English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

On jurors and panels

Q: I was in England as part of my sabbatical research and visited an old town hall with a courtroom dating from Elizabethan times. A guide explained that the wooden panels surrounding the jury box were removable and that’s where the idea of empaneling a jury came from. It sounds bogus to me. What do you think?

A: The verb “empanel” comes from the use of the noun “panel” in Middle English for a piece of parchment on which the names of jurors were written.

(The usual spelling of the verb has been “impanel” in American English and “empanel” in British English, but a search with Google’s Ngram viewer indicates that “empanel” is now equally popular in the US.)

In fact, the verb—in both spellings—showed up in Middle English before the noun was used for the typically wainscotted wooden panels of a jury box.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the verb is made up of the prefix “em-”  (“to put (something) into or upon”) and a “now rare” sense of the noun “panel” (“the slip or roll of parchment on which the names of jurors are listed”).

English adopted the verb in the early 15th century from the Anglo-Norman empaneler, which dates back to the late 14th century with the same sense. The post-classical Latin impanellare also had that meaning.

The verb was spelled “enpanel” when it first appeared in Middle English. The earliest OED citation is from a February 1426 entry in the Rolls of Parliament, the official records of the English Parliament:

“All such persones as buth enpanelled to passe in enquestes in þe kyngus court” (“All such persons as be empaneled to serve in inquests in the king’s court”).

The dictionary’s first example with the “impanel” spelling is from a November 1439 entry in the Rolls of Parliament:

“Tho men the which hath estat to thaire oeps … be retourned and impanelled” (“Those men which have property to their use … be returned and impaneled”).

And the first Oxford citation for the “empanel” spelling is from a 1467 list of ordinances governing guilds in the City of Worcester:

“The seid seriaunts [servants] empanelle no man to be in gret inquest” (English Gilds: The Original Ordinances of More Than One Hundred Early English Gilds, 1892, by Joshua Toulmin Smith and Lucy Toulmin Smith).

As for the noun “panel,” it took on its legal sense in the late 14th century. In this OED citation from Piers Plowman (circa 1378), an allegorical poem by William Langland, it refers to a parchment list of jurors:

“Ne put hem in panel to don hem pliȝte here treuthe” (“Not put them in panel [on parchment] to make them plight the truth”).

It wasn’t until the late 15th century that “panel” took on its sense of “a distinct, typically rectangular section or compartment of a wainscot, door, shutter, etc.,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest recorded example is a 1498 entry in the Ledger of Andrew Halyburton, 1492-1503, edited by the Scottish historian Cosmo Innes in 1867.  Halyburton was a Scottish trade official stationed in Flanders:

“4 dossin of pannellis of rassit vark cost 3 grotis the stek” (“4 dozen panels of raised work [in relief] cost 3 groats [silver coins] apiece”).

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English English language Expression Language Linguistics Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Why the ‘w’ is called a ‘double u’

Q: Are you familiar with a rhyme or riddle about a V who meets a W, and asks why he’s called a Double U instead of a Double V, and W replies that he’s “Double you”? I read it as a child, about 50 years ago, and can’t find it anywhere.

A: You’re thinking about a poem that originally appeared in an American children’s magazine near the end of the 19th century.

Here’s an image that accompanied the poem, “V. and W.,” by Charles I. Benjamin, in the May 1885 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine:

“Excuse me if I trouble you,”
Said V to jolly W,
“But will you have the kindness to explain one thing to me?
Why, looking as you do,
Folks should call you double U,
When they really ought to call you double V?”

Said W to curious V:
“The reason’s plain as plain can be
(Although I must admit it’s understood by very few);
As you say I’m double V;
And therefore, don’t you see,
The people say that I am double you.”

But why, really, is the “w” called a “double u” and not a “double v”?

The 23rd letter of the English alphabet is called a “double u” because it was originally written that way in Old English.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “When, in the 7th cent., the Latin alphabet was first applied to the writing of English, it became necessary to provide a symbol for the sound /w/, which did not exist in contemporary Latin.”

Latin once had an almost identical sound “originally expressed by the Roman U or V as a consonant-symbol,” the OED says, but “before the 7th cent. this Latin sound had developed into /v/.”

“The single u or v therefore could not without ambiguity be used to represent (w),” the dictionary explains, and so “the ordinary sign for /w/ was at first uu.”

In any case, the “w” sound couldn’t have been represented by a double “v” because the letter “v” didn’t exist in Old English, where “f” represented an “f” or a “v” sound, depending on vocal stresses, according to the OED.

