Sunday, 23 April 2017

Musical Terms

Whilst invigilating for a music exam a few weeks ago, the young man for whom I was acting as reader and scribe came out with several expressions. Some of these I would never have thought related to music, others I had never heard before.

As usual, I was more interested in how the terms developed and in the original usage and meaning.

Accidental - in a musical sense not used since 1868 when it was coined to describe a passage where the note changes without essentially changing the key of the passage. If you have no idea what that means you're not alone. What is clearer is this comes from 'accident', itself traceable to Proto-Indo-European kad or 'to make fall'.

Accompany - seen in a musical sense since 1744, only 13 years after it had first been used in an heraldic sense. Derived from 'companion', this can also be traced to Proto-Indo-European where pa meant 'to feed' and gave us recognisable words in Latin and French where panis and pain respectively mean 'bread'.

Adagio - first seen in a musical sense in 1746, the instruction to play 'slowly, leisurely, gracefully' has an identical origin to 'adjacent', both can be traced to Proto-Indo-European ye 'to throw, impel' - which suggests quite the opposite!

Air - used in a musical sense since 1580, it shares an origin with 'aria' (see below)

Allegro - musically 'brisk, sprightly, cheerful' and used since 1721. It originates in a Proto-Germanic term meaning 'zeal, eagerness' and is thought to have roots meaning 'wander, roam'.

Alto - means 'high' and seen since 1784, this began as Proto-Indo-European al 'to grow, nourish'.

Andante - seen since 1742, it means 'moderately slow', coming from a Latin root ambire 'to go round'. This origin would never have occurred to ABBA when they released the album Super Trouper containing the song Andante, Andante when it went round and round at 33rpm.

Arabesque - of Moorish or Arabic design and seen since 1786, it is from the Italian word for an Arab, itself thought to mean 'inhabitant of the desert'.

Aria - is literally the Italian for 'air'. The English word is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European awer, which meant 'sky' as much as 'atmosphere'. It has also given us words meaning 'raising', 'mist', 'haze', 'clouds', 'artery' and 'bright'.

Arpeggio - since 1742 and meaning 'harping' which has the same origin as 'harp' (see below).

Bagatelle - 'a trifle' and used musically since 1827. It has the same origin as 'bag', itself of uncertain etymology but thought to be related to 'belly' and 'bellows'.

Baritone - a deeper male voice and the reason it is related to Proto-Indo-European gwere 'heavy' and ten 'to stretch'.

Bass - in use since 1590, the etymology can be traced to the same root as 'base' which comes from Latin bassus 'thick, stumpy, low' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European gwa 'to go, come'.

Beat - musically since 1842, it has the same origin as the sense 'to thrash' which comes from Proto-Indo-European bhau 'to strike'.

Bow - the earlist musical bows were curved, like the bow of an archer. Used since 1570, this shape is the reason the origin is Proto-Indo-European bheug 'bent'.

Bridge - a musical bridge contrasts with the main theme and, as the name suggests, connects them. Not seen until the late 19th century, it comes as no surprise to find it shares an origin with the more common sense and is derived from Proto-Indo-European bhru 'log, beam'.

Cadenza - musically since 1836, it is the passage near the close of a song and shares an origin with 'accidental' (see above).

Carol - a 'joyful song' and coined around the end of the 13th century when it was also used to refer to 'a dance in a ring'. Both originate in the Latin choraules 'flute player' and ultimately, which shares an origin with 'chorus', from Proto-Indo-European gher 'to grasp, enclose'. Not until the end of the 16th century was the term used to refer to a song associated with Christmas.

Chord - shares an origin with 'cord' in the Greek khorde 'gut-string, tripe' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ghere 'gut, entrail' from which musical strings were once produced.

Coda - seen since 1753, this is derived from Latin cauda 'animal tail' and chosen as the coda is the concluding passage in a musical composition.

Composition - ultimayely the same as 'compose', this can be traced to com 'with' and poser which shares an origin and meaning with 'pause' and therefore the meaning of 'compose', seen today in a creative sense, began in the sense 'cease'.

