Old English and a New Cuss Word: On Word Choice


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 word