Birth, by @MillieSlavidou

Cross-posted from: Glossologics
Originally published: 22.03.18

Here is a word that applies to all of us without exception. No matter where or how, we have all been born: we have all had a birth.

So where does the word come from? Is it a Latin root, through French, perhaps. Well, no, in French it is naissance. Is it from Greek? In Greek, birth is γεννα [genna] or τοκετός [toketos]. So we will have to look elsewhere.

Let’s start by going back to Middle English. Here we may find various spellings, including bird, burd, burth, borth and byrd as well as the much more familiar birth. We have a nice example in On the Properties of Things, John Trevisa’s translation from Latin of Bartholomaeus’s De Proprietatibus Rerum, dating to 1398.

If defnes be in birþe, it is incurable.

Deafness from birth is incurable. …


The full text was published here.

Glossologics: a blog on language, with special emphasis on etymology, and including references to languages other than English. [@AlexpolisTigers]

Alien, by @MillieSlavidou

Cross-posted from: Glossologics
Originally published: 11.09.18


In recent years, with the popularity of science fiction books and films, this word has been used more and more in the context of “extra-terrestrial, being from another planet”. In British English, it is used only extremely rarely to mean ‘foreigner’, and there are references to this in popular culture at the expense of US English, where it continues to have this meaning; such as in the song by Sting Englishman in New York, where he sings “I’m an alien, I’m an Englishman in New York” precisely because it sounds strange to the British listener.

It is interesting that it should sound strange, as that is precisely what the word once meant. You can see it in the meaning of foreigner – a person from a strange country. And what is an extra-terrestrial if not a being from a strange planet?

It came into English during the fourteenth century. We can see a few examples of it where it is used in different contexts, with differing meanings. Our first example comes from Guy de Chauliac’s medical text dating from 1425 Grande Chirurgie.

Glossologics: a blog on language, with special emphasis on etymology, and including references to languages other than English. [@MillieSlavidou]




Politics, by definition, by @wordspinster

Cross-posted from: language: a feminist guide
Originally published: 27.08.17

That troublesome word ‘woman’ has been causing controversy again.

Last week, a Twitter user who goes by @ShoelessJoe1910 shared two responses from the makers of Collins Dictionaries to people who’d contacted them about the dictionary entry for ‘woman’. One correspondent had received a reply that looked like a standard piece of boilerplate:

As lexicographers, our duty is to report the language as it is used… Whilst we do welcome all feedback received from our users, any changes we make to our definitions are the result of a detailed review process and evidence-based linguistic research.

Another correspondent who raised the same subject got a different response:

Thanks again for contacting us about the definition of ‘woman’. …We are currently reviewing all our gender-related vocabulary to make sure that we accurately reflect the evolution in the vocabulary of gender and sexuality. This review will be completed in the coming months, and your comments will most certainly be taken into account. We always welcome feedback from our users, so do not hesitate to contact us if you notice any other inaccuracies and omissions.

The subject of both communications was whether a dictionary entry for ‘woman’ should define the word as meaning ‘an adult female human being’ (as Collins currently does), or whether it should (also) inform users that ‘woman’ denotes a person who identifies as a woman. The first correspondent wanted the lexicographers to maintain the traditional definition; the second wanted them to change it. 
Read more Politics, by definition, by @wordspinster

On Dancing and Ballet, by @MillieSlavidou

Cross-posted from: Glossologics
Originally published: 11.05.17


If there is one thing that is common to human societies around the globe, it is dance in one form or another. Jane Austen observed this in her novel Pride and Prejudice, where Mr Darcy says “Every savage can dance.”

This modern word for the activity appears to be similar in a number of other languages: French has danser, Spanish danzar, Italian danzare, Swedish dansa and German uses tanzen. It seems unlikely that this is coincidental, and indeed it is not. All of these words come from the same source: Old French dancier. It is thought that the strong French influence in his area of culture helped to popularise the word and cement it in people’s vocabularies.