Concert - since the 16th century and from a word meaning 'harmony', this comes from a Latin verb cernere 'seperate, distinguish' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European krei 'discriminate, distinguish' and has exactly the same origin as 'crisis'.

Conduct - is of Latin origin and means 'to bring together' and ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European deuk 'to lead'.

Flat - seen in music since 1670, it comes from Proto-Indo-European plat 'to spread'.

Harp - taken from the name of the instrument which, sadly, is of unknown origin. However it is thought to be related to the Old English harpa meaning 'instrument of torture' - clearly the harp was once confused with the bagpipes.

Instrumental - from the Latin instruere 'arrange, furnish', this has an identical origin to the word 'structure' and is derived from the Proto-Indo-European stere 'to extend, spread, stretch out'.

Key - musically since 1630, and ultimately from Proto-Germanic ki 'to cleave, split'.

Major - not seen musically until 1797, it comes from the Latin magnus 'great' and Proto-Indo-European meg with identical meaning.

Minor - also seen musically since 1797, the term comes to English from Latin minores and Proto-Indo-European mei 'small'.

Note - seen musically from the end of the 13th century, here the earliest origin we can find is Latin gnoscere 'to know'.

Opera - musically since 1640, it comes from Proto-Indo-European op 'to work' and also 'to produce in abundance'.

Overture - used to mean 'an opening' before the musical snse in 1660. Here the origin is Proto-Indo-European ap 'away' and wer 'to cover'.

Piano - effectively means 'soft', the name first used for the instrument from 1803. It shares an origin with the carpentry tool, the 'plane', in meaning 'flat'.

Pitch - musically since 1670, it is related to 'prick' and shares an origin meaning 'pointed, dagger'.

Scale in a musical sense since 1590, it comes from the Latin scala 'ladder' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European skand 'spring, leap, climb'.

Score - not seen in a musical sense until 1839, the term is ultimately Proto-Indo-European and from sker meaning 'cut' and sharing an origin with 'scissors' and 'shears'.

Sharp - 1570 was the first year when it was used musically, it shares an origin with 'score' (see above).

Solo - first seen in 1690, this is from Latin solus and Proto-Indo-European swo meaning 'so' and also the root of 'as' and 'himself'.

String - was first known in a musical sense to mean 'to tune someone or something' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European strenk 'tight, narrow'.

Suite - in a musical sense from 1680, it shares an origin with 'suit' used in both a clothing and playing card sense. This originates in Proto-Indo-European sekw 'to follow'.

Theme - not used musically until 1929, this comes from Proto-Indo-European dhe-mn 'to set'.

Tone - musically since the middle of the 14th century, this shares an origin with 'baritone' in Proto-Indo-European ten 'to stretch'.

These, for the most part, quite unrelated origins were not unexpected but at least I now have a reason for my addagios not being graceful, my piano playing sounding flat, and plucking the strings of a harp being considered torture.

Sunday, 16 April 2017


Trying out different fonts recently I admit before long I was bemused by the vast array now available. Their names, too, are rather confusing but clearly will have little etymological value as, in the main they have been created comparatively recently.

Yet I did think it might be a nice idea to find the origins of the words now used for fonts and typefaces. What follows is but a selection. Antique - is first used in English around the start of the 16th century and first seen as an adjective. It comes to us through a Latin line and ultimately comes from two Proto-Indo-European words anti 'before' and okw 'appearance'.

Baskerville - one of the few named as a typeface, this created around 1750 and named for British type-founder and printer John Baskerville (1706-75). He was not the inspiration for the famous story by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Bembo - named and first used in 1930 and based on a 15th century typeface by Aldus Manutius when printing a work penned by the Venetian scholar, poet, cardinal and member of the Knights Hospitallier, Pietro Bembo (1470-1547).

Bauhaus - a German word meaning literally 'architecture house' and a reference to the school of design founded in Weimar by Walter Gropius in 1919.