In early versions of “Cædmon’s Hymn,” which originated in the seventh century and is considered the oldest documented poem in Old English, “w” is written as “uu” in uuldurfadur (glorious father) and uundra (wonder).

In Old English, the /w/ sound could appear before the letters “l,” “r,” and “n,” as well as before vowels, but that usage died out in Middle English.

As the OED notes, the silent “w” in the Modern English “write” is a survivor of that usage, as was the “w” in “wlonk” (splendid) in 16th-century Scottish poetry.

Cædmon’s short poem first appeared in writing in Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), a church history written in Latin around 731 by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede.

In the next few years, scribes inserted Old English versions of the poem in two copies of the manuscript, now known as the Moore Bede (734–737) and the St. Petersburg Bede (732-746).

Here’s a lightly edited version of the hymn in the Moore Bede (MS Kk.5.16 at the Cambridge University Library):

“Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard / metudæs maecti end his modgidanc / uerc uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuaes / eci dryctin or astelidæ.”

(“Now we must praise the heavenly kingdom’s guardian, / the creator’s might and his conception, / the creation of the glorious father, thus each of the wonders / that he ordained at the beginning.”)

The text of the poem in the St. Petersburg Bede (lat. Q. v. I. 18 at the  National Library of Russia) differs somewhat, but the use of “uu” in the relevant words is similar: uuldur fadur and uundra.

The two terms are too faint in the Moore Bede to reproduce here, but this is how they appear in the St. Petersburg Bede (uldur fadur is at the beginning and uundra is at the end):

Later in the eighth century, Oxford says, the ƿ (or wynn), a character in the runic alphabet, began replacing the “uu,” and the ƿ eventually became the dominant letter representing the “w” sound in Old English.

An Old English version of the poem from the first half of the 10th century, for example, has the two terms as ƿuldor fæder and ƿundra (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Tanner 10).

In the meantime, according to the OED, “the uu was carried from England to the continent, being used for the sound /w/ in the German dialects, and in French proper names and other words of Germanic and Celtic origin.”

Then in the 11th century, Oxford says, the “w,” a ligatured (that is, joined) form of “uu,” was “introduced into England by Norman scribes, and gradually took the place of ƿ, which finally went out of use about a.d. 1300.”

Since then, the “uu” and and ƿ of “Caedmon’s Hymn” have often been transcribed with “w” (as in wuldorfæder and wundra). However, the terms are spelled with a uu or ƿ in all seventeen Old English examples we’ve examined.

Similarly, the letter “w” frequently appears in transcriptions of other Old English writing in which the letter was originally a “uu” or a ƿ. A common example is Beowulf, an epic poem that is believed to date from the early 8th century.

The oldest surviving Beowulf manuscript, which dates from around the year 1000, spells the hero’s name with a wynn: beoƿulf. Here’s its first appearance in the manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f 132r at the British Library):

beowulf wæs breme (“beowulf was renowned”)

Getting back to the letter “w,” we’ll let the OED have the last word: “The character W was probably very early regarded as a single letter, although it has never lost its original name of ‘double U.’ ”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Why Old English looks so weird

Q: When you rewind to older states of the language, such as Middle English, most words are unrecognizable and some letters too. Granted, back then French also looked different from Modern French, but the letters were the same.

A: You’ll find Old English even more unrecognizable than Middle English. Here are the first few lines of the epic poem Beowulf from a manuscript at the British Library:

HǷÆT ǷE GARDEna ingear dagum þeod cyninga  þrym gefrunon huþa aðelingas ellen fremedon.

A Modern English translation:

What tales we’ve heard about the might of kings in bygone years, the gloried deeds of valor that their brave Dane spearmen wrought.

(The runic letter ƿ [wynn] in that passage sounds like “w.” The runes þ [thorn] and ð [eth] have a “th” sound. The manuscript is a copy from the late 10th or early 11th century of a work believed to date from the early 8th century.)

The earliest French isn’t all that recognizable either. Here are the first two lines of the Séquence [or Cantilènede Sainte Eulalie, a poem that dates from around 880 and is one of the oldest surviving Old French texts:

Buona pulcella fut eulalia. Bel auret corps bellezour anima
Voldrent la veintre li deo Inimi. Voldrent la faire diaule seruir

Here’s the passage in modern French:

Une bonne jeune-fille était Eulalie. Belle de corps, elle était encore plus belle d’âme.
Les ennemis de Dieu voulurent la vaincre. Ils voulurent la faire servir le diable.

And here’s an English translation:

Eulalia was a good girl. She had a beautiful body, a soul more beautiful still.
The enemies of God wanted to overcome her. They wanted to make her serve the devil.