Read more On Dancing and Ballet, by @MillieSlavidou

Swellings and Seals: On the Origins of Bill

Cross-posted from: Glossologics
Originally published: 25.11.16

Well, here it is. Bill. Like it or not, we all have them, we all think about paying them.

I, of course, am no exception. Several kind people have asked me recently why I have been producing fewer articles for this blog. The main reason is that I do not receive an income from here, and I have bills to pay. Much as I would like to spend my time writing more and more articles, I have to do other work that actually pays. If you would like to help enable me to produce more articles here, please support my books; fiction and non-fiction.

Now, onto the matter of the etymology of bill.

If you look in the dictionary, you will find several definitions for the word ‘bill’. It could be a bill in parliament; a duck’s bill; a bill to be paid; a slang term for the police, as well as other usages. 
Read more Swellings and Seals: On the Origins of Bill

Birds of a feather flock together

Cross-posted from: Glossologics
Originally published: 23.11.13

Have you ever looked up at the sky and seen a flock of birds flying overhead? It can be a magnificent sight, the more so when there is a very large number of birds. It takes no great powers of deduction to work out how this expression might have come about – simple observation tells us that birds of the same species – of the same feather, as it were – can be frequently seen together.

So, where does it come from? This is an intriguing question. It appears in a translation of Plato’s Republic by Benjamin Jowett, published in 1856. Plato’s work dates to around 380 BC, which would indeed make it an ancient proverb. In Book I of The Republic, in Jowett’s translation, I found:

“I will tell you, Socrates, he said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says”

However, I then went to the Greek text. It reads:

Εγώ σοι έφη, νη την Δία, εγώ ω Σώκρατες, γε μοι φαίνεται, πολλάκις γαρ συνερχόμεθα τίνες εις ταύτο, παραπλησίαν ηλικίαν έχοντες διασώζοντες την παλαιάν παροιμίαν

I see no reference here to either birds or feathers. It does indeed state that it is in keeping with the old proverb – διασώζοντες την παλαιάν παροιμίαν – but it does not actually state what that proverb is.Scholars generally maintain that the “old proverb” in question is: Ηλιξ ήλικα τέρπει γέρων δε τέρπει γέροντα (Skouteropoulos, commentary on Plato, Polis Publications, σχόλια του Ν. Μ. Σκουτερόπουλου στην Πολιτεία του Πλάτωνα εκδ. Πόλις). This simply means that people have need of the company of others of their own age – no mention of birds or flocks. It seems to me that Jowett simply chose a well-known English proverb for his translation, to make it clear to the reader.

This means we have to look for another source for our proverb.

There is a slightly different turn of phrase, but still essentially the same expression, in The Rescuing of Romish Fox by William Turner, which dates to 1545. At that time, it was:

Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.”

It seems likely that the expression was in use before that time, even if this is the earliest it appears in writing.

Now let’s take a look at how this is expressed in other languages. In French one might say qui se ressemble s’assemble, or literally “whoever resembles, assembles together.” Italian also has chi si assomiglia si piglia; “what is similar takes to each other”. The German expression is along similar lines: Gleich und Gleich gesellt sich gernwhich means “similar and similar like to join together.” There is another German expression which is a bit more colourful: aus dem gleichen Holz geschnitzt, which translates as “carved from the same wood”.

This brings me now to Slovenian. There are two expressions of note. The first is very much like the German mentioned above: Podobno se s podobnim druži, meaning “similar keeps company with similar.” But it is intriguing to note that this language, geographically far from English, in a separate language family, also has this expression: Enake sorte ptiči skup letijo. This literally means “the same birds fly together”.

Another idiom in French is de même farine, or “from the same flour”. Similarly, in Portuguese, they say farinha do mesmo saco, meaning “flour from the same bag”, meaning that something looks and behaves similar and can be found in the same place, much as we might use the English expression.

In Spanish there are several expressions. We will start with pájaros del mismo plumaje vuelan juntos, which means the same as the English expression. Then there is also Dios los cría y ellos se juntan, meaning “God calls them and they gather together”.

