Sunday, 19 February 2017


Have not paid any attention to the news for years. Don't watch it, listen to it, or read about it - virtually every single item I found frustrating or it angered me. If something major happens, someone will tell me.

And this is just how I learned someone nobody likes had been invited to speak in Britain and then wasn't and now has .... I lost interest halfway through and already wondering why various terms had been coined for parliaments around the world. Thus rather than being political, which isn't me, I've opted for the etymological, which is not only me but also infinitely more interesting. There are many different terms for the body of government but will start with the English term.

Parliament is not recorded in English until the end of the twelfth century. From Old French parlement and parler 'to speak'.

Althing, the Icelandic version, is derived from the Germanic thingam 'assembly', also seen in Old English thing, Middle Dutch dinc, and Old High German ding among others. All these can be traced to Proto-Indo-European tenk, literally meaning 'stretch' but used in the sense of 'time' or 'session' put aside for a meeting. Note the modern 'hustings', only heard today to refer to politicians on the campaign trail, shares this origin and came to English from Old Norse husthing or 'house assembly'.

Bundestag and Bunderstat are the two houses of the German parliament, these translating to 'Federal Diet' and 'Federal Council' respectively. Here 'Diet' comes from the Latin dieta or 'parliamentary assembly' and, etymologically speaking, shares an origin with the idea of food intake.

Commons as in 'House of' simply means 'general' and came from the Latin communis.

Congress is first used in the late 14th century to refer to 'a body of attendants' or 'meeting of armed forces', not seen in the modern sense until the early 16th century. This is derived from the Latin congressus, which could be used to mean both a friendly or hostile encounter, depending on the context. Taking this back further we find Latin com 'together' and gradus 'a step'.

Cortes is Spain's version, from Latin cortem which shares an origin with 'court'. While used in the sense of 'assembly' and those present, it also refers to 'the enclosed yard' and where such could assemble.

Curia shares an origin with the above 'Cortes', as we should expect as this is the senate of Rome and where curia meant 'court' and could well come from co wiria 'community of men'.

Dail, the Irish parliament, simply means 'assembly'. Interestingly the root of this Irish term is also the root for the English 'deal', as in the sense 'share, quantity, amount' and both have a common root in Proto-Indo-European dail 'to divide'.

Diet was an assembly of the Roman Empire and is discussed under Bundestag above.

Duma is from the Russian verb meaning 'to think, consider'. First used for local councils from about 1870, it is not seen for the national assembly until 1905. Having a common root with both 'doom' and 'deem', these all originate in the Proto-Germanic doms 'judgement'.

Knesset, the Israeli parliament, takes its name from the Mishnaic Hebrew keneseth 'gathering, assembly'.

Majlis, the Persian version, is from the Arabic for 'assembly' although literally 'session' and derived from jalasa 'to be seated'.

Poliburo, another Russian term, dates from 1927 and the Russain politbyuro. It is a contraction of politicheskoe byuro meaning 'political bureau'.

Presidium is also Russian but dates from much earlier than the previous example. While the modern idea is not seen until 1924 as prezidium, this originates from Latin praesidium 'to preside over'.

Riksdag is a Swedish word and the general term for 'parliament' or 'assembly'. Along with Finland's Riksdag, the Estonian Riigikogu, historical German Reichstag and Danish Rigsdagen. All these are derived from rike 'royal power' and dag 'conference'.

Senate is from the Latin senex 'the elder' or even 'the old one'. Here suggesting with great age comes wisdom.

Tynwald is derived from the Old Norse 'the meeting place'. Famously this parliament of the Isle of Man is the oldest continuous parliamentary body in the world.

Witan, the Saxon political institution, is a contraction of Witenagemot and from the Proto-Germanic witan 'to know' and ultimately Proto-Indo-European weid 'to see'.

Sunday, 12 February 2017


I first began tracing my ancestry more than thirty years ago. Oral family history spoke of an ancestor being 'the Honourable' and I began a long search.

It turned out to be half right but did make me wonder just where these titles came from.

Earl is possibly the most likely to be known, this being of Saxon or Old English origins where eorl originally coiuld be used to mean 'brave man, warrior, leader, chief' and contracted with the peasant or churl.

Baron came to English from Old French, and ultimately from Latin baro or simply 'man'. Note the Franks used the same word to mean 'freeman', which may well have helped develop the idea of a higher ranking. Clearly both 'baronet' and 'baroness' are derivations.

Count is another coming to English from Old French. Here conte is from the Latin comitem meaning 'companion, attendant', and used as the title for a provincial governor. The feminine 'coountess' is first seen in the middle of the 12th century.

Duke, once again, came from Old French where duc and the earlier Latin dux both meant 'leader'. All these terms can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European deuk meaning 'to lead'. Interestingly the rank od duke, or indeed duchess, is unrecorded before the end of the 12th century.

Lord comes from Old English hlaford 'master of the house' and is itself from the earlier Old English hlafweard, quite literally 'one who guards the loaves'. This dovetails quite nicely with the origins of 'lady' or hlafaeta meaning 'bread kneader'.

Marquis, and therefore marchioness, is from Old French marchis, quite literally 'ruler of a border area' and taken from Old French marche and Latin marca both meaning 'frontier'.

Viscount and viscountess can be traced to Old French visconte and ultimately from the Latin vice 'deputy' and comes 'nobleman'.

Dame is from Old French dame, 'lady, mistress, wife' and genrally referring to 'the woman of the house' as this comes from the Latin domus 'house'. Both Spanish and Portuguese 'don' share the same origin.

