Barfield’s History in English Words is a joy of allusions as well as etymological connections. And there are many very old words he tracks that are still in everyday use.
Did you know that we should thank our distant Aryan ancestors for many names of trees and birds, like “beech” and “hazel”, “finch” and “starling”? Other Aryan words that convey a feel of those times include “garden”, “geese”, “oxen”, “sows”, “hounds”, “milk”, “weave”, “axle”, “wheel”, “yoke”, “fire”, “night”, “star”, “thunder”, “wind”.
What I’ve done here is pick one word for each century over the last 2,500 years, beginning with the Athenian Greeks and the word, “philosophy”.
5th century BCE – “philosophy”
It must have felt very Pythagorean when first used by Plato, with its roots reaching back into the 6th century BCE, and possibly Egyptian origins. It would have carried echoes of sacred astronomy, geometry and number, and comes in with other words like “cosmos”, “chord”, “harmony”, “metaphor”, “rhetoric”.
4th century BCE – “quality”
This word is Cicero’s translation of Plato’s neologism, “poiotes” or “whatness”, remembering one of Plato’s key gifts: to think about the feel, worth and intrinsic fit of things. It’s linked to another central dynamic for Plato, namely love. He meant it as that which enables us to rise from the contemplation of the transient aspect to the eternal aspect, from the visible to the invisible, from the mortal to the immortal, and thereby discover new dimensions within ourselves.
It’s also worth noting that Plato didn’t have words we now naturally associate with philosophy, like “quantity” or “metaphysics”. They were created by his great pupil, Aristotle.
3rd century BCE – “fantasy”
“Fantasy” and “fancy”, in the Greek, became popular with the emergence of the Stoics. They had a somewhat sceptical attitude towards the old religions, regarding their own sense of Zeus as an improvement. “Image” was an Epicurean idea, as the thin film or husk thrown off from surfaces that enter the eye when seen or detected. The Stoics also coined “etymology”, the true meaning of words, which says much about their interests, as well.
2nd century BCE – “logos”
This rich word for “word”, that also resounds with “argument”, “law”, “reason” and “tendency”, was contemplated by the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus, who saw it expressing a key principle of the cosmos. It became the central divine perception for the Stoics and, in this century, one of their number, Diogenes of Babylon, made a celebrated trip to Rome, and the word began to take off more widely.
1st century BCE – “humanity”
This is another one made familiar by Cicero’s genius. He combined Greek notions of loving what makes us human and education to create “humanitas”. It was originally about what makes a good speaker: someone who can project a good character, as in “having humanity”.
1st century CE – “martyr”
It means “witness unto death”, an early appearance with this meaning being found in the Biblical book of Acts, where it refers to Stephen, the first martyr. Barfield notes that it’s a rare word still in use that sheds light on novel feelings and experiences from the period. An individual might now know their god so personally that they are prepared to die witnessing to that inner spirit.
2nd century CE – “free will”
All sorts of words to do with the individual start to be born, in fact, pointing to the key legacy of Christianity. For example, someone is accused of “plagiarism” for the first time about now. And it’s Justin Martyr who starts to argue that human individuals have free will, with more or less the same sense that we have.
3rd century CE – “sacrament”
This is a Latin translation of the Greek for “mystery”, used by the Christians to pin down what did and didn’t count as a divine channel. There was probably a democratic impulse at play here, as Christianity became hugely popular with everyday folk in this century. But it had a negative effect on “mystery”. It had referred to an initiation ceremony that yielded a sense of eternal life, but now it’s meaning started to become vaguer.
4th century CE – “confession”
Augustine wrote his brilliant autobiography with this title, more or less inventing the genre. With his Confessions, he opened the flood gate to introspective culture, he himself using far more words to describe his interiority and reflection than are found in older documents like the Bible.
5th century CE – “runes”
This is the traditional date for Anglo-Saxons in Britain, and Old English begins, with runes introduced. They’re important as England, at least, starts to develop an identity of its own, following the withdrawal of the Romans.
6th century CE – “consolation”
Boethius, facing death from a prison in northern Italy, writes his philosophical meditation, The Consolation of Philosophy. It’s a popular work, including beautiful poems, and offers a practical wisdom that restores Platonic philosophy. Dante’s vision of the soul finding its true place in the cosmos is an extended elaboration. Chaucer’s philosophical reflections are inconceivable without it.
7th century CE – “Chatrang”
This is an old Persian version of the game of chess. The Arabs discovered it in this century, when they began their conquests following the death of the prophet, Mohammad. The earliest attested English poetry has its origins now, with Beowulf being composed soon after.