Bodoni - based on and named after Italian printer Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813), the modern version is a composite of his many forms.

Cascade - a word coming to English from Latin cascata 'waterfall' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European kad 'fall, lay out'. Note the use as a verb began in 1702 and used to refer to 'vomit'.

Clarendon - named after the Clarendon press at Oxford University, set up 1713 in the Clarendon Building and named for the Chancellor Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon.

Doric - an architectural style and an adjective derived from Dorian, itself the Greek meaning 'of Doris' a district in central Greece and itself named for Doros the legendary ancestor of the Dorians. The name Doros comes from Proto-Indo-European do 'to give'.

Garamond - named in 1780 after French type-founder Claude Garamond (1510-61). His work saw him producing the punches used to make the type.

Goudy - named in 1917 after the typographer Fredeic W. Goudy (1865-1947). This Chicago man, a realtor his entire working life, and by his own admittance a very poor realtor, changed direction at the age of 40 and left his name in a family of typefaces featuring no less than 113 different styles.

Hanseatic - takes the name of the federation of German towns, the Hanseatic League, of the 17th century. It derives it name from the Middle Low German for 'merchants' guild'.

Korinna - is a Greek word meaning 'maiden'.

Melior - is a Latin word meaning 'better' and comes from Proto-Indo-European mel 'strong, great, numerous'.

Quorum - is Latin and means 'of whom'.

Roman - clearly named for the upright style of lettering, but of greater interest is the French word roman which means 'novel'.

Sunday, 9 April 2017


Now anyone who has read my blog before will not be surprised to learn I'm looking at the origins of their names, not the religions themselves.

Christianity describes one as a follower of Christ and thus takes that name. Following this back in time we find this as a Germanic translation of Greek khristos meaning 'the anointed', a translation of the Hebrew mashiah and from the Greek verb khriein 'to rub'.

Buddhism, again clearly derived from Buddha, takes the name meaning 'awakened, enlightened'. This comes from budh 'to awake, to know' and related to the Sanskrit bodhati 'observes, understands' and sharing a root with English 'bode' meaning 'proclaim, foretell'.

Hindiusm is from the Persian word Hindu meaning 'Indian' and used both as an adjective and a noun. This in turn came from Sanskrit sindhu 'river' and specifically the Indus river and thus these were 'the region of the Indus'.

Judaism can be traced through the Old French Judaisme, to Latin Judaismus, and to Greek Ioudaios or 'Jew'. In turn this comes from the Hebrew yY'hudah meaning literally 'celebrated' and traditionally held to be the name of Jacob's fourth son from whom all Jews are descended.

Islam is an Arabic word meaning 'submission', this to the will of God. It comes from the root aslama meaning 'he resigned, surrendered, submitted', this is related to salima 'he was safe' and related to salam 'peace'.

Taoism is a religious system founded by Lao Tzu in the 19th century. Here the basis is Chinese tao or 'way, path, right way (of life)' and also 'reason'.

Shintoism is a religious system heralding from Japan and dating from the early 18th century. The term comes from the Chines shin tao, translated as 'way of the gods'.

Polytheism is a belief in many gods, the name from the Greek polytheos. This can be taken further to the Proto-Indo-European pele 'to fill' which has given a word meaning 'plenty' in many languages. There is also the Greek theo, again to be traced to Proto-Indo-European and the root dhes which has given many religious concepts in many languages including Latin feriae, festus and fanum meaning 'holidays', 'festive' and 'temple' respectively.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Roman Towns in Britain

Many will know how place names ending in -cester or -chester show they were former Roman towns. Until comparatively recently this was attributed to the Romans themselves, where the Latin castra or 'fort' had produced the name. Yet records show these settlements were not known as -cesters or -chesters until after the Romans had left. Further proof of a different origin comes in the form of Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, where caester meant very specifically 'a former Roman stronghold'. Thus could not have been named until after the Romans departure because of (a) the specific meaning and (b) the language was not known in Britain until after the Romans had left.