(The poem is from a manuscript at La Médiathèque Simone Veil in Valenciennes, France. The anonymous author describes the death of Eulalia de Mérida, an early Christian martyr from Spain. Each line includes a couplet separated by a punctus.)

You’re right, though, that Old and Middle French are written in Roman letters while Old and Middle English have some runes among the Roman letters. Here’s a very simplified explanation of why early English has those runes and early French doesn’t.

Both English and French are ultimately derived from Proto-Indo-European, a prehistoric language that has been reconstructed by linguists and that is the ancestor of most European and some Asian languages.

English comes from Indo-European’s prehistoric Germanic branch, the source of those strange characters, while French comes from the prehistoric Italic branch, the ancient ancestor of Latin and the Romance languages.

In the early centuries AD, the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic people used various versions of the runic alphabet (called the Futhark), before adopting the Latin alphabet under the influence of Roman occupation and the spread of Christianity.

However, the Latin alphabet at that time didn’t include letters representing some sounds used by Germanic speakers. So writers of Old English (roughly 450 to 1150) and Middle English (1150 to 1450) supplemented the Roman letters with several runes:

  • æ (called an ash), which sounded like the “a” of “cat”;
  • þ (thorn), which could sound like the voiceless “th” of “thing” or the voiced “th” of “the”;
  • ð (eth), which was used more or less interchangeably with the þ (thorn) for those “th” sounds;
  • ƿ (wynn), an early “w”;
  • ʒ (yogh), which could sound like “y” or like the “ch” of the German ich. (For instance, “niȝth,” a Middle English spelling of “night,” sounded like “nicht.”)

Here’s an inscription, probably dating from the eighth century, written in the Anglo-Saxon Futhark. It’s carved on the Ruthwell Cross, a stone cross in the Scottish village of Ruthwell, which used to be in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria:

ᛣᚱᛁᛋᛏ ᚹᚫᛋ ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁᚻᚹᛖᚦᚱᚨ ᚦᛖᚱ ᚠᚢᛋᚨ ᚠᛠᚱᚱᚪᚾ ᛣᚹᚩᛗᚢ ᚨᚦᚦᛁᛚᚨᛏᛁᛚ ᚪᚾᚢᛗ.

This is the inscription, transliterated into Old English script, with several thorns:

krist wæs on rodi hweþræ þer fusæ fearran kwomu æþþilæ til anum ic þæt al bih[eald]

And here it is in Modern English:

Christ was on the cross. Yet the eager came there from afar to the noble one that all beheld.

The term “Futhark,” by the way, comes from a transliteration of the first six letters of Elder Futhark, the oldest version of the runes:  ᚠ, ᚢ, ᚦ, ᚨ, ᚱ, ᚲ (f, u, th, a, r, k). The ᚦ (called a thurisaz) in Elder Futhark is an early version of the þ (thorn) used in Old English.

Interestingly, inscriptions in Gaulish, the Celtic language spoken in ancient Gaul before Old French, used the Greek alphabet until the Roman conquest in the first century BC, when the Roman alphabet replaced it. Here’s an example from the Musée Lapidaire d’Avignon of a votive offering to Belesama (Bηλησαμα), the Gaulish Minerva:

ειωρου βηλη-
σαμι σοσιν

And this is an English translation by Pierre-Yves Lambert, a French linguist and scholar of Celtic studies:

Segomaros, son of Villū, citizen of Nîmes, offered this sacred enclosure to Belesama.

(Βηλησαμι in the inscription is the dative, or indirect object, of Bηλησαμα.)

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Does a plan ‘gel’ or ‘jell’?

Q: Is it “gel” or “jell”? I offer the following: There’s a point in the process where things start to gel/jell.” I’ve searched several style manuals and usage guides to no avail. Is one of them correct or preferred or to be avoided like the plague?

A: “Gel” and “jell” are two different words with two different etymologies, though they mean the same thing when used figuratively as verbs in a sentence like the one you ask about. The two terms are homophones, words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning or origin or spelling.

“Gel” is derived from “gelatin” and “jell” from “jelly.” However, both verbs ultimately come from the same Latin source, gelare (to freeze), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Standard dictionaries have separate entries for “jell” (as a verb) and “gel” (as a noun and a verb). When the verb “gel” is used in the past tense or as a participle, the “l” is doubled.

Both verbs are usually defined much the same way. Literally, they refer to a liquid or semiliquid that sets or becomes more solid. Figuratively, they refer to a project or an idea that takes a definite form or begins to work well.