Hidalgo is unrecorded before 1590, this thought to be a shortened form of filho de algo or 'son of someone'. Late Iberian usage probably points to an Arabic origin of ibn nas or 'son of the people' which was used as an honorary title.

Knight came from Old English cniht meaning 'boy, youth, servant, attendant'. Not until the Normans arrived did it become any sort of title or standing.

Noble is a collective term first seen at the end of the 12th century. Coming to English from Old French noble and Latin nobilis, it simply means 'of high birth' just as it does in English today. Interestingly this can be traced to Proto-Indo-European gno 'to know' and used in the sense of 'well known'.

Seneschal is an Old French term meaning 'steward, majordomo' in its simplest terms. Despite coming to English from French, the term is Proto-Germanic where sini-skalk 'senior servant' is related to modern words such as 'senile' and 'marshal'.

Squire may not have been the highest of ranks but proved to be the first step on the ladder for many. This comes from Old French esquier or 'shield carrier' and most often seen today in the form of address 'esquire'.

Honourable was the one which started all this and is recorded in English from the end of the 13th century. Clearly a word used as an adjective and derived from 'honour', the latter coming from Old French onor, which is why we do not pronounce the 'h', and from Latin honorem 'dignity, reputation'.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Native American Tribal Names

With the continent of North America very much in the news of late, it is to pre-European days I turn and a look at the origins of the names of the Native American peoples. What I thought would be challenging research, thinking these could have little connection with the Indo-European languages with which I am familair (etymologically speaking), proved less of a problem that I suspected.

Apache is first recorded by the Spanish Conquistadors, who referred to those they encountered as Apachu de Nabajo around 1620. To confuse matters the Spanish later used the same Apachu to refer to other groups they encountered further east and that tends to suggest the word is unlikely to have been how the people referred to themselves. Indeed oral tradition maintains they referred to themselves as Inde meaning either 'person' or 'people' depending on the context. Most consider the Spanish to be from the Zuni word a-pacu which meant 'Navajos' (see below), although some have suggested the Yavapai pace or 'enemy' as an alternative. A third suggestion, the Spanish mapache or 'raccoon', may seem to fit etymologically but has little else going for it.

Arapaho is uncerain, but may be from iriiraraapuhu meaning 'trader' or a Crow word meaning 'tattoo'. They refer to themselves as Hitano'iv 'people of the sky' or Hetanevoeo 'cloud people', while other peoples described them as 'blue cloud men', 'blue sky people', 'pierced nose people', and also 'dog-eaters'.

Cherokee refer to themselves as Ani-Yu-wiya, literally 'the principal people'. Origins of the modern name have many theories, none certain, and include Choctaw cha-la-kee or 'people who live in the mountains', Choctaw chi-luk-ik-bi 'people who live in cave country', or Iroquois Oyata'ge;ronon also 'inhabitants of the cave country'. Sometimes we hear the name of the Cherokee given as Tsalagi but this is the Cherokee name for their own language.

Cheyenne is correctly the collective name given to two Native American tribes: the So'taeo'o and Tsetsehestahese, ostensibly the north and south peoples, tke their names from their name for the Cree language and a name literally meaning 'those who are like this' respectively. The later name of Cheyenne probably comes from a Siouan language meaning 'red-talker' and effectively describing those who talk differently.

Choctaw have been said to take their name from an early leader but more commonly from the phrase hacha hatak which, in their language, means 'river people'.

Comanche is the Ute name for them where kimantsi means simply 'enemy'.

Crow refer to themselves as Apsaalooke or 'children of large-beaked bird' and it was French explorers who translated this as 'people of the crows'.

Illinois is a state which takes its name from the Illinois people. Here their name is an Algonquin word meaning 'tribe of superior men'.

Huron is a name taken from the Algonquin irri-ronon or 'cat nation'> Note some sources give this as ka-ron 'straight coast' and others disagree completely in suggesting this is tu-ron or 'crooked coast'. Also known as the Wyandot people, taken from their language possibly wendat 'forest' or yendata 'village' - the vast difference due to corruption as the trail is followed through the French name of Ouendat.

Ioway, who gave their name to the state of Iowa, take their name from ayuhwa or 'sleepy ones' although they refer to themselves as Baxoje or 'grey snow'.

Kiowa call themselves the Ka'igwu or 'principal people', although earlier this is held to have been Kutjau 'emerging' or Kwu-da 'coming out rapidly'. Possibly the modern form is simply a corruption of their name as no convincing etymology has been suggested.

Mohawk comes from the name given them by neighbouring tribes, where maw-unk-lin or 'bear people'. They refer to themselves as Kanien'keha'ka, which translates as 'flint stone place'.

Mohican take their name from the place where they lived, muh-he-ka-neew referring to 'the people of the great flowing waters'.

Navajo are a Athabaskan people and comes from their language. Here nava 'field' and hu 'valley' is understood as 'large planted field'.

Pawnee refer to themselves as Chaticks si Chaticks meaning 'men of men' - to the French they were Pani which later became a term describing a slave.

Seminole is derived from a Spanish term where cimarron could mean either 'runaway', 'untamed' or 'wild one'.

Shawnee is a Munsee name where sawanow means 'people of the south'.

Sioux is an Algonquian name where natowessiwak meant 'little snakes'.

Swanee could be a corruption of the Spanish San Juan 'Saint John' but this seems unlikely when we have the Suwannee River. This gave the name to the people who could be found alongside the sawani or 'echo' river.

Ute gave their name to the state of Utah and is generally believed to refer to themselves as 'people of the mountain'. However some sources give an alternative, suggesting this is an Apache name where Yudah means 'tall'.

Yaqui call themselves the Hiaki or Yoeme meaning simply 'people'.