Old English and a New Cuss Word: On Word Choice

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Think of every barnyard animal you know. Cow. Pig. Chicken. Sheep. Horse. Duck. Goose. Every one of those words derives from Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon). If you were to kick around the farm with the poet who wrote Beowulf, the two of you would use the same words (or, in any case, very similar words) for all the animals you saw (except turkeys; turkeys didn’t come to England until five or eight centuries after the Beowulf poet died). And, by the way, you would even use all the same words for the male and female variations for each animal. Bull, boar, sow, rooster, hen, ram, ewe, mare, drake, and gander are all Old English words. The one exception is stallion, for reasons that will soon become apparent.


But when the farmer calls you in for dinner, your easy communication with the Beowulf poet will quickly break down. When farm animals move from the barnyard to the dinner table, they drop their Old English names. The cow is now beef. The pig is pork. The sheep is mutton. The chicken, duck, and goose are now poultry.

If you’ve ever taken a class in the history of the English language, you already know why all the names for barnyard animals derive from Anglo-Saxon and all the names for meat are of Latin origin. In 1066 AD the Norman French, led by William the Conqueror, defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. King Harold II took an arrow through the eyeball, and that was the end of the Anglo-Saxons’ rule over the island that was named for them (England=Angle-Land).

The Anglo-Saxons didn’t go anywhere. The population of Britain was still overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon; but the ruling families were all French. The guy out in the barnyard or pasture taking care of the chickens and sheep and pigs and cows and ducks and geese was Anglo-Saxon; there was no reason for him to change the names he called the animals. But when those same animals were slaughtered and cooked for the French landowner and his family, they thoroughly enjoyed their boeuf or porc or moton or poulterie. (That Anglo-Saxon farmhand, by the way, wasn’t getting a lot of meat. He was eating a lot of beans and peas—both Old English words.)

Though the French ousted the Anglo-Saxon nobility in England, the French language never ousted the Anglo-Saxon language. Instead, Anglo-Saxon (Old English) absorbed thousands and thousands of French (that is to say, Latinate) words. For the most part, those new French words didn’t replace the English words. They were simply added to the English lexicon. So our language has countless word-pairs in which a word of Old English origin and a word of Latinate origin mean the same thing. Here are a few:

 Old English (Anglo-Saxon)Norman French (Latinate)
     light     illumination
     ask     inquire
     answer     reply
     hearty     cordial
     snake     serpent
     reckless     intrepid
     belongings     property
     follow     ensue
     wild     savage

Once you understand these dynamics, you understand a lot about English diction (or word choice, if you prefer the more Anglo-Saxon phrasing).

Say you have a vocabulary that includes both Anglo-Saxon and Latinate words (which you do). And say the servants and farm hands use the Anglo-Saxon words, but the noble families in the village use the Latinate words. Also, the clergy speak Latin, the law and all other government business is conducted in French and Latin, and if there are any scientists or philosophers in your town, they do their work in Latin too. Which is going to feel more respectable and intelligent and highfalutin to you? The Old English diction, or the Latinate diction?

It’s been 952 years since the Battle of Hastings, but we English speakers, when we want to sound smart and respectable, still trot out those Latinate words.

And yet…and yet.

It is true that the great majority of words in the English lexicon ultimately derive from Latin. Nevertheless, Anglo-Saxon is your native tongue. Here’s what I mean: depending on whom you ask or how your dictionary is arranged, anywhere from 2/3 to 3/4 of the words in an English dictionary derive from Latin or Greek. Scan a page or two of any dictionary with word origins, and you will see what I mean.

But of the 100 most commonly used words in English, guess how many come from Latin or Greek.

Whatever you just guessed, it was too high. Of the 100 most-used words in English, exactly ZERO derive from Latin or Greek. They’re all Old English words. Oh, and the next 100 most commonly used words, #101-200 on the English hit parade—how many of those do you think derive from Latin or Greek? I’ve read different answers, but the highest I’ve ever seen is five. So even though our lexicon as a whole is about 70% Latinate or Greek, no more that 2.5% of the 200 words you use most often are non-Anglo-Saxon words.