The following list of Roman towns give the modern name and that used by the Romans, along with a definition wherever possible.

Bath is an Old English name, this clearly referring to 'the Roman baths'. The Romans referred to the place as Aquae Sulis, this 'the waters of Sulis'. The place was already a shrine to the Celtic goddess Sulis, the Romans seeing similarities with their goddess Minerva and always keen to adopt as many gods as possible (one can never have too many gods), a goddess perceived as the life-giving mother goddess. Further information on Bath and nearby place names can be found in my Somerset Place Names.

Canterbury speaks of itself as 'the stronghold of the people of Kent'. To the Romans it was Durovernum Cantiacorum, here the Romans referred to the former British tribe, the Cantiaci, residing at Durou ernon or 'stronghold by the alder grove'. All this is covered in my book East Kent Place Names.

Carlisle is a an old British name meaning 'the (place) of a man called Luguvalos'. The Celtic term cair added to the personal name, much as the Romans did when they called this place Luguvallum. Further information in my Cumbria Place Names.

Chelmsford comes from 'the ford of a man called Ceolmaer', while the Romans knew this as Caesaromagus or 'the market place of Caesar'. See my Essex Place Names.

for further information. Chester simply uses the basic Old English caester or 'former Roman stronghold' with no additions. For the Romans this was Deva Victrix, the Latin referring to the goddess who also gave a name to the River Dee, with Viictrix simply meaning 'victorious' and all seen in Cheshire Place Names.

Cirencester tells us it was 'the former Roman stronghold known as Corinion, the origin of which is uncertain but may share an origin with the River Churn in ultimately referring to a tribe known as the Cornovii. It is known several tribes throughout the land were known as such, the meaning is unclear but could mean 'the people of the horn' and refer to the shape of the land they occupied. These and more in Gloucestershire Place Names by, of course, me!

Colchester is 'the former Roman stronghold on the Colne', Camulodunum to the Romans who knew this as 'the stronghold of the Camulos' a Celtic deity seen as the equivalent of the Roman Mars with more information in my Essex Place Names.

Doncaster is 'the former Roman stronghold on the River Don', a British river name meaning simply 'water'. To the Romans this was Danum for the same reason, with information on the place in my South Yorkshire Place Names and on the river name in English River Names by the same author.

Dover, or Dubris to the Romans, is found in my East Kent Place Names where you will discover both originate in the British name for the River Dour, where dubras simply meant 'water'.

Exeter also owes its present name to the river on which it stands, the present name speaking of 'the former Roman stronghold on the Exe' with the river name again meaning simply 'water', while the Roman name of Isca Dumnoniorum describes the river as 'full of fish' being where the people known as the Dumnonians or 'people of the vales'. You can find more information on this and neighbouring place names in my South Devon Place Names.

Gloucester, which is the county town found in Gloucestershire Place Names, has the modern name referring to 'the former Roman stronghold called Glevum, which is exactly what the Roman name was for the Celtic settlement named as the 'bright place'.

Lancaster and the Roman name of Lunecastrum share an origin in the river on which the fortification stands - Oold English caester and Latin castrum both refer to the Roman fortification, albeit the former in the past tense. The river name, as discussed in my English River Names, comes from a British term meaning 'healthy, pure', while the Lancashire town can be found in Lancashire Place Names.

Leicester speaks of itself as 'the former Roman stronghold of the Ligore, a tribal name of unknown origins. The Romans knew the place as Ratae Coritanorum, the first element meaning 'ramparts' and the latter the tribal name of Corieltauvians, again of unknown origins as is discussed in my Leicestershire Place Names.

Lincoln, as found in my Lincolnshire Place Names, was known to the Romans as Lindum Colonia was known as the linduo colonia or 'the pool of the Roman colony (for retired legionaries)'.

London is often said to be 'the place of a man called Londinos', but just who that person was is unknown, as was it to the Romans whose form of Londinium shares an origin but was equally uncertain. A deeper look into the alternative meanings of the name is found in my Middlesex Place Names.

Manchester is traditionally a city of Lancashire, and is therefore covered by my Lancashire Place Names where we see 'the former Roman stronghold near the mamm or breast-shaped hill' was known as Mancunium by the Romans, a name of identical meaning.

Newcastle speaks for itself, although note this castle is 'new' which tells us it replaced an earlier feature. To the Romans this was Pons Aelius, this meaning 'the bridge of Aelius', this the clan or family name of the Emperor Hadrian. More information can be found in my Northumberland Place Names.

Pevensey is an Old English name meaning 'the river of a man called Pefen'. To the Romans this was Anderitum which, as discussed in my East Sussex Place Names, simply means 'the great ford'.

Rochester, found in my West Kent Place Names, is 'the former Roman stronghold called Hrofi'. This is not a personal name but badly corrupted form of the earlier name of Durobrivis, the Roman version Durobrivae, both meaning 'the walled town with bridges'.

St Albans, as found in my Hertfordshire Place Names, is named as 'the holy place of St Alban', this the saint martyred here in AD 209. Earlier this had been Verulamium, this possibly referring to 'the tribe of the broad hand'..

Salisbury refers to itself as 'the stronghold at Sorvio', hence for the Romans this was Sorviodunum. As discussed in my Wiltshire Place Names, the etymological trail ends here.

Winchester refers to itself as 'the former Roman stronghold called Venta' and known as Venta Belgarum to the Romans. Here the venta or 'town' was associatd with the tribe known as the Belgae, who not only gave their name to modern Belgium but also gave us a series of Brythonic and Gaulish derived words fundamentally telling us they had a reputaion for being angry. Find out more in Hampshire Place Names.

Worcester or 'the former Roman stronghold of the Weogora is found in my Worcestershire Place Names.Here the name of the tribe is shown to come from 'the people of the winding river', while the Roman name of Wigornia has identical origins.

Wroxeter, found in my Shropshire Place Names, speaks of 'the Roman stronghold of the Uriconio. Known to the Romans as Virconium, both these early names have given us the modern name of Wrekin and derived from a personal name with a root meaning 'man wolf'..

Yarmouth, as discussed in my Isle of Wight Place Names, stands at the 'gravelly or muddy estuary'. To the Romans this was Magna Gernemutha, the same meaning but with the addition of magna or 'great'.

York, famously known to the Romans as Eboracum, will be covered in my forthcoming North Yorkshire Place Names, where the ancient Celtic name of Eborus is shown to refer to 'the place of the yew trees'.

Sunday, 26 March 2017


Currently reading Michael Wood's A Story of England. This book accompanied the television series of 2012. The BBC also put together a series of events at museums up and down the country and I was lucky enough to be invited to events at Coventry and Gloucester.

In the earliest part of the book the author speaks of archaeologists uncovering teeth, at which point the etymologist kicked in and I found myself wondering how these ancient ancestors referred to their dentition. Furthermore just when did the modern terminology evolve? And most importantly, why is 'tooth' the singular and 'teeth' plural?

Tooth is of Proto-Germanic origins, similar words are found in Old English, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old High German, and Gothic. This root (no pun intended) is also the reason why words such as Old English toth saw a plural as teth or tith. The other major source of English words, the Latin group of languages, takes us on to the next in the list .....

Dentist or dentition may be though of as a modern word but these go back to Proto-Indo-European dent, identical to the modern French word for 'tooth' and also giving us Sanskrit danta, Greek odontos, Latin dens, Lithuanian dantis, Old Irish det and Welsh dent and all with exactly the same meaning.

Bicuspid is first seen in 1826, a technical term derived from the Latin bi cuspidem or 'having two parts'.

Canine is not difficult to understand, their very shape is reminiscent to those of the dog and it comes from the Latin caninus or 'pointed tooth'. This is first seen around 1600, while the adjective for a dog has no surviving records prior to 1620 - this is not to say they were not used prior to this but simply no records survive.

