Location: Vienna, Virginia, United States

A graduate of Dartmouth College (2005) and Washington and Lee University School of Law (2010). These are my personal blogs, and the musings expressed on them do not reflect the positions of my employer. They do reflect my readings, thoughts, and aspirations, which I figure is good enough.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


The majority of words we use come from two origins - German and Latin. The English lexicon is most similar to German, about a 60% similarity, and somewhat similar to French (27%). From the perspective of word origin, though, it's pretty much even between German (Old Norse, Old English, Middle English), French (Anglo French) and direct Latin.

The Germanic portions of the language were already being spoken when the Angles, Jutes, Normans and Saxons, just to name a few tribes, invaded England, overwhelming those who were already there, the Celts. Their moniker, barbarians, came from the Roman belief that these people were uncouth and stammered and generally struggled to communicate (the word is onomatopoetic in origin as well).

Through other invasions and assimilations of language, from the Vikings and the Normans (French), we got pretty close to where we are today, even though you couldn't really tell it from "Beowulf."

But, there are words of Celtic, or Gaelic origin. Gaelic is by and large considered a dead language now, even though there are some in Ireland trying to teach it in schools and revive it.

We actually don't have too many words of Gaelic origin. Some more popular ones include pet (from the Gaelic peata - is that where the organization got its inspiration?), bog (as in, Milton believed the Irish were an uncivilized people living in a bog), and whiskey (from usige beatha, or water of life - I really like that one).

Those are from Irish Gaelic, and there are words we recognize that obviously have Scots Gaelic origins, like cairn, clan, and of course, plaid.

My favorite word of Gaelic origin that is in common use today, however, has to be smithereen. It's a very silly word if you think about it. It's used in common parlance, often is treated as a cliche (smash to smithereens), and is almost never found in singular form. Can you have just one smithereen? The Gaelic origin comes from smidirin, or something really small. So I guess you could have one smithereen. I think we usually use the word smidgin (also spell smidgen, smidgeon) instead though.

You find it today in music (the lyrics of a song by "Live"), and all over literature and journalism. Yet I would bet money that most of the people who use the word have no clue what its origins might be. Although, it does certainly sound strange enough to be Gaelic, especially with that ending. Another of my favorite words happens to be poteen, or illegally distilled potato (sometimes other grain are used too) liquor.


Blogger Michael said...

I have a few minor quibbles with what you wrote here:

First, German is not an ancestor of English. Both English and German do share proto-Germanic as a common ancestor, but Anglo-Saxon and the roots of what became Old High German diverged long before the evolution of what, today, we think of as "German."

Second, you seem to be implying that the Normans were one of the "tribes" that invaded what we now call the British Isles, concurrent with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. The first waves of Anglo-Saxon colonization began around the 5th Century C.E., while the Normans did not invade until October of 1066 C.E. It's not really safe to lump them together. The Romans were centuries gone from Britain by the time Duke William edged Harold II out of power.

The language of the Beowulf is probably from the 7th or 8th Century C.E., certainly predates the Norman invasion, and shows almost no direct Latin influence (except what was already present in the Germanic languages via their Indo-European ancestry and the side-effects of Roman campaigns against the Teutonic tribes). Most of the influence of Latin on modern English came in with the Norman invasion. Old French (c. 11th-12th Centuries) had a very close kinship with Latin -- so although it's true that the Roman legacy in Britain did leave some small marks upon the Anglo-Saxon tongues, the real influx of Latin vocabulary came from Normandy.

I'm done ranting now. :-) Just a couple other comments:

There are other examples of Gaelic influence in English, particularly British English. For instance, the expression "smashing!" as an exclamation of approval is almost certainly a malapropism for the Gaelic expression "Is math sin!" meaning "it's good!" There are others. Certain Old Irish small clause structures can still be heard in the syntax of rural English speakers in Ireland, as well.

Also, the last time I checked, there are still on the order of 60-70 thousand native speakers of Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) still extant, as well as the current tally is in Ireland.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Satchmo said...

Thanks for making some points that I didn't articulate.

I definitely didn't mean to group the Normans with the earlier invaders or to suggest that English is a descendant of the German language.

I did not know about "smashing" though. That's a very interesting one.

There are a few Gaelic speakers out there still, yes, but the education systems in the areas don't really try to teach any Gaelic, even from a historic standpoint. That's at least what my understanding out it is.

11:20 PM  
Blogger Satchmo said...

Oh, and my point about Beowulf is just that even without similar vocabulary, structure is already there.

11:21 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Yes, I think you're right about the approach to Gaelic in the schools.

In fact, when they re-convened the Scottish Parliament back in -- I think it was 1998 -- they boldly resolved to conduct their business in Gàidhlig, only to discover that many of the Scottish M.P.s couldn't speak enough to get on with it. Quite embarrassing, as I recall.

6:48 PM  
Anonymous Frits said...

Hello All,

interesting site this is.
i found the comments of Michael very accurate and helpful.
I have a few questions myself. Perhaps somebody wants to comment.

The first Northern-German tribes and Danes migrated to England around the 6th century.
Untill then the Western-Northern Part of Europe was inhabited by germanic tribes, that spoke one germanic language; however divided in different dialects.

Would this be a correct assumption/reconstruction?

In the 6th century when the Angels and Saxons started to migrated to England, the ‘general’ proto-germanic language, that was spoken in Western-Norhtern Europe started to split into different languages such as: german, danish, dutch, frisian, norwegian. The birth of these languages coincided with the migration of Ango-Saxons to England.
This also means, that during the anglo-saxon period Anglo-Saxons from England could more or less communicate with other germanic tribes on the North-Western part of the continent, since their languages where still closely related and thus for speakers on both sides understandable.

That is the picture i have of it all.
Would that be a correct assumption?
Can somebody give some comment?

Thanks in advance.



1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have heard that the word "smithereen" comes from a blacksmith shop. Smith means a person who "smytes", or hits with a hammer for a job, eg goldsmith, gunsmith, tinsmith. When working with iron, the blacksmith heats the iron in a forge. If it gets too hot, the iron disintegrates into very tiny pieces on the anvil. It almost looks like coal dust. Thus, the blacksmith hit the iron into smithereens. This goes nack to the Irish word, meaning tiny.

6:47 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home