Medieval Orgins: Words and phrases that evolved during the Medieval period

Many of the words we commonly use today have their origins in Medieval times. Here are a few of them. There are many, many more.

AUBRY'S DOG- A Frenchman, one Aubry of Montdidier, was murdered in 1371 by Richard of Macaire. Aubry's dog Dragon thereafter attacked Richard anytime he came near. This excited suspicion of Richard, and he was ordered into judicial combat with the dog. Dragon killed him, and in his last moments Richard confessed to the murder. An Aubry's dog is thus a very loyal or faithful dog.

AUTO-DA-FE -A public judgement against someone tried by the Inquisition was called an "act of faith". The guilty heretic was usually then condemned to burning at the stake (albeit sometimes before the fires were lit they were strangled as a special "mercy"), Church law prohibiting the shedding of blood and all that. The Portugues for "act of faith" is Auto-da-fe, which has entered English as the name for these proceedings.

BALK- Derived from the Old English BALCA, reffered to the ridge between two furrows when plowing. Since the balk was an obstacle, it became used to refer to any obstruction. Baseball's BALK comes from a more obsolete meaning of balk, as in miss, slip, or fail.

BANK/BANKRUPT- In mideaval times Italian moneylenders used benches in the marketplace to conduct business. Latin for bench was Banca, which transferred to English as bank. These lenders were required to publically break up their benches if their businesses failed, the Latin expression being banca rupta-, becoming bankrupt in English.

BARTHOLOMEW PIG- A term used by Shakespeare to refer to very fat people, these people resembling the whole roast pigs served on St. Bartholomew's festival. The festival was celebrated on August 24 from 1133 to 1855. The symbol for St. Bartholomew was the knife, alluding to the one used to flay him alive in Armenia in AD 44.

BEDLAM:- Bethlehem hospital in London was built to house the mentally ill. As most commoners were at best semi-literate, they mangled the name so that it emerged as "bedlam," with the implication of chaos deriving from the insane antics of the residents.

BLAB- First recorded by Chaucer is supposed to be a shortening of BLABBER. BLABBER in turn is said to derive from BLAEBEREN which means to chatter or spill out lose talk.

BLACKMAIL- Sixteenth century Scottish farmers paid their rent, or mail, to English absentee landlords in the form of WHITE MAIL (silver money), or BLACKMAIL (rent payment in the form of produce or livestock). The term blackmail took on a bad connotation only when the greedy landlords forced money poor farmers to pay much more in goods than the they would pay in silver. Later, when robbers along the borders demanded payment for passage and "protection" the farmers called this extortion blackmail as well.

BLUE BLOOD- The Moors in Spain (or moops according Sinefeld's George Castanza) were much darker in skin tone than their Spanish adversaries. The Spanish began to distinguish themselves by referring to themselves as -sangre azul- or blue blood. This simply refers to the fact that their lighter skin allowed the veins to show through blue. This was later borrowed to apply to all European nobility.

BLUE RIBBON- The Most Noble Order of the Garter had as its badge a dark blue velvet ribbon edged with gold that was/is worn below the left knee. Inscribed on the ribbon is the motto -Honi soit qui mal y pense- (shame to him who thinks evil of it). Popular legend says that the words were spoken by Edward III when dancing with Countess of Salisbury. She lost one of her garters and he slipped it upon his own leg to save her embarressment uttering those famous words. When he established the Order of the Garter around 1344 the blue ribbon awarded with the appointment became known to represent the hieghest achievement in the field. And has carried over to mean the same to this day.

BONFIRE- A pagan festival held in England during the summer was celebrated by burning in huge piles the bones of livestock slaughtered during the past year. These "bone fires" continued into christian times being celebrated on St. Johns Day, June 24. And were still held up to 200 years ago in remoter areas. By the 16th century bonefire was changed to bonfire and referred to any large fire.

BRIBE- A bribe is a sinester thing today but it didn't start out that way. In 14th century France alms given to a beggar were called bribes. Soon beggars began to DEMAND such alms, when it reached england about 100 years later it came to mean "to extort or steal". Within another century it came to mean instead of extortion,"a voluntary inducement to get someone to do something for the giver" which has endured to this day.

