Category Archives: Words

Apostrophe: Part 1


apostrophe: 1) A rhetorical device in which the speaker breaks off from discourse in order to address a person or thing, absent or present; 2) The sign ’, used to indicate omitted letters, or the possessive case

Greengrocer's apostrophe in fairground
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[I]t appears from the evidence that there was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and followed by most educated people.

The Oxford Companion To The English Language (1992)

The Oxford English Dictionary treats the two meanings of apostrophe, given above, as two separate words. Both are Greek in origin. The first, rhetorical, usage comes from Greek apostrophe, “turning away”.

Here’s Macbeth, for instance, “turning away” from his soliloquy to directly address a dagger of the mind:

Macbeth Act 2, Scene 1
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

The second, more familiar use, as the name of a punctuation mark, comes from a Greek punctuation mark with a similar function, the apostrophos prosoidia (“turning-away accent”). This was a little curve, line or point inserted into written Greek poetry, to indicate places where a syllable needed to be omitted to maintain the prosody. That idea was transferred to Latin as apostrophus, and then to French as apostrophe. It was the sixteenth-century engraver and typesetter Geoffroy Tory who first used a raised comma as an apostrophe in French, after which the practice spread into English typesetting.

For much of its life, the word for the punctuation mark was pronounced in the French manner, with three syllables and the emphasis on the first syllable:ˈapɒstrɔf. It was only in the nineteenth century that people began to pronounce it in the same way as the rhetorical device, shifting the emphasis to the second syllable and pronouncing the terminal vowel: əˈpɒstrəfiː. This seems unexceptional now, but when James Murray was editing the OED in the 1880s he inserted a small rant into the entry for apostrophe² (the punctuation mark), which immediately follows apostrophe¹ (the rhetorical device):

It ought to be of three syllables in Eng. as in French, but has been ignorantly confused with the prec. word.

That note is still present in my late-twentieth-century electronic version of the OED.

So the apostrophe started out as a sixteenth-century mark of elision, standing in for the missing “v” on o’er or the “i” in ’tis, work it still does today in words like couldn’t.

By the seventeenth century, it was also being used, sporadically, in its other major role, that of marking possession—as in “the man’s head” or “the ship’s anchor”. This seems to have been because the apostrophe was originally being used to mark a missing letter “e”, present in singular possessive-case endings in Old and Middle English—for instance mannes (“man’s”) and scipes (“ship’s”).

During the next two hundred years, the apostrophe began to spread to indicate possessives generally, but it took until the nineteenth century for its use to be codified as it is today—singular nouns and plurals without a final “s” take “’s”; plural nouns ending in “s” add a final apostrophe. Possessive pronouns don’t take an apostrophe: hers, theirs, yours, ours and its. The final one seems to be the only source of regular confusion, probably because “it’s” is also prevalent, but the apostrophe there marks an elision—“it is”.

And (as ever) there are a few refinements. Many style books suggest that classical proper names ending in “s” should take only a final apostrophe in the possessive (“Xerxes’ ships”, “Hercules’ labours”) but modern names need the conventional “apostrophe s” (“Bridget Jones’s diary”, “Keats’s poetry”).

For place names, it’s a matter of choice for the community involved: St. John’s, Newfoundland, but St Andrews, Scotland.* Likewise for the names of organizations, which have been showing a continuing tendency to drop their apostrophes—in part to make themselves more internet-compatible.

Waterstones shop front, before and after 2012

The apostrophe was once commonly used in some plurals. When I was growing up, we were taught to write “the 1960’s” and “V.I.P.’s only”, but it’s now more common to see “the 1960s” and “VIPs only” (full stops within initialisms having also been generally abandoned). The last hold-out for the plural “apostrophe s” is when pluralizing letters of the alphabet: “Mind your p’s and q’s” still looks better than “Mind your ps and qs.”

Finally, there’s the apostrophe in Irish surnames like O’Connor and O’Reilly. Unusually, it marks the elision of a space, in converting an original Gaelic patronymic to an Anglicized surname—in the examples above, from Ó Conchobhair meaning “descendant of Conchobar” and Ó Raghallaigh meaning “descendant of Raghallach”. Both Irish and Scottish Gaelic also used the patronymic Mac, “son”, which produces familiar Scottish surnames like MacDonald and MacAlpine. The original “Mac” prefix suffered a number of contractions, including “Mc” and “Mc”, which are still with us today, but also one that has fallen by the wayside. Uniquely, it involved the turned apostrophe—an inverted version of the usual. Right up to the nineteenth century, it was common to see names like M‘Donald and M‘Alpine, pronounced in exactly the same way as the unabbreviated versions. Presumably the turned apostrophe was used because it bore a resemblance to a superscript “c”, and therefore hinted at what it had replaced.

Title page of McAlpine's Gaelic Dictionary
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Neil McAlpine, A Pronouncing Gaelic Dictionary (1832)


That’s all for now. In my next post on this topic, I’ll write a little about other -strophe words.

* Notice that the full stop after the contraction “St” is a matter of national typographic convention, however. It’s used after contractions and abbreviations in North America, but only after abbreviations here in the UK. So when we abbreviate “Professor” by dropping the ending, we write “Prof.”, but when we contract “Doctor” by removing the middle letters, we write “Dr”.



prorogation: the act of discontinuing the meetings of an assembly without dissolving it

Westminster, showing separation of powers
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Base map © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

For present purposes, the relevant limit on the power to prorogue is this: that a decision to prorogue (or advise the monarch to prorogue) will be unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive.

Lady Hale, President of the Supreme Court, 24 September 2019

Here in the UK we’ve recently been getting a little lesson on the importance of the Separation of Powers in a democratic state. In particular, the judiciary has just, at time of writing, intervened in the relationship between the executive and legislature (see above), thereby limiting the ability of the Government to prorogue Parliament. So the unfamiliar word prorogation has been on everyone’s lips.

The verb to prorogue comes from the Latin prefix pro- and the verb rogare, “to ask”. The meaning of prorogare in Latin was “to extend” (a term of office). In English it was used to mean both “to prolong” and “to postpone”, and as early as the fifteenth century it acquired its specific relevance to the (then) English Parliament—to discontinue meetings for a (usually brief) period. Quite how a Latin construction that should mean “asking before” or “asking on behalf of” acquired its connection to prolongation is unclear. It has been suggested that perhaps, at some period in Roman history, the extension of some period of office required specific permission to be asked for, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support that idea.

Latin rogare also gives us rogation—in Roman history, the act of submitting a proposed law to the people to ask for their approval. In the Christian calendar the Rogation Days are the three days before Ascension Day, marked by processions and prayers—the prayers being the act of “asking” for which the days are named.

So we have two associations for rogare in English—law-making and asking, and each has spawned its own list of words.