In Polish we find a simple but succinct expression: Ciągnie swój do swego, which translates assimilar people are pulled to each other”. Japanese, too, would say “like draws to like”; Rui wa tomo wo yobu (類は友を呼ぶ).

Welsh also uses a similar phrasing to the English: adar o’r unlliw a hedan i’r unlle – “birds of the same colour fly to the same place”.

Geographically further away, but with the same concept, in Finnish we find: Samanlaiset linnut aina yhdessä lentävät, meaning literally “similar birds always fly together”.

Moving on now to Swedish, there are two lovely expressions to express this idea: Lika barn leka bäst, which means “similar children play best together”, a nice peaceful image, or, my personal preference: Kaka söker maka, an expression that literally translates as “cake looks for partner”.

Having looked at ancient Greek in the first part of the post, here is the modern expression: γυρίζει ο τέντζερης και βρίσκει και το καπάκι του [yirizei o tentzeris kai vriskei kai to kapaki tou] – “the pot turns round and finds its lid”. With more or less the same imagery is the Turkishidiom: tencere yuvarlanmış kapağını bulmuş – “the saucepan rolled away and found its lid”. Bulgarian, a neighbouring language to both of the previous two, has търкулнало се гърнето, та си намерило похлупак [tarkulnalo se garneto ta si namerilo pohlupak]. This means exactly the same as the Greek expression – “the pot turns and finds its lid”.

But Bulgarian does not stop there. We can also find които си приличат, се привличат [koito si prilichat se privlichat], meaning “those who look alike attract each other”. And, my personal favourite, краставите магарета през девет баира се подушват [krastavite magareta prez devet baira se podushvat] , which translates as “Mangy donkeys smell themselves from nine mountains afar”.

This next expression was a close contender to be my favourite: Ta enney ec muc er muc elley. It is from Manx, and translates as “a pig knows another pig”

Finally, I rather like the expression in Russianрыбак рыбака видит издалека [rybák rybaká vídit izdaleká], which means “a fisherman sees a fisherman from afar”.


Glossologics a blog on language, with special emphasis on etymology, and including references to languages other than English.


cross-posted from Glossologics

orig. pub. 16.2.15

Today I am excited to announce a new type of article. In collaboration with Nicola Miller, we have a glorious new mix of etymology, history and food and plant properties!

I am very pleased to have had the chance to work with Nicola on this. Nicola Miller is the editor of Bury Spy digit news and food editor for the Spy News Group. She is an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to etymology. She blogs at: The Millers Tale


Such a small word, and yet such a long history! And so important in cooking, of course.


The modern English form has not changed a great deal over the course of history. Taking a step back to Middle English, we can find it variously spelled as garlec, garleek and garlek, among others. Let’s take a look at an example from 1399, from the Forme of Cury:

Take Colyandre Powdour of Peper and garlec ygrounde in rede wyne.

This work translates as “forms of cooking” – the ‘cury’ is in fact from French cuire. It is a collection of recipes claimed to have been written by the Master Cooks of King Richard II.

Just a few years previously, Chaucer wrote in his Canterbury Tales:

Wel loued he gā̆r-lē̆k, oynons, and eek lekes.

Here, you can see that it has been written as two parts put together, and you might wonder why. The reason is, of course, simple. Garlic is indeed formed of two parts. It comes from Old English garleac or garlec in some dialects, which consists of gar and leac. We will start with the first element: gar. This meant ‘spear’. You have only to look at the shape of the cloves to see why it might be called a spear – they do indeed look similar to the shape of a spear-head. This term, gar, has of course become obsolete, but we can see a well-known example of it inBeowulf, from around the 10th century:

Hwæt! We Gár-Dena, in geárdagum, þeódcyninga þrym gefrunon

Lo! We have heard renowned the Spear-Danes’ great kings in days of yore

Let’s take a look at the second element: leac. There is nothing strange about this at all. Quite simply, it means ‘leek’, another word that remains little changed!

Ðæt greáta cráuleác; nim ðes leáces heáfda

That makes crow-garlic; take the leeks on the rise

From Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of Old English source texts.

