September 28, 2018

Words of the Month - Doublets

        In its enthusiasm for other languages’ words, English sometimes adopts a foreign word multiple times over the centuries, ending up with multiple English words that come from the same root.  These words are a type of  doublets: words in the same language derived by different routes of transmission from the same source.  I covered some of these words in a previous post, and since then have collected some more examples to share with you.
        Usually these word pairs end up with different meanings, as for example…
        In the early fourteenth century we borrowed channel from French (which took it from Latin canalis).  It meant in French, as it was borrowed into English, “the bed of a flow of water.”  About a century later, we went back to French to borrow the same word again, this time in its more Latin form of canal, to refer to “tubular passages in the body”.  There is no reason we couldn’t have simply given the first word a second meaning with the growing science of anatomy, but presumably the scientists felt then, as they tend to do to this day, that to sound scientific, a word must sound Latinate.
        Another early fourteenth century word from French is reward (“to give something, especially as compensation”), which came specifically from an Old North French word.  In the mid-fourteenth century we borrowed again, from the then more current form of French, and got regard (“to consider”).  The French word from which we borrowed them both meant “to take notice of,” so you can see how they are related.
        Chase and catch are doublets, funny as that seems.  English borrowed them from variant forms of Old French cacier, “to hunt.”  Catching actually came first, borrowed in about 1200, while chasing was borrowed about a hundred years later.
        English borrowed the word freebooter from Dutch vrijbuiter in the 1560s, when buccaneers were common, especially in the West Indies, and piracy was pursued as both a viable career choice and foreign policy.  In the seventeenth century a book by Dutch freebooter John Oexmelin was popular enough to be translated into French and Spanish, and, in 1684, into English.  All these translations melded the Spanish version of the word (including an extra i) and the French version (including a gratuitous s), and gave us a new English word, filibuster.  (The verb for the legislative strategy doesn’t seem to have occurred before the end of the nineteenth century.)
        Also from Dutch, in the early fifteenth century, English borrowed bulwark, “a fortification or rampart.”  French borrowed the word, too, around the same time, but garbled it a little, as they had no w in their alphabet.  They also, apparently, tore down their bulwarks and laid out broad streets on the sites, but called these tree-lined promenades by their version of same word: boulevard.  English borrowed this French version, along with its new meaning, in 1769.
        In the late thirteenth century, English borrowed the Old French word cloque, as cloak, so called because it was bell-shaped (sort of).  A hundred years later, we borrowed the word again, but this time influenced by the Dutch version and giving us clock, which also, of course, had bells.  And in 1882 we borrowed the word again, only by this time the French form had altered in the intervening years, giving us cloche, a ball-jar (and by 1907 also a bell-shaped woman’s hat).
        Sometimes the word pairs are close synonyms, as…
        The word poor entered English in about 1200, from Old French, which had developed from the Latin root pauper.  And you can see where this is going.  English borrowed the Latin word directly in about 1510, where it was originally a legal term for someone who was not required to pay legal fees due to their impoverished state.  And that word had come into English in the early fifteenth century, from a related Old French word from the same Latin root.
        We really wouldn’t have needed more than one of those words, but when has English ever been satisfied with a single word when there are synonyms to be had?

        The thing to remember about these double-borrowings is that sometimes, as in the case of channel/canal, people deliberately choose another variant of a word we already have.  But often speakers are completely unaware of the relationship between two words with different meanings.  Of course knowing the relationship gains you nothing in terms of sense or usage, but it does gain you the satisfaction of knowing something nifty about the history of our language.

[Pictures: The freebooter Captain Jack Vincent, wood block print for the 1726 edition of History of the Most Notorious Pyrates by Charles Johnson (Image from Sea Thieves);
Florentine merchant in a cloak, wood block print from Habiti antichi et moderni by Cesae Vecelio, 1598 (Image from Biblioteca Casanatense);
Cloche hat styles, illustration from Sears Roebuck catalogue, 1924.]

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