘Vlach’, for those who don’t know, is commonly used for peoples speaking a Romanian dialect who are found throughout the Balkans.) So my junior-high friend Mike Walsh and the well-known ecclesiastical writer Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos have surnames that both pour out of what Seamus Heaney calls ‘the cleft rock of some pre-political, prelapsarian, ur-philological Big Rock Candy Mountain’ (Introduction, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney [NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000], p. xxv). This came to me as something of a divine revelation.

So, to all of those who knew this stuff already, I apologise for sounding as though I’ve just invented the wheel or discovered that war is hell. But there may well be others who didn’t know it yet.


Maximus Daniel said...

i definitely didnt know this. thank you and thank you for the wonderful blog aaron.

aaronandbrighid said...

You're quite welcome, Maximus! My only desire is to share all of the obscure things I come across with other people who are interested in obscure things.

The Ochlophobist said...

Brilliantly put.

For those who would like to read the excellent essay English and Welsh, it can be found online at:


This is usually the point where I wax on about the cultural superiority of the Welsh, but I have found the fortitude needed to restain myself today.

The Ochlophobist said...

That is, restrain myself. Though I did get blueberry juice on my fingers earlier.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks, Owen. I didn't realise 'English & Welsh' was online or I'd have linked to it myself.

Yes, it takes tremendous fortitude to restain oneself. I'm glad to hear you've mastered this virtue and properly bridled the incensive aspect of your soul.

Anonymous said...

Very nice. Thank you Aaron. Please give us more, interesting posts like this!