The Old English word is thought to derive from Proto-Germanic *lauka. There are cognates to be found in other Germanic languages; Swedish lök and Danish løg both meaning ‘onion’, Dutch look and German Lauch, meaning ‘leek’.

The Plant Throughout History

Allium Sativum, or Garlic as it is more usually known has a long and noble history as food stuff and an even longer one as a herbal medicine and tonic. Indeed, for a long period of our history, the eating of garlic for pleasure alone was eschewed by many different cultures although we can find much documented evidence in the form of almanacs, treatises and records for its use in medicine by herbalists, medicine men and other men (and women) who took responsibility for the health and welfare of their community.

The ancient Egyptians possessed a medical papyri, Codex Elsers, dating back to circa 1500 BCE recorded 22 formulas for medicinal remedies with garlic at their heart. This plant polymath offered up a cure for heart disease, worms, and tumors and has been cultivated for over 6,000 years and grown in Egypt since 3200 BCE.

The Ancient Egyptians have been described as being much enamoured of garlic and legend says that slaves put to work to construct the pyramids were fed large amounts of it to strengthen their bodies and prevent infection after they were injured (and one imagines this was a frequent occurrence). Surprisingly enough, when Moses led the Hebrew slaves from Egypt (around 1200BCE), garlic was one of the ‘finer things’ they complained of missing along with cucumbers, fish, leeks, onions and melons.

Centuries later and during the First World War, British physicians mixed garlic juice with water to create a topical antiseptic for wounds with Russian doctors following in their footsteps in the Second World War. The doctors took it a step further though in supplementing their soldiers diet with both onion and garlic, giving it its nickname of ‘Russian Penicillin.’ This more recent use of the bulb as a treatment for war wounds is strongly reminiscent of the faith placed in its talismanic protection against wounds inflicted by spears and Greek battalions were presented with it to give them courage and promise of victory too.

Of course we now know that this tacit knowledge has an evidence base. The essence of what Culpeper, the renowned herbalist and apothecary said in The English Physitian back in 1653, has been backed up by empirical research:
“In choleric men it will add fuel to the fire; in men oppressed in melancholy, it will attentuate [weaken] the [melancholic] humour, and send up strong fancies, and as many strange visions to the head; therefore let it be taken inwardly in great moderation; outwardly you may make more bald with it”

The adding fuel to the fire is Culpeper associating choleric humour with an elevated temperature (fever) and in humoral physiology, encouraging a sick person to run a ‘good’ fever was seen as therapeutic, encouraging the flushing of impurities from the body. We know that garlic reduces cholesterol, the viscosity of blood and its lipids and we also know that a melancholic disposition (according to Culpeper) can be linked to an increased risk of blood viscosity. Or to be more specific, a person prone to low mood or depressive disorder which causes them to reduce their activity is at increased risk of fatty build up in their circulatory system and disorders of circulation. Clever old Culpeper.

The spear shape of garlic shoots, from the above ground foliage to the tiny spear at the centre of the bulb which slowly greens up and becomes bitter after harvesting inspires its Old English name- garleac or garlec with ‘gar’ meaning ‘spear’ as Millie explains above. Culpeper ascribes a celestial ruler to all living plants and garlics ruler is the warlike, passionate and dominant Mars. This kingship may be inspired by the warrior like (and phallic) spear of those etiolated and pointed leaves which are analogous to the glyph for Mars. Additionally let’s look at where garlic originates from: the arid and scorching lands of the Middle East and West Central Asia, migrating east toward China and west into Southern Europe, Garlic thrives in soil which is sandy, thin and allows the bulb to push its spears straight and true, unhindered by clay sod which might cause it to deviate from its path to the sun. It is not a great leap of the imagination to see why its botanical requirements caused Culpeper to ally it to Mars, the hot, red planet- depicted as sere and superheated in its atmosphere and garlic also pushes its scape (a false flower stalk), towards the light in the northern hemispheres springtime which falls in the astrological house of Aries (ruled by Mars).

