Still here! (And a bit about “Old English”)

Hey everyone. I wanted to drop a quick post here to let those of you who are still subscribed to the feed (a surprising number of you!) that I’ve not abandoned this blog. I’ve been extremely busy with classes, and both of my blogs (this one and System 13) have suffered because of it. But, one must have priorities. 🙂

I won’t, however, post here without writing at least a little bit about language. So:

I have long been frustrated with people thinking that modern words with an -e slapped on the end constitute “Old English.” (Or should I say “Olde English”?) I hear expressions from people surprisingly often, showing how little they know about the evolution of their own, native language.

The most recent case was when I was discussing Myne Owne Ground, a book I had to read for a class I’m in. As can be discerned from the extended title (Myne Owne Ground: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676), the book is concerned with 17th century Virginia. Throughout the book, there are excerpts from court cases, land grants, etc. Many of the words in these excerpts are spelled incorrectly or inconsistently, and a great deal of the words have an unneeded -e appended to the end.

When talking about this with a fellow classmate, he commented that, “Yeah, all of that Old English will get you everytime.” (I suppose he could have meant “old” as an antiquated, from a previous time, etc., but I seriously doubt it.) I just nodded and smiled, but I wanted to say: “Alas, no – that’s not Old English! You’re only about 5 centuries late. If I were to show you real Old English – Anglo-Saxon – you’d realize how silly you sound.”

Old[e] English, indeed.

Putting the “straw” in strawberry

Yesterday while eating a bowl of fruit salad, I commented that I wondered where the “straw” in “strawberry” came from. My mom and wife both chimed in, saying that it referred to the straw that farmers put on the strawberry plants to protect them. I said that that sounded interesting, but not like a very convincing etymology. To appease my curiosity, I did a bit of searching. From the OED:

[OE. stréaw-, stréow, stréa-, stréuberi{asg}e, f. stréaw

STRAW n.1 + beri{asg}e BERRY n.
No corresponding word is found in any other Teut. lang. The reason for the name has been variously conjectured. One explanation refers the first element to STRAW n.1 2, a particle of straw or chaff, a mote, describing the appearance of the achenes scattered over the surface of the strawberry; another view is that it designates the runners (cf. STRAW n.1 3).
The view of Kluge, that OE. stréaw- in streawberi{asg}e is cogn. w. L. fr{amac}gum strawberry, is not phonologically satisfactory, and is also open to objection on other grounds.

And a bit more from Wikipedia:

The name is derived from Old English strÄ“awberiġe which is a compound of streaw meaning “straw” and berige meaning “berry”. The reason for this is unclear. It may derive from the strawlike appearance of the runners, or from an obsolete denotation of straw, meaning “chaff”, referring to the scattered appearance of the achenes.

Interestingly, in other Germanic countries there is a tradition of collecting wild strawberries by threading them on straws. In those countries people find straw-berry to be an easy word to learn considering their association with straws.

There is an alternative theory that the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon verb for “strew” (meaning to spread around) which was streabergen (Strea means “strew” and Bergen means “berry” or “fruit”) and thence to streberie, straiberie, strauberie, straubery, strauberry, and finally, “strawberry”, the word which we use today. The name might have come from the fact that the fruit and various runners appear “strewn” along the ground.

Popular etymology has it that it comes from gardeners’ practice of mulching strawberries with straw to protect the fruits from rot (a pseudoetymology that can be found in non-linguistic sources such as the Old Farmer’s Almanac 2005). However, there is no evidence that the Anglo-Saxons ever grew strawberries, and even less that they knew of this practice.

The bold is my doing.

So, apparently, my mom and wife are not alone in thinking that the name is derived from putting straw on the plants.

The explanation based on the Anglo-Saxon verb streabergen is intriguing. I’m not sure where the Wikipedians came up with it, though. As far as I can see, there’s no citation for the explanation, and the OED mentions nothing similar.

An Introduction to Old English

I honestly don’t recall how I came upon this site yesterday evening, but I did: Old English at UVA. The site links to an online version of this book, Introduction to Old English, by Peter S. Baker. Here’s a description of the book:

Introduction to Old English is a new textbook published by Blackwell Publishers. The book is aimed at students whose interests are primarily literary or historical rather than linguistic; it assumes no expertise in traditional grammar or other languages, but it provides everything the student needs to read Old English well. The book includes an anthology of prose and poetry. The entire grammar is available on-line, and the anthology is also available as part of the Old English Aerobics web application.

You can find the online version of the book here.

The Old English Aerobics Anthology can be found here. All of the words in each piece are clickable, and clicking on them brings up a glossary entry for the word. On many of the selections of literature, you can also choose to select idioms or clauses. And, on a few of the selections, you can select audio, and hear the Old English spoken aloud.

Other useful pages: