English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Ye olde bookshoppe

Q: I assume that shopkeepers who refer to their shops as “shoppes” are trying to add a patina of Old English tradition to their establishments. But was “shop” really spelled “shoppe” in Anglo-Saxon times?

A: No, the Old English word was “sceoppa,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it was rarely used.

In fact, it showed up in writing only once, the OED says, in an Old English version of the Gospel of Luke, where the term referred to the temple treasury where visitors left their gifts.

In Middle English (roughly 1100-1500), the word was spelled many different ways, including “ssoppe,” “schopp,” “shope,” “shoppe,” “schoop,” “shoope,” and “shop.”

The earliest example in the OED is a 1297 entry from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history:

“Þe bowiares ssoppe hii breke & þe bowes nome echon” (“They broke into the bow maker’s shop and took all the bows”).

The OED defines “shop” here as a “house or building where goods are made or prepared for sale and sold.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the “shoppe” spelling is from “The Cook’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“He loued bet the Tauerne than the shoppe” (“He loved the tavern more than the shop”).

A survey of the OED’s citations suggests that “shop” has been the most popular spelling over the years, from the Middle Ages until modern times.

The use of “shoppe” that you’re asking about is a relatively recent phenomenon that the dictionary defines as “an archaic form of shop n. now used affectedly (as in the names of tea-shops, etc.) to suggest quaint, old-world charm.”

Most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked say “shoppe” is pronounced th same as “shop,” but the OED, a historical dictionary, says it can also be pronounced as if it were spelled “shoppee.”

The OED’s earliest example for this quaint usage is from Ghastly Good Taste: Or, a Depressing Story of the Rise and Fall of English Architecture, a 1933 book by the poet John Betjeman, a preservationist who helped save the St Pancras railway station in London:

“Arts and Crafts. Gentle folk weaving and spinning; Modern Church Furnishing; Old Tea Shoppes.”

But the affectation had attracted comment earlier. [See the update at the end of this post.] For example, we found this anonymous plaint in a 1925 issue of the Inland Printer, an American typesetters’ journal:

“Shoppe! Radio shoppe and beauty shoppe, candy shoppe and music shoppe, barber shoppe and bobber shoppe, men’s shoppe and women’s shoppe — shoppe, shoppe, shoppe! My stars, the pain! Who started this shoppey business?”

And in 1926 the “shoppe” trend was satirized by a poet in the Saturday Evening Post:

“Ye gods! Where’er I move or stoppe / I see a sign that marks a Shoppe — / A Beautie Shoppe, a Shoppe for food, / A Booke Shoppe, for the reading mood, / A Notion Shoppe, a Shoppe for gowns, / A Mappe Shoppe — guides for roads and towns.”

As for “olde,” the OED has an entry for its modern use “as an archaism, originally commercially, later also freq. ironically, for old” and “sometimes with other words spelt archaistically, as Olde English(e).”

The first example—from the March 1852 issue of the United States Democratic Review, a political and literary journal—comments on “the character of ‘the old fogy,’ or ‘ye olde fogie,’ as he at present exists.”

The OED doesn’t have an entry for the similar use of “ye,” but Oxford Dictionaries online (a different entity) defines it as a “pseudo-archaic term for the, and gives this example: Ye Olde Bookshoppe.”

“Pseudo” is right! Although “ye” was one of four old forms of the pronoun “you,” it was not an old form of the article “the” in either Old or Middle English.

As we wrote in a 2009 post, the modern use of “ye” in quaint names of businesses is the result of a mistaken interpretation of Old English writing.

The article “the” was originally “se” in Old English, but the “s” began to be replaced in the 10th century with an old Anglo-Saxon rune called the thorn (þ), which represented a “th” sound.

This þ, resembling a “p” with both an upper and a lower stem, was replaced by “th” in the 13th century.

So where did the “y” come from? Here’s how we explain it in our olde poste:

“Over the years, the thorn’s upper stem became less pronounced as it was copied by scribes, and the letter came to resemble a backward ‘y.’

“Even after the thorn was replaced by ‘th,’ the old letter was sometimes used in abbreviations. But it wasn’t available in printer’s fonts, so printers used ‘y’ instead. Thus ‘ye’ got its undeserved reputation as a defunct Old English article.”

[Update, June 26, 2016. A reader writes: “Since you are P. G. Wodehouse fans, you’ll be pleased to discover his early uses of the humorous ‘shoppe’ and ‘ye olde.’ ” He sent along two examples that appeared in serializations of Wodehouse novels.

This one is from an episode of The Adventures of Sally that was published in Collier’s Weekly, Nov. 5, 1921. Here young Sally is in search of a way to invest a legacy:

“What she had had in view, as a matter of fact, had been one of those little fancy shops which are called Ye Blue Bird or Ye Corner Shoppe, or something like that, where you sell exotic bric-à-brac to the wealthy at extortionate prices. … Ye Corner Shoppe suddenly looked very good to her.”

And this is from an installment of A Damsel in Distress that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post on June 28, 1919:

“Ye Cosy Nooke, as its name will immediately suggest to those who know their London, is a tea shop in Bond Street, conducted by distressed gentlewomen. In London, when a gentlewoman becomes distressed—which she seems to do on the slightest provocation—she collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen, forming a quorum, and starts a tea shop in the West End, which she calls Ye Oak-Leaf, Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden-Tree, or Ye Snug Harbor, according to personal taste.”

As the reader notes: “It’s not surprising to find Wodehouse completely on top of fads in language usage.”]

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