The tombs of Egypt probably contain the oldest records of the existence of what the French call the ‘Stinking Rose’ with clay sculptures of its bulbs dating back to 3700BCE and paintings depicting the plant in another tomb which have been dated to 3200BCE. The Greeks and Romans did not initially share in Egypts passion though, much less ascribing the bulb a place in its high culture. Initially the citizenry of Greece, and especially its aristocracy, refused to consume garlic, finding its aroma and after effects repugnant and vulgar and banning those smelling of it from entering temples. Aristotle flew in the face of this though and included garlic in his lists of foodstuffs he deemed to have aphrodisiac effects and Hippocrates prescribed it as a panacea albeit with reservations and contra-indications: “[it] causes flatulence, a feeling of warmth on the chest and a heavy sensation in the head; it excites anxiety and increases any pain which may be present.”

The Romans, like the Egyptians, fed garlic to their slaves and labourers hoping that they would be invigorated enough to do their (no doubt) arduous work. To smell of it was a sign of low status and class and Pliny the Elder stated, “Garlic has such powerful properties that the very smell of it drives away serpents and scorpions” although he then went on to list a humongous amount of conditions cured by it. This stimulating reputation is a familiar one across many different world religions: garlic was deemed to upset the spiritual balance of Buddhist practitioners, was rejected by Zen masters and both Hindu and Brahmin observants avoid it for similar reasons. Intriguingly the reproductive nature of the bulb is the reason why Jains do not eat it or similar vegetables such as onions. Garlic reproduces itself by producing a multiplicity of cloves in each bulb which detach and fatten up to form a new ‘head’. Jains believe that each one of these is a potential new life and feel that the destruction of a head of garlic is to destroy multiple lives.

Amusingly enough, the ever pragmatic faith of Judaism recommends the eating of garlic on Fridays, the day before the holy Sabbath in its Talmud (the book of rabbinical teachings) because of those same stimulating properties. Sex on a Sabbath is considered an act of both faith and good deed, especially garlic fuelled passion! Chaucers Sommour who was ‘lecherous as a sparwe’ agreed, as in the quote from above; “Well love he garleek, onions and eek lekes” and across Central Europe, the dog, gander, bull and cockerel would be kept fierce, strong and fit on a diet of fat garlic bulbs. Its fecund ability to produce many offspring from one tiny fingernail sized clove led to the most obvious of conclusions with regards to the potency of breeding animals but it was also administered to livestock as protection against the evil eye. For their human owners, to dream of garlic was said to be a sign of hidden treasure and a clear reference to its secret life underground, swelling, growing and dividing which must have been pretty mindblowing to those yet to discover the botanical science behind its reproduction.


Glossologics: a blog on language, with special emphasis on etymology, and including references to languages other than English.

On Radical and Radishes by @MillieSlavidou

(cross-posted from Glossologics)


These days, if we think of the word radical, various organisations might come into mind, of religious or political significance. A quick look at the dictionary (I used the Merriam Webster) gives the meaning as:

very new and different from what is traditional or ordinary


            very basic and important


            having extreme political or social views that are not shared by most people.

It came into English in the 14th century, but at that time it had quite a different meaning. Let’s take a look at an example from 1398. This is taken from John Trevisa’s translation into English of Bartholomaeus’s On the Properties of Things, (De proprietatibus rerum) which was a kind of early encyclopaedia.

Þe onyoun..haþ þer vnder oþere rootes..and þerby..radical humour is ysent in to al þe herbe.

The onion has other roots underneath and thereby a radical feeling is sent through all of it.

Here, the word is used to mean ‘pertaining to roots”. This makes sense, as the word was taken from Late Latin radicalis, meaning ‘of roots/ about roots/ having roots’. This comes from Latinradix, meaning ‘root’, and was formed from the genitive form radices.

As the roots are perceivably where a plant starts, it started to take on a more figurative meaning of basic’ or ‘origin’ as time went on.

To trace our word further back in time, we will go to another word that also has the same <ahem> root. This is of course radish.