First, in the legal sense, we have the verb to abrogate means “to repeal” or “to do away with” (a law or established custom). To derogate is to abrogate in part—to diminish the force of something (originally a law, but now more generally applied). And that sense of diminishment gives us the usually meaning of derogatory—”disrespectful” or “disparaging”. To obrogate is to repeal a law, and to irrogate was an old Scottish legal term meaning “to impose” (a legal penalty). To subrogate is to replace one person with another, the original meaning having to do with legally replacing office bearers or election candidates.

When it comes to the sense of asking, we have the verb interrogate, which literally means “asking questions at intervals”, and the noun prerogative (literally “asked first”), meaning a right or privilege.* To erogate is to pay out money—the reference is to disbursing funds from the public purse after asking permission from the Roman people. To arrogate is to claim something for oneself (or about another). It has now come to be associated with false or unjustified claims, but its original meaning was “to adopt a child”. Its cousin adrogate has a specialized meaning, referring to the Roman custom of adopting adults into one’s own family.

Finally, there’s corvée, a French word that has come a long way, in terms of pronunciation, from its Latin origins in corrogare, literally “to ask together”. The Latin word referred to a sort of tax paid in labour by Roman citizens, who would do work on public structures like roads and bridges rather than pay money to the state. The word then evolved to designate the duty of unpaid labour owed by a mediaeval vassal to his feudal lord—a practice which persisted in France right up to the French Revolution. In both senses (public work in lieu of tax, or as a duty imposed by a government on its citizens) corvée labour persists in several countries today, including Myanmar, Vietnam, Rwanda and Bhutan.

There’s a certain irony embedded in the etymology of prorogation, I think, in the context of the current fuss. It seems that something for which one once had to ask permission has turned into something that can be unilaterally imposed, requiring legal intervention to undo.

* And a prerogative is how the monarchy becomes involved in the whole prorogation stramash. In the UK, prorogation is a Royal Prerogative—a power exercised by the monarch, in this case under the advice of her government. Royal Prerogative is, however, trumped by statute law—which is how the Supreme Court became involved.

Letters From Abroad: Ash, Slashed-O, A-Ring

Scandinavian letters ash, slashed-o and a-ringIf you were (according to my usual scenario) sedated, abducted and awoken in a foreign country, then a glimpse of a road-sign featuring all three of these special letters would mean you were in one of two places—Norway or Denmark. These are the three additional characters that go to make up the 29-letter Dano-Norwegian Alphabet—added, in the order shown above, after the letter Z of the standard 26-letter Latin alphabet used in English. They also demonstrate three different ways of fusing together two letters to make one new letter—stick them together side by side (a ligature), superimpose them, or place one above the other. The Å character represents the sound /ɔ/ in both Danish and Norwegian—like the vowel in English “pot”, if the word is spoken with the tongue high and the lips very rounded, as we do in Scotland. Ø is pronounced the same as its phonetic character /ø/—the vowel in French deux or German schön. In Norwegian, the vowel Æ is (as its shape suggests) midway between the open front “ah” and “eh” sounds—it’s the /æ/ sound of the vowel in “act”, if that word is spoken by someone with the “posh English” tones affected by the actors of Downton Abbey. In Danish, the sound has moved to plain [ɛ], as in “bet”.

So Norwegian and Danish feature all three letters, doing very slightly different jobs. But if you see Æ and Ø only, then you’re looking at Faeroese, a fact that could be confirmed by checking for the presence of the letter edh (Ð), too. And if a careful survey turns up only Æ then it’s probably Icelandic, which features both the edh and thorn (Þ) characters, letters that I’ve written about previously. Å on its own is most likely Swedish—the Swedes use Ö instead of Ø, and Ä instead of Æ.

So these letters are very strong indicators that you’re in a Scandinavian country, particularly given that they also crop up in the orthographies of several of the minority Sámi languages spoken in Norway and Sweden.

From their origins in the Germanic languages of northern Europe, all these letters have leaked out, individually, into alphabets used to write various minority languages in Africa, South America, Europe and the Pacific. Of these, the only one most Westerners might have heard of is Walloon, spoken by around half a million people in Belgium. Walloon uses a ring accent to modify the sound of the letter A, but doesn’t treat the combination as a separate letter of the alphabet.

About the only place outside Europe where you might encounter one of these letters on a road sign is the island of Guam, where Chamorro has about 50,000 speakers, who view Å as a separate letter of the alphabet. The Chamorro name of the island’s capital is Hagåtña.

Guam map, CIA World Factbook
Source: CIA World Factbook

Now, a little about the origin and usage of the three individual letters.


Icelandic road sign
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Æ in Iceland (Can you find it?)

The Æ character, ash, derives its name from Old English æsc, “ash tree”. The character was part of the Old English alphabet, in which it symbolized the same /æ/ sound as it does in Norwegian today. It inherited its name from the Anglo-Saxon runic symbol for the same sound (which doesn’t look much like an ash tree to me):Anglo-Saxon rune aescThe derivation of the Æ character’s shape is pretty obvious—a sound somewhere between A and E, symbolized by mashing the two letters together in a ligature. In English, it still turns up occasionally as a typographical choice in words of Latin or Greek origin. That used to be fairly common, but in modern English it’s generally done in order to present an appearance of being well-established, if not positively antique:

Encyclopaedia Britannica title page


Faeroes sign
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Æ and Ø in the Faeroes

The Ø character most commonly symbolizes the sound /ø/. In the Germanic languages that sound came about via a vowel shift called umlaut, or i-mutation—the round back vowel associated with the letter O strayed forward and upward in the mouth into the vicinity associated with E and I. That combination could have been symbolized by mashing two letters together in a ligature again: Œ. (And indeed, if a Dane or Norwegian can’t find a Ø on a foreign keyboard, they’ll render it as OE.) But it seems the letters were superimposed instead, though there’s debate about whether the slanting cross bar of Ø started life as a vertical I or the horizontal central arm of an E. However it came about, the Danes were already using it during the Middle Ages, and passed it on to Norway, Iceland and the Faeroes.


Norwegian train
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Å in Norway

The Å character is another letter combination—an A with a little O written directly above it. The hybrid symbol was created because a long “ah” sound in Old Norse, written as AA or Á, underwent a mutation to become more like an “oh” sound in its descendant Scandinavian languages. Despite the sound shift, the Icelanders continued to use Á and the Danes to use AA, but the Swedes felt it was worth noting that this particular A now sounded like an O, and so added the little circle.