8th century CE – “horseshoe”
Horseshoes, heavy ploughs, and horse collars come into use. They mark a revolution in agriculture and so help to sustain larger populations.
9th century CE – “algebra”
From the works of the Persian scholar, al-Kharizmi, “algebra” is an early incorporation from Arabic into English, and with it must have come the sense that serious learning was taking place elsewhere. It’s possible that scientific abstraction starts to be felt about this time, with the spread of Islamic learning. Other Arab words include “cotton”, “gazelle”, “hazard”, “masquerade”, “syrup”, and “tambourine”.
10th century CE – “she”
The Northman, whose presence is felt by the Anglo-Saxons during this century, bring with them their pronouns: “they”, “them”, “their”, and “she”. They also introduce a grammatical achievement, which means that English people can now signify the genitive and the plural by the straightforward addition of the letter “s”.
11th century CE – “Normans”
The Normans arrive in England, the word marking the dynasty having been formed in the previous century, and the conquest initiated an influx of French words, though they weren’t always quickly adopted. For example, it’s said that the English habit of calling an animal by one word when alive, and another when ready to be eaten, reflects a mix of Saxon and French terms. “Oxen, “sheep”, “calves”, “swine” are Saxon. “Beef”, “mutton”, “veal”, “pork”, “bacon” are Norman.
12th century CE – “inquisition”
This comes from Latin for inquiry, and begins to take on its grimmer meaning. That said, it’s a prerequisite for individuality as we know it because only an individual, with private beliefs, might require a visit from the inquisition.
13th century CE – “lovingkindness”
The language of devotion marks this century. The moment can be summed up in the Middle English, “love-longing” – the longing of the Christian for Christ, also meaning a sigh or moan. Other words Barfield notes that spring into life include “pity”, “gentle”, “anguish”, “charity”, “delicate”, “delight”, “grace”, “patience”, “tender”. Courtly love follows, and men begin to feel for women in a way that may not have been possible before.
14th century CE – “conscience”
From the Latin “conscientia”, it originally meant more like “consciousness of” or “knowledge of”; you could have conscience but not possess it for yourself, much like you have happiness but not have “a happiness”. However, it now starts to mean “a conscience”, “my conscience”, and eventually Shakespeare will call it the deity in the human breast.
15th century CE – “accident”
This is a relatively quiet century, words-wise, perhaps due to the turmoil of the Hundred Years’ War. However, one interesting shift is with this word – originally from the Latin for an event; then in Scholastic theology meaning that which is not essential; but now starting to mean a chance, perhaps meaningless, occurrence.
16th century CE – the prefix “self-”
This is a century of semantic revolution on many fronts. The habit begins of coining new Greek-English words to mark a scientific advance, like “automatic”. Francis Bacon gives us the modern senses of all kinds of words – “action” and “business”, “charge” and “accusation”, “idea” and “eloquence”.
But if there’s one change that is more far-reaching than any other for our consciousness, it’s the Reformation tendency to use the prefix “self-”. As believers become preoccupied with their inner life, they start talking about “self-conceit”, “self-liking”, “self-love”, “self-confidence”, “self-command”, “self-contempt”, “self-esteem”, “self-knowledge”, “self-pity”.
17th century CE – “fanatic”
The Puritans try to change the English language by expelling “foreign” words, wanting “hundredr” for “centurion”; “crossed” for “crucified”; “freshman” for “proselyte”. And the Civil War creates its own lasting vocabulary: “puritan”, “malignant”, “independence”, “fanatic”.
Incidentally, lots of financial words emerge, as well: “capital”, “commercial”, “discount”, “insurance”, “investment”…
18th century CE – “speculation”
This word reaches back all the way to Plato, though it meant seeing. Now, Horace Walpole shifts its sense, to become speculation as to take a punt by buying and selling.
19th century CE – “revolutionise”
The root word is older, but now the verb form starts to mean changing something completely and fundamentally. Lots of common scientific words appear, as well: “anaesthetic”, “railroad”, “telephone”, “turbine”; plus mechanical metaphors like “blow off”, “get up steam”, “go off the rails”, “tension”, “charged”.
20th century CE – “gadget”
Here’s just one word with an striking etymology. It comes from the First World War, the war in which machines were first deployed to destroy human life on the large scale, and means a small mechanical contrivance.
Another note that Barfield makes of this century, the one in which he died, is that “improper” was first used of humans in the 1950s.