The Grammarphobia Blog

Foreign relations

Q: Your recent post about “foreign” vs. “international” sent me to the dictionary to check the etymology of “foreign” and its strange spelling. I didn’t find a “g” in its Middle English, Old French, or Latin ancestors. So where does the “g” come from?

A: The “g” in “foreign” has no business there. But it is there, of course. Here’s the story.

The word was originally “g”-less, but the “g” crept in during the 16th century, perhaps in confusion with the spelling of “reign” or “sovereign,” or in an attempt to make the spellings analogous.

Just as it wasn’t always spelled the way it is now, “foreign” didn’t always mean what it does today.

Etymologically, “foreign” means out of doors. It was adopted from the Old French word forein or forain, which in turn came from the late Latin foranus, which is derived from forus (out of doors, outside, abroad).

Interestingly, the word “forest” is related to “foreign.” The word “forest” originally meant outside woods—that is, unfenced woods, or those outside the walls of a park.

But back to “foreign.” When it entered English in the 13th century, it was spelled “forene” or “forren” (later “foreyne,” “forein,” and so on). And it originally meant out of doors or outside.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that a “chambre forene” (or “chamber foreign”) was a privy.

By the early 15th century, the sense of “abroad”—that is, from other countries—came to the fore. In the following century, as we noted, the “g” spelling was first recorded, but it didn’t become established until sometime in the 17th century.

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