Here’s one of its first appearances, in the Gustav Vasa Bible of 1541:

Gustav Vasa Bible Psalm 81
Opening of Psalm 81

Not only can you see the little o modifying the a, but there are examples of a little e modifying both a and o, too, like this:

Superscripts from Gustav Vasa BibleThose e modifications are doing the job, in Swedish, that is done by Æ and Ø in Danish and Norwegian—symbolizing the umlaut vowel shift in the sounds of A and O that I described above. It was a common typographical convention, used in German, too. And (you’re probably ahead of me here), after the little e‘s had been worn down by a few centuries of manuscript writing, they mutated into the double-dot accents we call umlauts today—producing the Ä and Ö that Sweden uses instead of Æ and Ø.

But back to Å as a substitute for AA which sounded like O. The Swedes kept this letter to themselves for centuries. The Norwegians adopted it only in 1917, and the Danes as late as 1948. So the Norse King Haakon I of Norway is now known as Håkon. But Haakon VII, a Dane who acceded to the Norwegian throne in 1905, retained the traditional spelling of his name until his death in 1957.* And that’s common—given names may use old or new spelling; family names tend to stick with the old spelling. Place names have generally shifted to the newer spelling, but there have been pockets of resistance from people who prefer the old style. Here are three examples of the spelling of the name of the second-largest town in Denmark:

Spelling of Aarhus in 1922, 1986, 2019
Aarhus in the 1922 Times Atlas, Århus in the 1986 Times Atlas, Aarhus again on the VisitAarhus website in 2019. This isn’t purely based on nostalgia—the decision was also driven by the absence of accented character options in internet domain names, as well as consideration for potential tourists searching the internet using a non-Scandinavian keyboard.

I’ll finish by mentioning that Å is the only abbreviation for a basic unit of measurement (that I know of) which uses something other than the 26 letters of the standard Latin alphabet. It’s the symbol for the ångström unit, a metric measure of length, equal to 10-10 m. It’s not part of the International System of Units, in which it is defined as 0.1 nm, but it still shows up occasionally. It’s named for the physicist Anders Ångström. (Who, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll immediately be able to identify as Swedish, just from the letters of his name.)

* Haakon’s name was (as you’ll realize) pronounced something like HAWK-uhn, but English speakers tended to pronounce it HACK-on. When Haakon VII was in exile in Britain during the Second World War, there’s a story of how he turned up at the BBC to make a radio broadcast aimed at Norway. When asked for his name at reception he replied simply, “Haakon,” (you get to do that when you’re a king) only to find himself addressed as “Mr Hawkins” thereafter.

Of course, there’s the μ prefix used in SI units, denoting a millionth part of the base unit, but it’s not in itself a unit of measurement. (Using μ on its own, to symbolize a “micron”, was abolished from the SI units in 1967.)



gaudeamus: merry-making by college students

Penguin statues dressed as graduates
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Penguin statues dressed up to celebrate graduation day


Turn on the spigot
Pour the beer and swig it
And gaudeamus igit-
(uh) -tur

Tom LehrerBright College Days” (1959)*

Gaudeamus is the first-person plural present active subjunctive of the Latin verb gaudeo, “to rejoice”—so it means “let us rejoice”. It’s the first word of a thirteenth-century Latin drinking song (referred to by Tom Lehrer in the quote above), which is how it came by its largely archaic meaning in English—Latin plus drinking implies (or at least used to imply) merry college students.

Here’s how it goes:

Gaudeamus igitur
Iuvenes dum sumus.
Post iucundam iuventutem
Post molestam senectutem
Nos habebit humus.

Let us rejoice, therefore,
While we are young.
After a pleasant youth
After a troublesome old age
The earth will have us.

It’s usually known as Gaudeamus Igitur, from its opening line, but its real title is De Brevitate Vitae (“On The Shortness Of Life”). And that is a rather subversive reference to an essay of the same title written by the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca, during the first century AD. Seneca, being a stoic, was keen to urge us not to fritter away our short lives on frivolous activities. Whereas the Gaudeamus Igitur song uses the shortness of life as an excuse to get in a bit of drinking while you’re young.

I was reminded of this during the recent graduation season in my home town, when I discovered that a choir was going to perform De Brevitate Vitae as part of the graduation ceremony. I spent the rest of the day smiling gently at the thought of all those graduands and their loved ones sitting at solemn attention through a song about how they really needed to get in a bit of celebration early because we’ll all soon be dead. And I suspect that, as soon as someone points out the content of verse six, the performance will be quietly dropped from future graduations:

Vivant omnes virgines,
Faciles, formosae!
Vivant et mulieres,
Tenerae, amabiles,
Bonae, laboriosae.

Long live all young women,
Easy and beautiful!
Long live wives as well,
Tender, loveable,
Honest, hard-working.

The association of gaudeamus with students having a party spawned the noun gaudie (or gaudy) for a university celebration, which still has some currency if you know where to look. At Oxford University it designates a reunion feast for alumni—hence the title of Dorothy L. Sayers’s mystery novel, Gaudy Night (1935). Whereas at my alma mater, Dundee University, Gaudie Night involves senior students taking newly arrived “freshers” out on the town to entertain them. (I’m told that drink is sometimes taken.) The process has its own technical terms—the senior student is a “senior woman” or “senior man”; the first-year student they take under their wing is a bejant (female, bejantine), derived rather charmingly from French bec jaune, “yellow beak”, meaning a young bird.

The verb gaudeo has a companion noun gaudium, “joy”. Between them, they’re the origin of the noun gaud. This used to mean “trick” or “prank”, but shaded first into “toy” or “plaything” before acquiring the meaning “showy ceremony”. Today, it packages hints of all its former meanings together, designating something that is flashily ornamental. It’s a shame that gaud-glorious has fallen into disuse—it’s an evocative adjective to describe a person or thing that is extremely showy. In its place we now have just plain gaudy, which doesn’t do the job quite as well, in my opinion. And a gaudery is a gaudy show, or a show of gauds.

If you are joyful, you are gaudful, gaudious or gaudibund; if you speak joyfully, you are gaudiloquent. But something gaudless is without ornament, not without joy.

The plural of gaudium is gaudia, which became French joie, and so English joy. And some invoke gaudium as the origin of Old French joel, which gave us jewel—but the Oxford English Dictionary describes that as “a matter of dispute”. The OED is similarly non-committal about the possibility that gaudium was the origin of Old French jolif, which gave us jolly—a word I’ve previously written about. More likely, perhaps, is that jolif derives from Old Norse jól, the origin of our word Yule, which I’ve also previously written about. And on that note of self-advertisement, I’ll sign off.

* Oh, if you insist. Here’s the song:

Ultima Thule: Part 2

Advertising for Apple II computer, 1977Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Advertising slogan for the Apple II computer (1977),
often hilariously misattributed to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)


In my previous post about ultima Thule, I traced the strange history of the Greek name Thule, and how it came to be associated with the Latin adjective ultima, meaning “far” or “farthest”. In this post I’m going to write about the etymological associations of ultima.

Ultima is the feminine form of Latin ultimus, which was not only used to mean “farthest”, but also to convey related ideas like “last”, “latest” and “utmost”. As well as doing service in the name ultima Thule, ultima also appears in the rarely used Latin tag, ultima ratioliterally, “ultimate judgement”, but used with the meanings “final sanction” or “last resort”. It has also mutated into an English noun, ultima, a technical term for the final syllable of a word, derived as a shortened form of the Latin ultima syllaba.

Something ultimate is the final (and presumably best) version; it is an ultimity—and ultimacy is the state of being ultimate. The verb to ultimate means to carry something through to a final resolution; something ultimative tends to produce a final resolution; and ultimation is the process by which that final resolution is reached. An ultimatum is the final part of something—but it has come to mean the final position in an argument, beyond which no further negotiation is possible. Ultimogeniture is a mode of succession in which the inheritance goes to the last-born of a family—it’s the opposite of primogeniture, in which inheritance goes to the first-born.

The ablative case of ultimus is ultimo—so ultimo die means “in the last day”. To designate the last day of a particular month, English speakers took to writing a short form—”ultimo July” or “ultimo December”. But by the eighteenth century ultimo came to be understood as “in the most recent month”, and people would refer to “your letter dated 22nd ultimo“, meaning “the letter you wrote to me on the 22nd of last month”. That was often contracted farther to “yours of the 22nd ult.“—an expression that crops up in Victorian novels to generally confusing effect for the modern reader.

The penultima (from Latin pænultima, “almost ultimate”) is the second-last syllable of a word. In the days when the ultimo was the last day of a month, the penult was the second-last day. But now penult is used to designate the last-but-one member of any sequence—the penultimate member, in other words. The word penultimatum is humorously contrived, designating something that is either just short of being an ultimatum, or which immediately precedes an ultimatum.

The antepenultima is the third-last syllable of a word, and an antepenult is the antepenultimate member of any sequence—the third-last. And preantepenult and preantepenultimate do exactly the job you’d expect, designating things that are fourth-from-last.

And that’s my final word on ultima Thule.

Ultima Thule: Part 1

ˈʌltɪmə ˈθjuːliː

ultima Thule: a distant, unknown region at the extreme limit of travel

Two Thules
Two versions of Ultima Thule:
1) Detail from the Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus (1572)
2) Trans-Neptunian Object (486958) 2014 MU69 (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)


Years ago I talked with Knud Rasmussen, the great Danish explorer, who in the early twenties had made a trip by dog team from Greenland around the Arctic rim to Nome, Alaska. In our library here at Bluie West Eight [Sondrestrom Air Base] I come on Rasmussen’s book, “Across Arctic America”, and I recall as I read that he told me once of an ice-free harbor on the northwest coast of Greenland, a place called Thule.

Bernt Balchen, Come North With Me (1958)

Ultima Thule, a mixed Latin/Greek name, has been in the news of late, with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flying by the Trans-Neptunian Object (486958) 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule after a public competition to find something more catchy than its official designation of numbers and letters. (The larger lobe of the contact binary object is designated Ultima; the smaller is Thule.)*

One of the great entertainments of recent reportage has been listening to journalists and scientists utterly failing to find a consistent pronunciation for those two little words. The one I give at the head of the post comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, but every syllable brings with it a pronunciation choice.

Is the first syllable “ull” or “ool”? Then is it “tim” or “teem”? And then “ah”, or a short neutral vowel? Do we start the next word with a “th” (as in thin) or use the Scandinavian pronunciation with a hard “t”? And then is it “ool” or “yule”? And finally, is the last vowel pronounced or not, and if pronounced, does the word end with “lee” or “lay”? So a conservative estimate suggests there are at least 2x2x2x2x2x3=96 options—no wonder I heard four or five during a single news broadcast.

The name is more than 2000 years old. Here’s the first occurrence we know of:

An deus immensi uenias maris ac tua nautae
Numina sola colant, tibi seruiat ultima Thule,
Teque sibi generum Tethys emat omnibus undis

Virgil, Georgics Book 1 (29 BCE)

In the introductory section to the Georgics, Virgil prays to a number of gods, including the deceased amd deified Julius Caesar, and the quote above forms part of a list of godly things Caesar might get up to in the afterlife. One translation of the passage goes like this:

Or as the boundless ocean’s God thou come,
Sole dread of seamen, till far Thule bow
Before thee, and Tethys win thee to her son
With all her waves for dower

So Virgil is suggesting that Caesar might become an ocean god, with dominion over all the seas, even as far as the most distant land known to the Romans, “far Thule”.

The name Thule itself is 400 years older still, recorded by the Greek navigator Pythias of Massalia—he reported that, after sailing northwards for six days from Britain, he encountered a frozen sea and an island he named Thoule, in a place where there was no night at midsummer. Pythias’ original report is lost, and we know it only from the writings of later authors, many of whom didn’t believe what he said. Roman authors rendered the name as either Tyle or Thule—the latter version is the only one to have survived to the present day, but Tyle (and Tile) were still in use until the end of the Middle Ages.

There are lots of hypotheses about where Pytheas was when he encountered Thule, with Iceland being perhaps the favourite. But for mediaeval map makers, Thule was always somewhere else. Once any given island became a familiar place, it couldn’t possibly be Thule—so Thule became one of several imaginary islands that floated around early maps of the North Atlantic, always tantalizingly out of reach. The map at the head of this post shows one of its later incarnations (as Tile), on Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina of 1572, optimistically marked “Hec insula habet XXX millia populus et amplius“—”This island has more than 30,000 inhabitants”.

As the North Atlantic became better known, Thule gradually disappeared from the maps—only to resurface, improbably enough, in twentieth-century Greenland, as described in the quotation at the head of this post.

In 1910 Knud Rasmussen, the Danish explorer, set up a trading post near the settlement of Pituffik in North Star Bay, at 76½° north latitude on the west coast of Greenland. The area was sparsely inhabited by the most northerly group of Inuit in the world, the Inughuit, whom Rasmussen knew as “Polar Eskimos”. The trading post was officially named Cape York Station Thule, as a nod to its extreme northerly location, but it came to be known as just plain Thule. (Neither Inuktitut nor Danish uses the unvoiced dental fricative “th” sound, so Rasmussen would have pronounced the name with a hard “t”—ˈtuːliː. That pronunciation has carried over, particularly among American English speakers, to the names derived from Rasmussen’s Thule, detailed below.)

Rasmussen mounted numerous expeditions from his base at Thule. On the Second Thule Expedition in 1916 his team, along with Captain George Comer, excavated an archaeological site now called Comer’s Midden, in which they detected the first evidence of the ancestors of the Greenland Inuit people. These proto-Inuit are now called the Thule Culture in remembrance of Rasmussen’s nearby trading post.

