Origins of 10 Everyday Words and Expressions
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."