CURFEW- Despite the modern perception, Medieval cities were actually rather well regulated places, with municipal ordinances governing many aspects of public life to maintain order and safety. However, even the best maintained cities were mostly built of wood, fire was a constant danger, and most cities experienced a devastating fire every few decades. To help provide some protection against fires, many cities required that fires be banked at night. On his first rounds of the evening, the night watchman would remind all the citizens to cover their fires. In Old French this was covre feu, which became coeverfu in Anglo-French after the Norman Conquest, courfeu in Old English, and eventually our modern "curfew," with the meaning of a limitation.

DOGS OF WAR (or war dogs). War dogs of the middle ages were especially fierce and trained to kill men, as in Shakespeare's phrase "Cry 'Havoc!' and loose the dogs of war." They were a varity of mastiff. Wardogs were brought over to the new world by the Spanish were especially devastating to the locals. They would use the dogs to execute natives as they saw fit, the natives not being Christian had no rights.

FREE LANCE- A knight --or other man-at-arms-- without ties to an overlord, and thus "free" to accept employment where ever he found it, a mercenary.

GLEE- As in "being full of glee" or "glee club," derives from an Old English verb gleek,

meaning "sing." One can actually encounter gleek itself, in its only modern English usage, in one of Shakespeare's comedies.

HAVOC- A medieval war cry signifying "no quarter."

LANCE CORPORAL- On long, arduous campaigns it sometimes happened that a man-at-arms lost his horses, and was compelled to fight on foot. As he was more than a common footslogger, he was usually placed in command over low born troops, as a "[Broken-] Lance Corporal"

MAUDLIN- Another attempt by Medieval Londoners to pronounce a hospital name, this time it being "Magdalene."

"RING AROUND THE ROSEY . . . ."- The "nursery rhymn" actually refers to the Plague. An early sign of the disease is a reddish swelling. The "pocket full of rye" part refers to the belief that rye was a charm against the disease. The last two lines, "Ashes, ashes, all fall down" refer to burning the bodies of everyone who's died, which will shortly include you.

TO BEAT BLACK AND BLUE- Originally the colors were BLAK and BLA when first recorded in around 1300. Bla being the bluish-black color of the human skin when bruised.

TO BEAT THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF YOU- Derived from the original phrase/threat "I'll let daylight into you!" Which referred to using your sword or knife on the offender. As these weapons fell out of use the phrase we know came to be. When examined it makes no literal sense in the form we commonly use today.

TAWDRY- On the Feast of St. Audrey it was common to give as gifts little trinkets --religious medallions, charms, and such-- of no great value. As a result, the phrase "a St. Audrey" came to mean something cheap, which eventually, became "tawdry."

Other words of Medieval origin have not survived into the 20th century (at least not as well as those mentioned above.) The following words can be tossed any conversation you happen to have in a "Medieval manner."

MAMMET- This can be a puppet, or it can, in religious parlance mean an idol, something which distracts the soul from God. From a medieval English corruption of the word Mohammed. variation of "maumet" meaning a false god or idol, a figure of contempt. Used as a generalized term of abuse or contempt.

MOLDWARP- A mole and is English in derivation, literally meaning "one who shifts/moves (warps) earth (mold). A stupid, shiftless person Pronounced moodiwart.

PIGNUT- A northern English word, defined as an "earth-nut". Variation of "earthnut" meaning (among other things) a truffle.

PUTTOCK- Can be either a prostitute or a "greedy ravenous person". Also any of several birds of prey including the buzzard.

SCUT- Can be either a rabbit tail or, as an adjective, it can mean short. "Scut work", is a common term in the military. Scut work is not pleasant. Originally the tail of an animal, especially a rabbit or deer. also: posterior, female genitals, a contemptible person. The military use refers to the sergeants desire to see nothing of his men except their backsides (as they bend over to dig trenches, or whatever.)

WAGTAIL- A profligate woman, a wanton woman, a prostitute.

CLOTPOLE- Composed of "clot" meaning fool or oaf and "pole" referring to the male genetalia.

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