Then, during the Second World War, Norwegian aviator Bernt Balchen was tasked with setting up American air bases in Greenland. Having once spoken with Rasmussen about Thule and North Star Bay, Balchen flew over the site in 1942 and identified it as an ideal location, with extensive gravel flats for runways and buildings, and a nearby deep-water harbour. He came back in 1951 to build Thule Air Base, which is still operational—take a look at their Newcomer’s Welcome Package (600KB pdf).

The construction of Thule Air Base drove the Inughuit out of their nearby villages, to resettle farther north in what is now the modern town of Qaanaaq. Which was fortunate, in a way, because in 1968 a B-52 bomber carrying nuclear weapons crashed in North Star Bay, contaminating their ancestral hunting grounds with plutonium.

Rasmussen, I think it’s safe to say, would not have been pleased.

Having explored the Thule connections in this post, next time I’ll write about words that are related to ultima.

* The choice of the name Thule has caused some controversy, because of its connection to a racist and anti-semitic occult organization called the Thule Society, popular among Nazis before the Second World War. Members believed that the island of Thule reported by Pytheas was a lost Aryan homeland in the far north. I’ve consigned them to a footnote. So should history.

Uniquely Shakespearean

Cover of The Shakespeare Miscellany by David & Ben Crystal

[T]here are 357 cases where the Oxford English Dictionary has Shakespeare as the only recorded user of a word, in a particular sense, on one or more occasions.

David Crystal & Ben Crystal The Shakespeare Miscellany (2005)

Shakespeare is well known for being a wordsmith. Elsewhere in their excellent Shakespeare Miscellany, the Crystals note that the OED contains 1035 cases in which Shakespeare is recorded as the first user of a word, with the next user not recorded until at least 25 years later—suggesting Shakespeare coined the word. Many of these words haven’t made it to the present day, however—such as circummure (“to wall round”), facinorious (“extremely wicked”) and pibble-pabble (“to indulge in idle talk”).

More striking are the hundreds of words, as noted above, for which Shakespeare is the only recorded user—ever. It would appear that a good quarter of his coinings fell on completely deaf ears.

For your delectation, I offer a small sample of these uniquely Shakespearean words.



To smear or spread with bitumen

Pericles, Prince of Tyre Act 3, Scene 1
Second Sailor: Sir, we have a chest beneath the hatches, caulked
and bitumed ready.

Shakespeare has formed a verb from bitumen, which is a Latin word meaning “pitch” or “resin”. But the Latin seems to have been borrowed from Gaulish, in which a word something like betu designated a birch tree, or birch resin.



Of a sword, lacking a sheath

Taming of the Shrew Act 3, Scene 2
BIONDELLO: Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old
jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair
of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled,
another laced, an old rusty sword ta’en out of the
town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless

A chape is a plate of metal inlaid in some other material. It was applied particularly to the metal cover protecting the tip of the sheath of a sword or dagger. It also seems, as in Shakespeare’s line above, to have been used to designate the whole sheath. By analogy, the pale tip of a fox’s tail is called a chape. And, in another strand of meaning, the metal bar by which a buckle is attached to a belt is called the chape.



To greet mutually

Henry V Act 5, Scene 2
BURGUNDY: My duty to you both, on equal love,
Great Kings of France and England! That I have labour’d,
With all my wits, my pains and strong endeavours,
To bring your most imperial majesties
Unto this bar and royal interview,
Your mightiness on both parts best can witness.
Since then my office hath so far prevail’d
That, face to face and royal eye to eye,
You have congreeted

Greet is a Germanic word, of uncertain origin. Its earliest meanings in continental Europe were varied—”to approach”, “to call upon”, “to annoy”, “to attack”, “to call to action”, “to salute”. In English, only the last meaning survives.



To melt or dissolve out of a crystalline condition

Antony and Cleopatra Act 4, Scene 12
MARK ANTONY: The hearts
That spaniel’d me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar

The word candy is of Indian origin, from the Sanskrit khanda, “sugar in crystalline pieces”. This filtered through Persian and Arabic to reach Latin as saccharum candi—”sugar candy”. The combination is tautologous, and Shakespeare seems to have understood the candy part to mean “crystal”.



Studying and following fashion

Much Ado About Nothing Act 5, Scene 1
ANTONIO: Hold you content. What, man! I know them, yea,
And what they weigh, even to the utmost scruple,—
Scrambling, out-facing, fashion-monging boys,
That lie and cog and flout, deprave and slander,
Go anticly, show outward hideousness,
And speak off half a dozen dangerous words,
How they might hurt their enemies, if they durst;
And this is all.

Fashion comes from Latin facere, “to make”; monger comes from Old English mangian, “to trade” or “to deal”. The latter gives us cheesemonger, fishmonger, ironmonger and warmonger, among others. It also gave us the now-extinct verb to mong, which Shakespeare uses above, meaning “to traffic” or “to barter”.



A jocular term for a wife or sweetheart

All’s Well That Ends Well Act 2, Scene 3
PAROLLES: To the wars, my boy, to the wars!
He wears his honour in a box unseen,
That hugs his kickie-wickie here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms,
Which should sustain the bound and high curvet
Of Mars’s fiery steed.

Quite why a wife or sweetheart was a kickie-wickie, kicky-wicky or kicksie-wicksie is open to debate. One fears it has something to do with kickshaw, from the French quelque chose, meaning “something”. In Shakespeare’s time it was applied to things that were dainty and elegant, but of no perceived value—including people.



Towards denial or disbelief

The Winter’s Tale Act 2, Scene 1
HERMIONE: But I’d say he had not,
And I’ll be sworn you would believe my saying,
Howe’er you lean to the nayward.

Literally, this means “towards no”. Although nowadays we look on yea and nay as simply archaic version of yes and no, there used to be a difference. Yes and no were used to respond to a question or statement couched as a negative. So to the statement, “You don’t really believe that!” one could respond either by disagreeing using yes (“Yes, I do really believe that”), or agreeing using no (“No, I don’t really believe that”). To a question or statement couched as a positive (“You really believe that!”) one could agree with yea (“Yea, I really believe that”) or disagree with nay (“Nay, I don’t really believe that”). Presumably, the tradition of yea and nay votes in the US Senate harks back to this usage, since the topic to be voted on is usually couched in a positive statement. And the French still make this distinction using two words for yes—oui and si. Oui is used to agree with a positive statement, si to disagree with a negative statement.



Fit to be shaved

ANTONIO: The man i’ the moon’s too slow—till new-born chins
Be rough and razorable

A razor is something that razes. The original meaning of the verb to raze (or rase) was “to cut” or “to scrape”. That meaning evolved into “to remove by scraping”, which is where razor comes from. But one could also remove writing from paper or vellum by scraping—the origin of the verb erase. And it is that usage of raze, implying permanent and complete removal, that remains with us, often in the phrase “to raze to the ground”.

skains mate

skɛəns meɪt

Meaning unknown

Romeo and Juliet Act 2, Scene 4

Nurse: Scurvy knave! I am none of his flirt-gills; I am
none of his skains mates.

The list would not be complete without one mysterious offering. It’s not clear from Shakespeare’s usage what the Nurse actually meant to imply—and since Shakespeare is the only person we know of to have used the phrase, we’ll never know, barring the discovery of some new written evidence.

(Flirt-gill, on other hand, we know. The gill has nothing to do with fish. It is, rather, a woman’s name, pronounced with a soft “g”. It sometimes appears as flirt-gillian, and we also encounter gill-flirt or jill-flirt. The gill is a nickname for a young woman; the flirt refers to what the woman does. So, as the OED rather stuffily puts it, the phrase indicates “a woman of light or loose behaviour”.)

Merry, Jolly, Happy


Carol singers


God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay

Traditional English Christmas carol

The three words I’m going to write about in this post are pretty much inextricably linked with Christmas, but all of them started off meaning something different from their current usage.


merry: cheerful and lively; characterized by festivity and enjoyment

This word started out in Proto-Indo-European sounding something like mreghu-, and meaning something like “short”. (That original meaning is preserved in its descendants brief and breve, among many others.) How it evolved into a word that meant “pleasant” in Old English is a bit of a puzzle, but it’s suggested that there was a verb involved, meaning “to shorten” and then “to make time pass quickly”—and something that made the time pass quickly was pleasant. The same PIE root also gives us mirth, presumably by the same etymological route.

The sense “pleasant” was around for a long time, and has left a confusing legacy for speakers of modern English, more used to the festive senses of merry. Merry England was simply pleasant, rather than noted for its liveliness. A person could be described as merry if they were in good spirits and feeling well:

Julius Caesar Act 2, Scene 4
PORTIA: Run, Lucius, and commend me to my lord;
Say I am merry: come to me again,
And bring me word what he doth say to thee.

And that’s the sense in which merry appears in the Christmas carol at the head of this post—”God rest you merry” means “may God keep you in good health”. That’s why a comma is correctly positioned just before “gentlemen”, who (in more sexist days) were the people to whom this wish was addressed.

The weather was merry if it was pleasant, and a wind was merry if it blew in a favourable direction:

The Comedy Of Errors Act 4, Scene 1
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: The ship is in her trim; the merry wind
Blows fair from land: they stay for nought at all
But for their owner, master, and yourself.

And a merry man or merryman was the companion in arms of a knight or chief. Robin Hood’s merry men were good people to have around, not necessarily riotous in their good humour.

But by Shakespeare’s time the meaning of merry was shifting. He was able to use it in its old sense of “pleasant”, as illustrated above, but could also deploy it with something like its modern meaning, as when Ophelia frostily describes Hamlet as being “merry” when he indulges in a tedious double entendre at her expense. Sixty years later, Charles II was called the Merry Monarch, in part because people thought it was pleasant to have a king again after the excesses of Cromwell’s government, and in part because of the lively nature of the court he kept.

Soon after that, we find merry-andrew used to designate a clown or buffoon (though no-one is sure who the original Andrew was), and the modern meaning is firmly in place.

A merrythought is an old and lovely name for the “wishbone” of a bird. A merry-go-round is a pretty boring fairground ride, but it dates from after the transition of merry to imply “cheerful and lively”, so people were obviously short of fun in those days. A merry-totter is an old name for a see-saw, and merry-go-down is obsolete slang for strong ale. Sadly, the name of the Merrydown vintage cider company seems to be unconnected—named instead after the house of one of the original owners. But the association with alcoholic beverages brings us to one final meaning for merry—as the OED coyly puts it, “hilarious with drink”.


jolly: happy and cheerful

Jolly came into Middle English from Old French, in the form of jolif. The final “f” was lost in both languages, and French joli preserves one of the word’s orginal meanings: “pretty”. The OED lists a multitude of other meanings for jolif, including “brave”, “amorous”, “finely dressed”, “gallant”, “festive” and “lively”—apparently a list of desirable attributes for the young and healthy.

So we see jolly used to imply lively spirits and good health. From there it was but a short step to using it for anyone who was in a party mood, and from that it became a euphemism for “drunk”, a meaning it had acquired by the seventeenth century. And it became fashionable to refer to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, as the jolly god.

Another strand of meaning for jolly was the idea of cheerful bravery—that’s how Edmund Spenser used it in The Faerie Queene, when he wrote:

Full jolly knight he seemed, and fair did sit,
As one for knightly jousts and fierce encounters fit.

And that’s probably the sense in which it was used for the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger. (The “Roger” perhaps comes from a common nickname for the Devil at the time—Old Roger.)

Another strand relates to connotations of amorousness and lustfulness, and it’s in that sense that Shakespeare uses the word here:

Richard III Act 4, Scene 3
KING RICHARD III: Now, for I know the Breton Richmond aims
At young Elizabeth, my brother’s daughter,
And, by that knot, looks proudly o’er the crown,
To her I go, a jolly thriving wooer.

But in Shakespeare’s time all those youthful and (in the main) positive associations led to jolly becoming a sort of non-specific sound of approval, much as nice has become in the present day. And that also allowed it be used as an intensifier:

The Taming Of The Shrew Act 3, Scene 2
KATHARINA: For me, I’ll not be gone till I please myself:
‘Tis like you’ll prove a jolly surly groom,
That take it on you at the first so roundly.

Good health, bravery and lust gradually fell by the wayside during the seventeenth century, and jolly eventually settled down to its present connotation of lively good cheer with a possible side-order of inebriation. Its use as an intensifier can still be heard, but the days of Wodehousian ejaculations like, “Jolly good show, old chap!” are sadly long gone.


happy: feeling or showing pleasure or contentment

Happy was originally the adjective derived from Middle English hap, which meant “chance” or “fortune”, either good or bad. So an event was happy if it occurred by chance. But both these meanings soon shifted to concentrate on good things—hap was good fortune, and happy designated the results of good fortune.

Although hap is no longer used, it has left a list of derived words. The verb to happen originally implied “to occur by chance”. A mishap is a piece of bad luck, and someone who is hapless is luckless. Something haphazard is exposed to the hazards of chance. And a happenstance is a circumstance that happens by chance—it’s occasionally rendered as happenchance, just to make that clear. Happen-so is another word for the same thing.

We still occasionally talk about events as being happy if they are favoured by good luck—a “happy coincidence”, for instance—but we’ve largely moved on to thinking of happy as being the state of mind induced by good fortune.