Incisor is a Medieval Latin word meaning 'cutting tooth', coming from the Latin incus or 'to cut into'. The same root also gave us 'incision' and 'scissors'.

Molar is from the Latin molaris dens or 'grinding tooth'. This comes ultimately from Proto-Indo-European mel 'to rub, grind' and which is also the source of the word 'mill'.

Wisdom is best defined first in the sense of 'sage, learning, experience'. This Germanic word is a compound of wis, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European weid 'to know', and dom, a Germanic suffix meaning 'judgement' (this the same root as 'doom'). The first reference to 'wisdom teeth' is found in 1848 (prior to this the term was 'teeth of wisdom') and so-called as they erupt around the ages 17 to 25, early adulthood when a person is deemed to be wise.

Cementum is the hard substance covering the root. Clearly this is derived from the same root as 'cement', itself from Latin caementa 'stone chips used for making mortar' and ultimately from caedere 'to cut down, chop, beat, hew, fell, slay'.

Crown is obviously from the use of the royal headwear, albeit used as a verb. The word is of Latin origins, where corona originally meant 'wreath, garland'.

Enamel, the hardest part of the tooth, takes its name from the other use where en is a French term preceding esmal, Frankish smalt and Proto-Germanic smaltjan 'to smelt'.

Gum, when referring to the soft tissue of the mouth, comes from a Germanic term meaning 'palate'. Ultimately this shares an origin with Proto-Indo-European gheu 'to yawn'.

Root shares an origin with the underground part of the plant, the dental sense first seen in the late 12th century. The Germanic root of 'root' is wrot and ultimately from wrad, the Proto-Indo-European word which is still found when writing a shopping list for a salad, this being the origin of 'radish', literally 'root-ish'.

Nerve had been used to mean 'sinew, tendon', never used in the modern idea of a conduit for sending impulses to the brain until around 1600. This originates in Proto-Indo-European sneu 'tendon, sinew'.

Incidentally the reason so many teeth are found in comparison to other parts of the skeleton is because they are so resilient. In humans there is the added bonus that teeth, in particular those of children, were not disappearing into the night in the pocket of the tooth-fairy as, quite astonishingly, there is no written record of such before 1964.

Sunday, 19 March 2017


Whilst my taste in music is varied it could never be described as eclectic - incidentally this is number two on my list of least favourite words, albeit a considerable way behind the P-word. But I digress. My mentioning music came after I was recently sent a list of classical composers, these were to be included in a quiz-style crossword. Followers of my blog will not be surprised to discover some of the clues were based on the etymologies of their names.Thus this time a look at the origins of a selection of the names of composers which many will infinitely better acquainted than I - and yes, 'a selection' means I have only included those I could define.

Bach - being German he took his name from the word for a stream, rivulet, brook, or creek.

Bartok - this Hungarian takes the pet form of a the Christian name Bartalan or Bertalan, itself a form of Bartholomew.

Beethoven - another of German origins where beeth, meaning 'beet', and hofen, the plural of hof, meaning 'farms', tell us this most famous of deaf people had ancestors who farmed beetroot.

Bellini - Italian operatic composer Vincenzo has a surname translating as 'the little beautiful one'.

Borodin - the Russian translation is, quite literally, 'well height' and understood to as 'tall'.

Brahms - a German name which is ultimately of Hebrew origin in Bram where it meant 'high or good father'.

Bruckner - a topographical name, the earliest meaning being for a person who lived on or near a causeway or bridge. However it is more commonly applied to those who worked at such a location, gathering tolls and/or maintaining a bridge.

Chopin - a French surname derived from an old liquid imperial measurement. In France it would be seen as roughly equal to a quart but in Scotland became corrupted to refer to a half pint.

Debussy - a French surname taken from any of several Norman place names all of which mean 'mouth' and of which there is even an example of a Norman landholder in Domesday, this being Robert de Buci.

Delius - a name of Greek origin meaning 'from Delos', a Greek island of 1.32 square miles and a population at the 2001 census of 14.

Dvorak - a common Czech surname referring to a rich landowner in a manor house.

Elgar - a name of Germanic origins, it literally means 'shining spear'.

Faure - an Occitan name, a Romance language, meaning simply 'blacksmith'.

Franck - comes from the French reference to those Germanic peoples living around the Rhine during the times of the Roman Empire, the Franks.

Glinka - a Polish name, one referring to those who came from Glinki.

Gluck - is taken from a Yiddish word glik meaning 'luck'.

Grieg - is ultimately from the Greek gregorein 'be awake, watchful'.

Handel - a Germanic name meaning 'trade' or 'commerce'.

Haydn - a Welsh name derived from the Celtic Aidan, itself meaning 'little fire'.

Holst - refers to someone from Holstein, the German town having a name coming from the people who lived here the Holcetae or 'dwellers in the wood'.

Liszt - a Hungarian name which literally translates as 'flour'.

Mahler - is a German surname and, like the above, is a trade name. Whilst it is derived from the word for 'painter', the name is very specifically used to refer to those who painted stained glass.

Mozart - derived from the Latin, this meaning 'the love of God'.

Purcell - another of Norman origin where the literal translation is 'piglet', however it would have been used a nickname or to refer to a swineherd.

Rossini - an Italian name derived from rosso meaning 'red' and originally applied to one with red hair or ruddy complexion.

Schoenberg - is another topographical name, here German scoene berg refers to 'a beautiful hill'.

Schubert - is a trade name of German origin where schuoch wurhte meant 'shoemaker, cobbler'.

Schumann - has an identical meaning, albeit here the German schuoh mann refers literally to 'a shoe man'.

Smetana - a name of Czech and/or Ukranian Jewish origins. The origin is undoubtedly smetana meaning 'cream', although whether it was a nickname, perhaps for someone who liked cream (or ironically one who did not) or a trader in this and other dairy products is unknown.

Sousa - a name of Portuguese origins, being particularly common in former Portuguese colonies. Archaically it refers to a place, any place where the people came from for it describes them as being 'of the rocks'.

Strauss - a Germanic surname which has at least three equally plausible origins. It may be the family lived in a place named Straus, itself referring to 'the ostrich'. Here this may point to a place where the feathers of this bird were used in heraldry or, and this an alternative origin, as a nickname for those who habitually wore same as an adornment. Alternatively this may also be a nickname for someone known for arguing or confrontation, for the German struz means 'quarrel, belligerent'.

Tchaikovsky - a Russian composer whose name comes from the Russian for a bird, specifically the gull.

Verdi - an Italian composer with an Italian name meaning 'green'.

Vivaldi - another Italian composer whose name is derived from vita or 'life'.

Wagner - a German name from waganari meaning either 'wagon maker' or 'wagon driver'.

Walton - an English place name, where wahl tun means 'the farmstead of the foreigners' (Britons).

Weber - a German name and another representing a trade for this translates as 'weaver'.

Sunday, 12 March 2017


Nothing political here, I am talking about metrication. Those of you of a certain age will recall the days before metres and litres when measurements may have been a little more complicated but were certainly more fun.

Being of a certain age I recall the initial confusion from February 1971, when the pound sterling ceased being divided into 240 pennies but now only had a hundred. I've often thought it would be fun to change these values annually, where the pound is divided into smaller denominations. Perhaps reintroduce the shilling but this time there will be 17 shillings to the pound and 31 pennies in a shilling. Prime numbers are far more interesting.

If this seems rather odd, cast your mind back to the days when our exercise books had a series of tables on the reverse telling us how many pecks were in a bushel and other imperial measurements the younger generations may never have heard of. Each of these seeming oddities has a beginning and therefore a meaning. There are so many it is impossible to work all of them but here are a selection and taken in alphabetical order.

Acre is probably one of the better known imperial measurements. It is commom to many languages and originates in the Proto-Indo-European root agro which simply meant 'field' and not used as a measurement in the modern sense until the 13th century.