American Heritage, for example, has these definitions and examples for the two verbs when used figuratively:

  • Gel: “To take shape or become clear: Plans for the project are finally starting to gel.”
  • Jell: “To take shape or become clear; crystallize: A plan of action finally jelled in my mind.”

We haven’t found a usage manual or style guide that discusses the two terms, though some standard dictionaries describe “jell” as an Americanism or more common in American English. The New Oxford American Dictionary, for example, says it’s “mainly North American.”

search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that “gelled” is more popular than “jelled.” (The results include both literal and figurative senses.) Additional searches show that “gelled” is more popular in American as well as British English. With those results in mind, we’d prefer “gel” for the verb.

As for the etymology, the story begins in the late 14th century when the noun “jelly” first appeared in Middle English. It originally referred to a glutinous food made by boiling and cooling skin, tendons, bones and other animal products.

And it was originally spelled with a “g” because, as we’ve written before, the letter “j” didn’t become established in English spelling until the 17th century, though it had been used previously in place of “i” at the end of a numeral.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “geli” in the compound “gelicloth,” a cloth to strain jelly: “Et pro iij. vergis tele pro j gelicloth, xviijs.” From an expense entry dated March 20, 1393, in Expeditions to Prussia and the Holy Land Made by Henry Earl of Derby (1894), edited by Lucy Toulmin Smith. The earl was later King Henry IV of England.

The next OED citation, with “gely” as a stand-alone noun, is from a Middle English poem in which animals debate their usefulness to humans: “Of the shepe … Of whos hede boylled … Ther cometh a gely and an oynement” (from Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep, circa 1440, by John Lydgate).

The “jelly” spelling showed up in the 17th century. This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Jelly which we make of the flesh of young piggs, calves feet, and a cocke.” From A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657), by Richard Ligon, an English author who managed and co-owned a plantation on the island.

In the 18th century, the OED says, the noun came to mean “a preparation of the juice of fruit, or other vegetable substances, thickened into a similar consistence,” or “a preparation of gelatin and fruit juices in cubes or crystals, from which table-jellies are made.”

The dictionary cites these two examples from a medical treatise on diets for people with various constitutions and ailments:

“The Jelly or Juice of red Cabbage, bak’d in an Oven” and “Robs [Syrups] and Gellies of Garden Fruits.” From Practical Rules of Diet in the Various Constitutions and Diseases of Human Bodies (1732), by John Arbuthnot, a Scottish author, physician, and mathematician.

When the verb “jell” appeared in the 19th century, it meant to congeal or become jelly. The earliest OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, published in two volumes in 1868 and ’69:  “The—the jelly won’t jell—and I don’t know what to do!” (Vol. 2, 1869).

The first Oxford example for the verb in its figurative sense of “to take definite or satisfactory shape” is from the early 20th century: “[He] remarked of his countrywomen’s minds that they ‘didn’t jell’; but he possibly, and mistakenly, thought he was talking American” (Daily Chronicle, London, March 20, 1908).

As for “gelatin” (the source of the noun and verb “gel”), it originally referred to the substance that’s the basis of the jelly made from animal tissues. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for the year 1800:

“In relating the preceding experiments, I have had frequent occasion to remark, that a quantity of that animal jelly which is more or less soluble in water,  and which is distinguished by the name of gelatin, was obtained from many of the marine bodies, such as the Sponges.”

The OED says the noun “gel,” a short form of “gelatin,” appeared at the end of the 19th century as a term in chemistry for “a semi-solid colloidal system consisting of a solid dispersed in a liquid.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from “On the Structure of Cell Protoplasm,” a paper by W. B. Hardy in The Journal of Physiology (May 11, 1899):

“Graham’s nomenclature is as follows: The fluid state, colloidal solution, is the ‘sol,’  the solid state the ‘gel.’ The fluid constituent is indicated by a prefix. Thus an aqueous solution of gelatine is a ‘hydrosol,’ and on setting it becomes a ‘hydrogel.’ ” The reference is to Thomas Graham, known as the founder of colloidal chemistry.

When the verb “gel” appeared in the early 20th century, it meant to become a gel in the scientific sense: “Ligno-cellulose fibre … does not gel so readily by cold mechanical treatment as does cellulose” (Scientific American Supplement, September 1917).

The figurative sense of the verb appeared several decades later: “The combination of drawingroom and documentary failed to gel” (The Observer, London, March 30, 1958).

We’ll end with the hairdressing sense of the noun “gel,” which Oxford defines as “a jelly-like substance used for setting or styling the hair, sold as a jelly.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an advertisement in the journal American Hairdresser and Beauty Culture (July 26, 1958): “Contains miracle deprovinyllol/DEP/styling gel.”

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