For Shakespeare, though, a person was described as happy if they were blessed by good luck, even if that good luck was unlikely to be giving them much joy at the time:

Henry V Act 4, Scene 3
KING HENRY V: We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

The St Crispin’s Day speech is stirring stuff, but it seems unlikely that any of Henry’s listeners were “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment” at the time, especially when he got to the “sheds his blood” bit—this was grim good fortune that could only be savoured by the survivors.

Finally (wouldn’t you know it), pretty much as soon as happy became associated with a state of pleasure and contentment, it became associated with alcoholic drink—by the eighteenth century, happy had joined merry and jolly as a euphemism for drunkenness.

If you’re disposed to celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry, jolly, happy one, in the modern senses of those words; the involvement of alcohol is entirely up to you.



gangrel (noun): a vagabond, vagrant or wandering beggar; a lanky, loose-limbed person; a toddler (Scottish hillwalking: a person who wanders far among the hills)

  Only the real gangrel penetrates this remote corrie with its shivering waters and black Sgurr.

Hamish Brown, Hamish’s Mountain Walk (1978)

Brown is talking about Loch a’ Choire Mhoir, above—an out-of-the-way spot tucked around the back of Seana Bhraigh, one of Scotland’s more out-of-the-way hills. There aren’t any topographic features called sgurr (a pointed peak) in the vicinity, but Brown’s description, black sgurr, certainly fits the ridge of Creag an Duine, which looms across the loch from Coiremor bothy, where he was spending the night. Brown uses the word gangrel fourteen times in his classic book, and always with approval. In Brown’s vocabulary, a gangrel is the very model of a hill-wanderer, someone to be admired and respected—in contradistinction to its original meanings, all of which to some extent reflect the implications of the -rel suffix, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “diminutive and depreciatory”. Brown’s book, describing his continuous, self-propelled round of all Scotland’s Munros (hills over 3000ft), was hugely popular among Scottish hill-walkers. Brown was the first to complete this feat, and his book has been pretty much continuously in print ever since. There’s no doubt that Brown cemented this particular usage of the word gangrel into the minds of a generation of walkers. How did it come to acquire this new meaning? I don’t know, but there was a fashion among hill-writers of Brown’s generation (and among his predecessors) to resuscitate and repurpose Scots words—I suspect a close examination of back-issues of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal would cast a lot of light on the subject. Brown also introduced many of his readers to the word stravaig. Its original meaning is “to stroll or wander aimlessly”, but again under Brown’s care it became a positive thing—the sort of thing gangrels do. But nowadays, any hill writer who uses gangrel or stravaig is aiming for a particular effect—a sort of couthy, misty-eyed harking-back to a Golden Age of Scottish hill-walking. Use should be sparing—anyone who puts them both in the same sentence is liable to incur mockery. Both words feel as if they’re Gaelic, don’t they? But stravaig is Latin in origin, a cut-down rendering of extravagate, “to wander”, which will perhaps be the focus of another post. This time I’m going to concentrate on gangrel, which is a fine Germanic word. Gangrel comes from the Old English gangan, “to go”, which has living cousins in many Germanic languages—German eingang and Icelandic inngangur both mean “entrance”, for instance. In Scots, the Old English verb has been kept alive as gang, “to go” as in Robert Burns‘s lines from To A Mouse:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley

(The second line can be rendered into standard English as “Go oft awry”.) A person who walks is a ganger. That usage is commemorated in the cognomen of Rolf the Ganger (in Old Norse, Gongu-Hrólfr), the first Viking ruler of Normandy—a man so large he couldn’t find a horse that could carry him, obliging him to walk everywhere. (Although I’ve also seen it suggested that he was simply so tall his feet hung down to the ground when mounted on one of the diminutive horses of his time, so it looked as if he was walking.) As a noun, gang has had multiple meanings in English. First, it was used to designate the act or a style of walking, or a journey; then a road or passage, or the course of a stream. Much later, it was used to indicate the amount of something that could be carried in a single journey, by a person or a pack animal—two pails of water was a gang, for instance. From that idea, it came to mean any set of things—so a pair of oars was a gang. And from that, a group of people working or going about together—a gang of workmen, a gang of thieves—which is our current understanding of the noun. The oldest meaning is preserved in gangway and gang-plank, which are things you walk along. The Edinburgh suburb of Oxgangs gets its name from an old measure of land area, the oxgang. A carucate was the amount of land that could be ploughed by a team of eight oxen in a year; an eighth of that area was considered to be the contribution of a single ox—an oxgang. (An odd measure, really, since all the oxen had walked all the way around the land.) And what the Christian church now calls Rogation Days (the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Day) were once called gang-days, because they were a time of processions; Rogation Week was then called Gang-week. (Rogation means “supplication”—so the focus has shifted from the processions themselves, to the prayer chanted during the processions.) As well as people, some animals go around in gangs—bison, elk and turkeys. All of these have alternative collective nouns—a herd of bison or elk, an obstinacy of bison, and a rafter of turkeys. Finally, we have gangling, which was once applied to straggling growth in plants—as if the plant were seeking to travel somewhere. By analogy, it’s now applied to people who are tall and loose-limbed, and that’s probably the derivation of the second meaning for gangrel (“a lanky, loose-limbed person”) I gave at the head of this post. With regard to -rel, that “diminutive and depreciatory” suffix, we have numerous examples. Some are of obscure origin, like mackerel, doggerel, scoundrel and kestrel. Some are obvious diminutives—a cockerel seems to have originally been the word for a small cock, and a pickerel is a young pike. A hoggerel is a young … sheep. (The word comes from hogg, a sheep that is no longer a lamb but has yet to be sheared.) And some are dismissive—a wastrel is someone who wastes; a haverel is someone who havers (talks nonsense); a bedrel is a bedridden person; a dotterel is a stupid bird (from the same root as dote and dotard); and a mongrel takes its name from a shortened form of among, indicating a mixture. Some are splendidly obscure. A custrel was the attendant of a knight—the name coming from custile, a large two-edged knife carried by such attendants. A costrel was “pilgrim’s bottle”, supplied with looped handles so it could be carried on a belt while travelling. Its name derived from the Old French costier, “a thing which is by the side”. And a stammerel is a stammerer, but not the sort you think. Stammerers and stammerels were loose stones left in the quarry after the larger rocks had been removed—as if the rocks had developed some sort of physical stammer. Finally, Scots dialect gives us gomerel and gamphrel, both of unknown origin, both indicating a simpleton. But perhaps Scottish hill writers of the future will find a way to give them a positive spin, as happened with gangrel.

Letters From Abroad: Edh and Thorn

Eth & thornIf you were transported unconscious to a foreign country and then wakened in the street, a glimpse of this plumber’s van would tell you exactly where you were—only Icelandic contains the two unusual letters that feature in that first word viðhaldsþjónusta (“maintenance services”). In fact, the Icelanders refer to their letters ð and þ as séríslenskur: “uniquely Icelandic”.