Bar, as a unit of pressure, comes from the Greek baros 'heavy' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European gwere 'weight'.

Bushel, a measure of volume for dry goods, came to English from Old French. Of much more interest is where the French got the term, for it is derived from Gaulish bosta 'palm of the hand', a term still seen in the Irish bass and Breton boz 'hollow of the hand'.

Chain is most often associated with the length of a cricket pitch - 22 yards - and was named because it was measured by using an actual chain. Yet it began with surveying land, the length conveniently being one-tenth of a furlong and any field measuring one furlong in length (220 yards) and a chain in breadth (22 yards) has an area of 4,840 square yards or one acre. It is also still used in identifying any given point on a length of railway track, it seen expressed in miles and chains, and also in distances quoted in horse racing.

Dram comes from the Greek drakhma 'measure of weight' and originally simply meant 'handful'.

Foot holds no surprises, it has always been said to be the length of a man's foot - meaning the measurement varied with the size of the person's feet. As a body part the word dates from Proto-Indo-European (and probably earlier) when ped meant 'foot'.

Furlong is derived from the Germanic furh lang 'the long furrow', and clearly originated through ploughing. Although the mile is the basic measurement of distance today, until Elizabethan times the furlong was the standard and so much so the mile was redefined to make it equal to eight furlongs.

Gallon comes from galleta meaning 'bucket, pail' but also used to refer to 'a measure of wine'.

Grain is clearly related to the same word being used to describe the seed of cereals, and that is exactly what the Proto-Indo-European gre no meant.

Hour predates the clock and can be traced to Proto-Indo-European yor-a meaning 'year' and 'season' and understood as 'point of time'.

Inch is derived from the Latin unus 'one', used in the sense 'a small amount' before becoming a unit of length.

Mile comes from the Latin for 'one thousand' and refers to the number of paces. Now although the mile was rather shorter than the modern 1,760 yards (see furlong), it would still seem a good stride to walk 1,600 yards in a thousand paces. That does not mean the Romans were giants or had impressive inside leg measurements, it is simply the Roman 'pace' would be seen as two paces by us.

Minute has two pronunciations - as a sixtieth of an hour and to refer to something small. Originally the former meaning was the only one used and this became the name of the part of the hour, ie a small or minute part of the hour (see second).

Month takes its name from the moon.

Ounce, as with 'inch' can be traced to Latin unus 'one'. What is not well known is the 'ounce' has not only been a measurement of weight but also of time (about 7.1/2 seconds) and length (3 inches).

Peck is another used to refer to volume of dry goods, particularly associated with oats. It is thought to be a variation on 'pick' and used in the sense of 'allowance'.

Perch was a linear measurement of 5.1/2 yards and marked out using such a stick or pole, the reason why it takes the name - this is the French version, also seen in the Old English 'rod' and 'pole' and even 'yard'.

Pint has the same origin as 'paint', for early vessels marked the liquid volume equal to a pint with a painted line.

Quart, or two pints, is also a quater of a gallon and the latter is where the name originates.

Second, as in a sixtieth of a minute, was originally secunda minuta and, as seen in 'minute' above, this was also a 'small part' of an hour but the 'second small part'. Thus as the minute was originally as in 'diminuntive' and the first part of an hour, this measure of time was spoken of as 'the one after the first'.

Ton shares an origin with 'tun', a large cask of wine or beer - most often seen today in the many pubs known as the Three Tuns (symbolising the guilds of brewers and vintners). Thus the weight 'ton' began as a volume 'tun'.

Week is thought to be related to the Old Norse vika, which had the original meaning of 'a turning'. Thus as 'month' is from 'moon', perhaps the four distinct phases of the moon are referred to as 'changes' or 'weeks'.

Year is so old it is impossible to know for certain, the annual cycle clearly not only known to the ancients but what they lived their entire lives by. With similar forms common to many early languages, the root ei with a sense of 'that which makes (grows, produces)' seems likely.