You are a speaker of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) who also happens to know tons and tons of Latinate words. English speakers respond at a gut level to Old-English words. They feel like the stuff of the world. Before you started school, you navigated the world mostly with Old-English words: milk, mother, father, tree, dog, sun, moon, ball, dirt, house.

You learned the Latinate words at school, from books. There are exceptions, and lots of them. flower, rock, and cat all have Latin origins. But the fact that it has never occurred to you, or to me, that rock and cat are Latinate proves my point: these words feel homey and natural because they don’t feel like they could have come from Latin. The Latinate words I’m talking about are the ones that you learned for your Friday vocabulary tests—words that are just fancier synonyms for Anglo-Saxon words you already know. Osculate for kissIlluminate for light up.

Here’s an interesting exercise that demonstrates the different registers we associate with Old English words and Latinate words: Think of a cuss word. Any English cuss word will do.

Do you have your cuss word? That word derives from Anglo-Saxon. The Beowulf poet would have known that word, or some closely related version of it. How do I know? I’m pretty sure I know all the cuss words, and I’ve looked up all their origins.

Writing is an act of hospitality. It's an act of welcome. And one way to welcome your reader is to speak in her native tongue when you can.

Jonathan Rogers

The cuss words are among the oldest words in the language. And nobody has ever had any success in getting new ones to stick. One of my sons tried when he was three or four. He started using naked as a cuss word. We’d be trying to leave the house, everybody scrambling for shoes and socks, maybe pants, and my son would say, “Where’s my naked tennis shoes?” He had the syntax right, the inflection. Also, allow me to point out that naked is an Anglo-Saxon word. What I’m saying is that the kid had instincts. If ever a new cuss word had a chance, it was this one. But it never caught on, and my son abandoned the project before he even started kindergarten.

But I digress. Let us return to your Anglo-Saxon cuss word. Now, imagine you had some reason to speak to your grandmother about the topic covered by that cuss word. How would you phrase your remarks? I’ll give you a minute to ponder that one… Ok. Whatever words you chose, I’d say there’s about a 95% chance that they were of Latin or Greek origin.

Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and Norman French (Latinate) constitute two registers of the English language. The Anglo-Saxon register tends to be earthier, and the Latinate register tends to be “higher,” more abstract. You use these registers naturally, whether you think about the origins of the words you use or not. We English speakers have had 952 years of practice at it. No wonder we can do it without thinking.

The ability to move between these multiple registers is one of the great gifts of this language of ours. English always gives us many options for saying the same thing—options that carry many shades of meaning.

And while it is true that I am suspicious of excessive Latinisms, there are plenty of ideas that you simply can’t communicate without that Latinate register. This essay, in which a writer tries to explain atomic theory using only words of Old-English origin, illustrates this truth in hilarious fashion.

Let me return to a point I made earlier: Anglo-Saxon is your native tongue. It is your reader’s native tongue. Yes, there are plenty of good reasons to use Latinate words, but I suggest that you rely on Anglo-Saxon (Old English) words as much as you can unless you have a good reason to do otherwise. Writing is an act of hospitality. It’s an act of welcome. And one way to welcome your reader is to speak in her native tongue when you can.

The writers of the King James Bible seemed to understand this truth. Check out these three verses, three of the most familiar in the whole Bible. I have underlined all the words of Latinate origin.

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

That’s 62 words. Only three of them are of Latin origin.

Sometimes writing requires that we go up and get big ideas. We have the language for that. Sometimes—more often, I would suggest—the writer’s gift to the reader is to bring big ideas down to earth. Here’s to earthy language.

If you enjoyed this excellent advice and are interested in more, you can sign up for Jonathan’s weekly newsletter here.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


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