The Genesis of Proper and Improper English

The English language often has two or more words meaning the same thing. It’s not that other languages don’t sometimes have instances of this as well, it’s just that English seems to have a plethora of such cases.

To find out why this is so, I did a little research and what I found seems rather interesting to me, and it all really started in 1066. After that time the lexicon and structure of English changed drastically and forever.

It was in 1066 that the Normans conquered England. Before that time the general population of England communicated in various dialects of Anglo- Saxon (e.g. Old English). After the Normans conquered England, the old English aristocracy was nearly wiped out. So much so that by 1086 only about 5% of land in England south of the Tees was left in English hands.

The key to the language changes is that the Normans spoke the dialect of Nourmaund French. So the English-speaking peasants absorbed many of the words that the Norman-French nobles were using, but gave them a high-class spin.

While the Normans were saying “maisons” for their houses, the English peasants started to call large impressive houses “mansions.” The Normans thought that the English peasants were vulgar (French) or lowborn (English) so these differences became the reality of a major shift in language and word usage. “Proper” words were the words that the Norman elite spoke. “Uneducated” words were those spoken by the English peasants. This can still be seen today with language.

As stated before, many of the English words fell out of favor for the Norman-French words that had higher class. If you didn’t want to be an uneducated fool, you wouldn’t say those English words, and still today the Old English words are often considered the courser or more simple of the two when compared to their Norman counterparts.

This is where we get “Pardon my French” or when someone swears, they are “uneducated” or “unintelligent.” It boils down to Proper vs Improper and these distinctions still exist today after almost 1000 years.

Here is a small sampling of some of the words in question:

Fall (English) becomes autumn (French)

Cow (English) becomes beef (Norman-French)

Calf (English) becomes Veal (Norman-French)

Swine (English) becomes Pork (Norman-French)
Sheep (English) becomes Mutton (Norman-French)
Lamb (English) becomes Mutton (Norman-French)
Chicken (English) becomes Poultry (Norman-French)
Deer (English) becomes Venison (Norman-French)
Thinking, Mindful (English) becomes Pensive (Norman-French)
Kingly (English) becomes Royal (Norman-French)

Brotherly (English) becomes Fraternal (Norman-French)

Ask, Beseech (English) becomes Enquire (Norman-French)
Bring, Bear (English) becomes Carry (Norman-French)

Amaze, Stun (English) becomes Astound (Norman-French)

Fair, Fair-haired (English) becomes Blond/Blonde (Norman-French)

Uphold, Undergird (English) becomes Support (Norman-French)
Smell, Stench (English) becomes Odor (Norman-French)

Hue (English) becomes Colour (Norman-French)

Blossom (English) becomes Flower (Norman-French)

Help (English) becomes Aid, Abet, Assist (Norman-French)
Buy (English) becomes Purchase (Norman-French)

Eld (English) becomes Age (Norman-French)

Belief (English) becomes Faith (Norman-French)

Wonder (English) becomes Ponder (Norman-French)

Selfhood (English) becomes Identity (Norman-French)

Sake (English) becomes Reason, Cause (Norman-French)

Weep, Sob (English) becomes Cry (Norman-French)

Knowledge (English) becomes Science (Norman-French)

Lawyer (English) becomes Attorney (Norman-French)

Shirt (English) becomes Blouse (Norman-French)

Deem (English) becomes Consider, Judge (Norman-French)

Harbour (English) becomes Port (Norman-French)

Hosen, Britches (English) becomes Pants (Norman-French)
Sunder (English) becomes Sever (Norman-French)

Answer (English) becomes Reply, Response (Norman-French)

Follow (English) becomes Ensue (Norman-French)

Fall, Harvest (English) becomes Autumn (Norman-French)

Burn (English) becomes Broil (Norman-French)

Leave (English) becomes Permission (Norman-French)

Seethe (English) becomes Boil (Norman-French)

Wisdom (English) becomes Prudence (Norman-French)

Weird (English) becomes Strange (Norman-French)

Behaviour (English) becomes Manner (Norman-French)

Uncouth (English) becomes Rude (Norman-French)
Belongings (English) becomes Property (Norman-French)
Folk (English) becomes People (Norman-French)

Forgive (English) becomes Pardon (Norman-French)

Darling (English) becomes Favorite (Norman-French)

Worthy (English) becomes Valuable (Norman-French)

Drought, Dearth (English) becomes Famine (Norman-French)

Yearning, Longing (English) becomes Desire (Norman-French)
Span (English) becomes Distance (Norman-French)
Tumble (English) becomes Somersault (Norman-French)
Drink (English) becomes Beverage, Imbibe (Norman-French)
Deal (English) becomes Amount (Norman-French)

Freedom (English) becomes Liberty (Norman-French)

Yard (English) becomes Garden (Norman-French)

Haven (English) becomes Port (Norman-French)

The recognition of what profanity is also comes from this division of proper and improper words depending on their original etymologies. The Old English words are those that are considered profane or vulgar while the Norman words are more accepted.

A few of the less jarring profanities and their more proper counterparts are shown below:

Ass (English) became butt (French) or derrière (French)
Bitch (English) became female (French) canine (Latin through French)
Slut (English) became sexually (Latin through French) promiscuous (Latin through French) female (Latin through French)
Womb (English) became uterus (Latin)
Whore (English) became prostitute (Latin through French)

The more shocking words can be guessed at pretty easily by giving just the Norman word used in their place. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the Old English words that are still considered to profane to use in polite conversation.

These are the Norman words:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s