Origins of 10 Everyday Words and Expressions

Image of Chaucer as a pilgrim from the Ellesmere Manuscript, an early publishing of the Canterbury Tales.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Chaucer as a pilgrim from the Ellesmere Manuscript, an early publishing of the Canterbury Tales. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Evolution of English

Did you ever wonder about the origins of the words and expressions we use every day, like goodbye and willy nilly? English is a West Germanic language with a long, rich history of evolution, stretching back from modern English to Middle English (in which The Canterbury Tales was written), Old English (a collection of dialects of which Late West Saxon came to dominate), to the Anglo-Freisian dialects brought to Britain by ancient Germanic invaders. Successive waves of invaders, such as the Vikings and the Normans, splashed their own languages into the English melting pot, resulting in large-scale changes that rendered the older languages unintelligible to modern English speakers. Many cultures have added words and expressions more peacefully to our language, and English has evolved through the wide variety of its own users over the centuries.

English words and phrases were often contracted, misspelled, or changed in meaning. Here are 10 common English words and expressions (though some are beginning to be less familiar as they pass out of everyday usage) and the source from which they are derived.

1. Fortnight. This is the contraction of "fourteen nights," meaning two weeks, derived from the old Germanic custom of counting by nights rather than days. "I'll be gone for a fortnight," means "I'll be gone for two weeks."

2. Goodbye. This is the contracted form of the phrase "God Be With You," used as a farewell. It was often spoken as "God Be With Ye." During Chaucer's time it would have rhymed with "Goad Bay Seethe Yay." Over time, "with ye" became "wi'ye," and spoken with the rapidity and carelessness of everyday speech, it became contracted to its present form.

3. Mayday. This distress call, used by aircraft and ship personnel when the aircraft or ship is in danger of crashing or sinking, is from the French "m'aidez," meaning "aid me" or "help me."

4. Mind Your Ps and Qs. This phrase, used by parents to remind their children of proper behavior, originated in British pubs, where beer was served in half-pints, pints, and quarts. When a group got too rowdy, the barman would rap the bottom of a glass on the bar to get their attention and warn, "All right, now, mind your pints and quarts."

5. Okay. This is derived from the Scottish "Och Aye," meaning "oh yes."

6. Perhaps. This is a combination of two Middle English words. "Per" means "by" or "through," and "haps" means "incident," "occurrence," or "accident." Combined, the combination came to mean "by accident," indicating doubt about whether something would happen. Variations include "perchance" and "mayhaps."

7. Sennight. This is the contraction of "seven nights," meaning one week, again from the old Germanic custom. "Tuesday sennight" therefore means "a week from Tuesday."

8. Today: this is the contracted form of "on this day." Over time it gradually became "on th' day," "on t' day," and finally just "today." It was written as "to-day" until the early 20th century (an example can be seen in the children's book series The Bobbsey Twins).

9. Tomorrow: this is very similar to "today," having started life as "on the morrow," meaning "in the morning."

10. Willy Nilly: this is the contracted form of "Will He, Nill He," meaning "whether he wants to or doesn't want to."


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Comments 8 comments

rjsadowski profile image

rjsadowski 4 years ago

Interesting. I'll bet you could come up with 10 more if you try.


Leah Helensdottr profile image

Leah Helensdottr 4 years ago from Colorado Author

I think so, too. I originally intended to do 25, but I went blank and couldn't think of any more. Maybe later...thanks for the comment.


Escapes profile image

Escapes 4 years ago

I love reading trivia like this. Very interesting.


Leah Helensdottr profile image

Leah Helensdottr 4 years ago from Colorado Author

I do, too. Thanks, Escapes!


Shawna Van Trease profile image

Shawna Van Trease 4 years ago

Fun read. The transformation of words and their usage is fascinating stuff.


Leah Helensdottr profile image

Leah Helensdottr 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Thank you, Shawna! There's another one I forgot to include: sheriff. In medieval England, "shire" was the word for "county," and a "reeve" was a government official. The shire reeve was the highest official in the county, and the term blended together over the centuries to become our "sheriff."


feenix profile image

feenix 4 years ago

Hello, Leah,

I voted this hub up and pushed all of the buttons. It is well written and quite informative.

In fact, I am bookmarking this article because knowledge of the facts that you provided will help me to be a big hit at the next dinner party I attend. ;-)


Leah Helensdottr profile image

Leah Helensdottr 4 years ago from Colorado Author

Thanks for the votes, feenix! And I'm glad to support your successful social life.

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