Icelandic plumber's van

The þ character is called thorn in English, and it derives from the ancient runic alphabet once used by speakers of the Germanic languages (which include the languages of Scandinavia). Below, it appears as the third letter of the Elder Futhark, the earliest known version of runic, which prevailed in northern Europe for about the first eight hundred years of the Christian Era:

Elder Futhark runes

The þ rune was associated with the dental fricative sound now symbolized by “th” in English. In fact, the name Futhark for this alphabet comes from the pronunciation of its first six letters. (Be sure to pronounce the first syllable “foo” rather than “fuh”.)

The letter’s name in proto-Germanic has been reconstructed as something like þurisaz, meaning “giant”. If you want to know how complicated it is to figure something like that out, take a look at the first few minutes of this video, by Jackson Crawford, a historical linguist:

The letter acquired its modern English name, thorn, when the Elder Futhark was modified by the Anglo-Saxons, and used to write Old English (among other languages). Elsewhere, the Elder Futhark gave way to (you guessed it) the Younger Futhark, which was used to write various Scandinavian languages.

When languages that used the thorn rune started being written in the Latin alphabet, the old runic letter was retained, but its shape shifted from the incised straight lines of runic to a more rounded version suited to pen and ink.*

Evolution of thorn character

But the Latin alphabet already had a conventional way of indicating the dental fricative sound that thorn symbolized in runic—the Romans had used the “th” digraph when they transliterated Greek words containing the letter θ (theta) into Latin. So thorn gradually faded out of use, being replaced by “th” in every language but Icelandic.

The fading of thorn in English took an odd turn, however. As Old English evolved into Middle English, generations of scribes gradually modified the thorn letter so that its upper stem shortened and then disappeared, and the bowl of the letter opened at the top. What was left looked very like a letter y. For instance, here are the opening words of the Gospel of Saint John in a fourteenth-century Wycliffe’s Bible:

"In the beginning" from Wycliffe Bible

“In the beginning …” is written as “In þe bigynyng …” But the open-topped þ is so like the subsequent y characters, that the scribe has felt obliged to indicate the y‘s by adding a dot or a line above each.

Thorn then drifted almost entirely out of use, being retained only in a few small grammatical words—for instance, “the” was written þe, and “this” and “that” were abbreviated as þs and þt. Written down, they looked very like ye, ys and yt. Here are the latter two, looking like YS and YT, appearing in the inscription on Shakespeare’s funerary monument in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon:

Shakespeare funerary monument detail

The thorn characters are rendered identically to the letter y as it appears elsewhere in the same text. So it was natural that when the word “þe” appeared in printed books, many English printers, finding no thorn character in their imported continental type-boxes, used a letter y instead.

Which is why the world is still full of shops and pubs called “Ye Olde …” something-or-other.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Photo by George Rex
Used under Creative Commons Attribute Share-Alike 2.0 Generic licence

That “ye” should be pronounced “the”, and it’s the very last gasp of the runic character thorn in English.

Although the thorn character was imported, the edh has its origins in the Latin alphabet. (It’s also spelled eth. Either way, pronounce its name with a voiced “th”, as in the first syllable of weather.) Edh first appeared in Old English, and the curved shape of its lower-case form (ð) preserves the curved shape of a lower-case d in the uncial script of Ireland. Scribes took the uncial d, and crossed its ascender, like this:

Uncial d converted to eth

Its name in Old English was ðæt, which is often rendered as that in the modern English alphabet. The Oxford English Dictionary has no record of the name edh before the nineteenth century—presumably it was coined in imitation of its sound.

And that’s the odd thing about edh and thorn—they were both used to symbolize the same dental fricative sounds in Old English. Sometimes a scribe would even shift the spelling of a word from one letter to the other, halfway through a manuscript. It’s no surprise that one eventually won out—edh disappeared from English in the fourteenth century; thorn persisted for a while in a Middle English (as described above), before surrendering its job to “th”.

The mediaeval Scandinavians borrowed the edh for their own alphabets, but gradually replaced it with “dh” or just plain d. Even Icelandic mislaid the edh for centuries—for example, it is not mentioned in the First Grammatical Treatise, a twelfth-century work on the phonology of Old Icelandic, in which thorn performs solo duty in representing the dental fricative sound. But edh was restored when the Icelandic alphabet was finalized in the nineteenth century. Edh and thorn now have complementary roles, representing the voiced and unvoiced dental fricatives, respectively. So edh is the hard “th” sound at the start of that, while thorn is the soft “th” sound at the start of, well, thorn.

Once Icelandic got the ball rolling for edh, the letter was revived in a couple of other languages, too. An alphabet for Faeroese was adopted in 1854 (it had languished unwritten for centuries), and it included the edh on mainly etymological grounds. Written Faeroese contains an edh where a dental fricative would have been sounded in Old Norse—but that sound is absent from modern Faeroese, so the edh most often signals a gliding link between two vowels. The placename Viðareiði is pronounced something like VEE-ya-rye-ih, for instance. (The fact that written Faeroese preserves some of the appearance of Old Norse, from which Icelandic also evolved, means that Icelanders can often puzzle out written Faeroese despite being unable to understand the spoken language.)

More recently, the Elfdalian language of Central Sweden (with around 2500 speakers) acquired its own alphabet in 2005—the edh does duty for the voiced dental fricative, just as in Icelandic.

And that’s it for edh—three languages, of which Icelandic is by far the most commonly spoken. It’s also used as a phonetic symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet, indicating a voiced dental fricative. The unvoiced dental fricative, for which Icelandic uses the thorn character, is indicated phonetically by the Greek letter θ (theta).

So edh is not as “uniquely Icelandic” as the Icelanders might claim, but they do speak the only modern language that uses the letter thorn.

Strangely, the BBC did recently try to insert the thorn into Turkish. Michael Scott’s fascinating television series Ancient Invisible Cities visited Istanbul for Series 1 Episode 3, which was broadcast just as I was putting the finishing touches to this post. With amazing synchronicity, and to my initial alarm and subsequent amusement, some strange orthographic misadventure in the bowels of the BBC converted the family name of the Turkish art historian Ferudun Özgümüş into Özgümüþ.

Ancient Invisible Cities screenshot

* For the runic and uncial illustrations on this page, I’m using the excellent Pfeffer Mediæval font.
You might wonder if edh and thorn performed similar duties, indicating different sounds, in Old English—but that seems not to be the case. They were treated as entirely interchangeable characters, and the reader was left to work out the voiced/unvoiced distinction for themselves, just as we do today with the “th” digraph, which stands for both voiced and unvoiced sounds.