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Sunday, 26 January 2014

A few thoughts on Norman French and its effects on modern English

I have a Norman French dictionary out of the library.  It’s not a brilliant or extensive dictionary, being a 1978 reprint of the 1779 dictionary by Robert Kelham, and it’s faithfully printed with long ‘s’ too, but it is better than nothing.  The more up-to-date version, taking advantage – I presume – of the collating of documents begun in Directoire France costs £75 so that ain’t about to be flying off my wishlist and into the post.  I can only assume that the county library felt the same way, and since I’m the second person ever to have taken this book out, one can see their point.

Anyway, so much for the drivel about me getting out a dictionary to try to translate the professions given in the Paris 1292 census for my name book, other than to note that there are signal differences between the early French in the dictionary and the later French in the census, which stands between it, and modern French.  I thought that was interesting in its own way, because it is a bit like using an Old English dictionary to translate Chaucer… except for the fact that I read Middle English reasonably happily and Old English with a lot of swearing.  I managed to extrapolate quite a lot. 

So, on to the meat of this essay.  I found a few words that fascinated me, and thought I’d share.  We are all familiar with the fact that French has influenced English, but what I wanted to look at are a few words which have changed, sometimes significantly, in French.
One thing I have noticed is a simple change of letter, Acrire in Norman French is now Ecrire, to write; boteau, a boat is now bateau,  and so on.  Sometimes letter order changes too; furmage is cheese in Norman French which is fromage in modern French.  This  all tends to indicate a degree of change in the pronunciation which I find interesting, but mindful that I have weird interests I shall pursue it no further than a brief mention here!

Oriel:  ear.  Modern French, Oreille.  I therefore wonder if an oriel window was thus named because it stuck out like an ear, and the spelling remained in English for the window while the word in French changed.  This was the word which first caught my attention, and I went on a quick search to see if there were others.

Alm: soul.  Modern French âme, esprit.   Did this influence alms for the poor, alms houses being initially places whereby a rich man could make the eye of his needle bigger as it were by buying his soul into heaven?

Barat: fraud, deceit.  Modern French, tromperie, fraude.   From which I am certain derived that crime which requires a nation of sailors to invent, barratry, which means, for those people of less larcenous turn of mind than a mystery writer, insurance fraud perpetrated by selling a cargo on the sly and scuttling the ship to claim any insurance on it, perhaps by destroying a leaky old tub declared well-found.  Lloyds of London did not invent insurance, the Lombards did insure cargoes and ships in the middle ages.

Bote: aid, help, advantage.  Modern French, aide, benefice.  I know bote is a purely Medieval word but it was a vital one for the peasantry who might be granted house-bote or fire-bote to gather wood in the lord’s woodland to mend their house or burn on the fire.

Covynes: secret meeting places.  No modern French single word equivalent that I can find.  Presumably this became the root for covens, and was attached purely to witches.  A note in passing though, is that the word ‘covine’ which is an Old French word I just happen to have in my mental lexicon, means a fraud, and which I postulate comes from the same root. 

A note in passing, it is from Norman French that the now OLD spellings of such words as connexion, confexion and complexion arise; these, whilst still correct English in England connexion and confexion at least is now passing for the American spelling connection and confection. Confexion has, indeed, disappeared.   Interestingly our 1779 lawyer translates ‘conexes’ as ‘connections’ although Jane Austen was using the spelling with an x in it. 

Coste: collateral.  Modern French has collatéral  or coût , but we still use ‘cost’ for collateral damage – “the cost in human lives is incalculable” in journalese.

Glebe:  a piece of land, used unchanged in English for the piece of land belonging to the church.

Hobyns: hobbies.  Le hobby as well as le passe-temps is still used in modern French but what amazed me was to see ‘hobby’ used in 1779, as I was under the impression that this was a later word, and that ‘avocation’ was more correct until the mid 19th century.  Further research has revealed that hobby-horse is attested to be used for an avocation in the 1670’s, and supposedly was shortened to ‘hobby’ in 1816.  However, with the use of the word in 1779,  perhaps this pushes the use of the word back further.  Fascinating!  Unless of course my author meant the falcon called a hobby… but my English dictionary gives the Old French derivation of that as ‘hobé’.  I think by 1779 a reference to the small sturdy horse which is also called a hobby would probably be sufficiently obsolete that my dictionary writer would feel obliged to explain it.   An interesting paradox.  My personal feeling is that a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, like Mr Kelham, who uses a modish spelling like ‘connection’ is likely to be in touch with the most up-to-date use of words, so perhaps hobbies, meaning avocations, really is the meaning here. 

Humblesse: humility. Modern French humilité; modestie.  The word humble would appear to so derive.  The derivation of ‘to eat humble pie’ is a little less obvious, since this refers to a pie made of the offal of deer, known as ‘umbles’.  Eating umble pie was to be eating far from the most choice cuts.

Another interesting note, Robert Kelham has ‘moultons’ translated as ‘weathers’ by which he must surely mean ‘wethers’.  Moulton is sufficiently close to the modern French word ‘mouton’ for sheep, and a wether is a castrated male sheep kept for the wool.  Un Owaille is given as ‘a sheep’, and with the male article, but it is not hard to see where ewe comes from.

Prigner: to take. Modern French, prendre.  I include this one for the Georgette Heyer fans who love her cant,  and my Felicia and Robin fans to demonstrate the origins of the cant phrase‘a prigger of purses’ a pickpocket.  To prig was to steal…

Verek: wreck. Modern French navire naufragé, épave.  Verek to wreck is not a big leap when v and w were often interchangeable. 

Well, this is a bit of a gallimaufry, but I hope enjoyable for all that. 


  1. That was so interesting and I've been trying to do some family research on family from France and have been reading journals and such from the 1700's and so I'm thinking a dictionary like this might be to find it and budget for I'm sure it is much more in dollars than pounds.. anyway thanks so much for sharing it. Carmalee

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  3. Carmalee,[sorry I didn't see your signature at first] for 18th century research you might find a Quebequois dictionary more helpful, as I am given to understand by a Canadian friend that Canadian French is relatively fossilised around the 17th/18th century. However for going further back, I would certainly advise a good Old French dictionary. I'm assuming you are already au fait with modern French and have a decent modern dictionary. There should be quite a lot of records online from the era you want, the Archive National is mostly available online and is fairly user friendly.

  4. One thing I will be doing for the name book is a list of professions and I'll probably post some at least of them on here...

  5. Like me you have a fascination for the meaning and derivation of words - keep expanding my vocabulary please Helen

  6. And mine too as I dig, Helen...