In the days before dictionaries, there was no uniform spelling of words and even the most accomplished novelists and poets wrote in a phonetic way.
When you consult a good dictionary you frequently see that words have a variety of spellings. That doesn’t mean they were evolving, it is simply some of the different spellings that existed at that time.
The word ‘darling’, for instance, was sometimes written ‘derling’ or ‘durling’ — the way a word was written more often than not depended on the writer’s accent. So the spelling of a novelist who lived in the north of England would differ from that of a London writer.
A good example of this is ‘choir’. In the book of Common Prayer it is spelt ‘quire’. But because words were written according to how they sounded to each writer, other early versions of the word were ‘queor’, ‘quyre’ and ‘qwerre’.
The Book of Common Prayer was published in 1662, when ‘quire’ was in use. The earliest use of ‘choir’ didn’t occur until more than 10 years later, in reference to the ‘celestial choir’.
For Shakespeare it was always ‘quire’. Milton was writing ‘quire’ at about the time of the Book of Common Prayer’s publication, and its use was to continue for another 200 years.
In the everyday use of language, common-sense often prevails, so there came a point when it was useful to distinguish between ‘choir’ (meaning chorus) and ‘quire’ (meaning a sheaf of paper).
So from about the early 18th century you find ‘choir’ coming into common use. Even so, Charles Kingsley was writing about the ‘quires of heaven’ in 1848. Old spellings sometimes die hard.
And ‘quire’ is still used in some parts of Somerset. There is a community choir there that exists to keep alive the rich tradition of West Gallery church music. It is known as the Stanchester Quire.
Even in recent times, some contemporary writers like to use old words that became obsolete decades ago. The late food writer Jennifer Patterson was one. Before she became a celebrity as one of the Two Fat Ladies of the TV cookery programme of that name, her claim to fame was as a food writer on The Spectator.
In her weekly column she never used the word ‘recipe’, preferring instead ‘receipt’ which is totally archaic. This thoroughly annoyed many readers (including myself) and many a letter to the editor pleaded for the use of ‘recipe’ instead of ‘receipt’, which always sounded very odd in a food article.
But Jennifer was a stubborn old biddy, and instead of dropping ‘receipt’ and writing ‘recipe’, she deliberately put ‘receipt’ into her column as often as possible. Another writer may not have got away with the use of an obsolete word that was upsetting readers so much, but the editor of The Spectator was on Jennifer’s side.He had to be. Jennifer, apart from writing her column, was also the cook for The Spectator’s board of directors. The wise men who topped the editorial team didn’t want to get involved in anything that would have agitated the woman who was in the boardroom kitchen from Monday to Friday — and doing a superb job with her ‘receipts’ of good old English cooking.
When the English wanted to be offensive towards another nation, they often did so by using a simple linguistic device: putting a country’s name before unsavoury words or unmentionable items. The Dutch were at the receiving end in this war of words because of trade rivalry and naval battles between the two countries.
But The Netherlands probably gave as good as it got and the Dutch language is almost certainly littered with low colloquial terms that are preceded with the Dutch word for English. For the Dutch, a frog croaking in the night is possibly called an English frog — we call it a Dutch frog.
The same thing happened with the French. They were often England’s greatest rivals and virulent animosity evolved on both sides of the Channel.
It reached its zenith from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries, but this rancour still exists today and when national pride is at stake it can come rushing to the fore — especially on front pages of the London tabloids such as The Sun.
This linguistic hostility is often seen in the form of euphemisms. We call a condom a French letter, but the French respond by naming it a ‘capote anglaise’. The French word is a good example of concise graphic description —a ‘capote’ is a long slim cloak with a hood. A ‘French tickler’ is a condom with stimulant protrusions.
In low colloquial English, venereal diseases invariably carried the ‘French’ epithet: syphilis was known as French crown, goods, gout, fever, marbles or mole, to name just a few examples. Any kind of venereal swelling in the groin was called ‘French pig’ and ‘frenchified’ meant infected with a venereal disease.
The phrase ‘to take French leave’ means to do anything without permission or to take flight — such as departing from a reception or dinner without bidding goodbye to the hosts. The French also get their own back on this one: their equivalent term is ‘filer (to slip away) à l’anglaise’.
Then there are ‘French kisses’ and ‘French tricks’. We’re all aware of the former, but some may not know that ‘French tricks’ is a mid-19th century term for oral sex. As far as I know, the French do not honour us by having similar terms ‘à l’anglaise’.
In the mid-17th century, one said of a drunk man that ‘he had seen the French king’. Obscene pictures and postcards were known as ‘French prints’ and the French were also blamed when a pheasant was shot by mistake during the partridge season. It was known as a ‘French pigeon’.
However, there are also many terms with the French epithet that are in no way pejorative. A ‘French loaf’, much appreciated by the English, was a long crisp loaf that is nowadays more commonly known as a ‘baguette’.
Another food term we use on an almost daily basis is ‘French dressing’, a vinaigrette made with olive oil, vinegar and herbs. As the French do it so well, and as most British food writers first discovered it in France, we honoured the French by naming it after them.
Then there’s that great breakfast favourite we call ‘French toast’ — although we can’t actually decide what it is. For some it is a slice of bread toasted on one side and buttered on the other.
For some it is a slice of bread dipped in beaten egg and fried until golden. For the French, toasted sliced bread is called ‘rôtie anglaise’, or English toast. So there’s more to it than linguistic insults.