Radish, meaning the vegetable, can be found in Old English as rǽdic. An example is inLeechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England:

Syle ðane rǽdic tó þicganne

A radish takes in a muddy place

The source of rǽdic is the same as that of radical: Latin radix. There are a number of cognates in other languages which have allowed us to trace it to Proto-Indo-European and the root *wrad, meaning none other than ‘root’. We can see examples in Greek ρίζα [riza], GothicwaurtsOld English wyrt and wrotanWelsh gwraidd and others. You can read more on the word root here.

So, does this mean that a radish is radical? Or that if you are radical you are really a radish?! On the first point, given that a radish is a root, you could describe it as radical in the sense in which the word first entered English, although perhaps not with today’s generally understood meaning. The jury is still out on the second point!

Glossologics: a blog on language, with special emphasis on etymology, and including references to languages other than English. [@AlexpolisTigers]

Of Wives and Women by @MillieSlavidou

(Cross-Possted with permission by Glossologics)

In honour of International Woman’s Day

I have seen some peculiar claims circulating on the internet that “woman” either derives from “womb-man” or that it is “woman-man”. The former is frankly laughable, and the latter is a more understandable mistake, but one that conflates the modern word “man” with the Old English word “man” and assumes that the meaning is the same.

The modern word with the /o/ sound in the singular developed during the Middle Englishperiod. Prior to that, it was /i/, the vowel that is preserved in the plural. It comes from Old English, and is made up of two elements: wif and man. The first part, wif, meant “female”, and the second meant, not “man” in the sense of “male human being” that we have today, but “person, human”, and was used equally for both sexes. There was another form in Old English that meant “male person”, and that was wer, sometimes also teamed up with the gender neutral manwer-man, in much the same way as wifman. The male form was lost over time, with only a last remnant of it still to be found in “werewolf”, but wifman remained and gradually developed to become woman.

So where did wif come from? Well, it is Germanic, and we can see a cognate in modernGerman Weib, signifying “woman, female”. Both of these come from Proto-Germanic *wībam, meaning “woman”. Its origins from there further back in time are obscure. The two main theories are that it could be from Proto-Indo-European root *weip-, meaning “twist, wrap”, through the idea of “veiled person”, or from *ghwibh-, a root meaning “shame” or “pudenda”.

There seem to be several problems with these theories. Firstly, looking at *weip- , there is no reason to suppose that the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language veiled women, nothing to associate this root with women in particular, other than later prejudices and preconceptions being applied to an earlier time. Indeed, all archaeological evidence points to the contrary. Early art depicting women has not showed them to be veiled at all, and in fact there is no evidence to suggest that women were covered until after these words were established in their meaning as “woman”, which would post-date any connection between the meanings “wrap/ conceal/ cover” and “woman”, thereby undermining this theory.

In the second instance, there are only two proposed derivatives of *ghwibh-; the Germanic root signifying “woman” and a word from Tocharian, an extinct language, kip, meaning “female pudenda”. It seems to me quite a stretch of imagination to assume that “woman” and “pudenda” must have derived from a word meaning “shame”; again, I believe that this is later prejudice being applied retrospectively. There are no cognates in other languages meaning anything similar, no other linguistic evidence to point to this meaning, and in none of the proposed derivatives are there clear overtones of shame. And as for it meaning “pudenda”, again, there is only the one example of this word. Equally, both the Tocharian and Germanic words could have developed from a root meaning “female”; it could be the Tocharian that diverged rather than the Germanic, or indeed both could come from a different root entirely. The Tocharian is the only link to pudenda, and there is no compelling reason to suppose that this was the original meaning of the Germanic root too.

Going back to our Old English word, wif, it is not hard to see the other modern cognate; wife. This evolved from meaning more generally “woman” and became more specific as “female spouse”, possibly through its link with the Old English verb gewifian. This meant “to take a wife”. It is not to be confused with “marry”, as obviously this is a word that may be applied to both genders, whereas the original sense of gewifian was for a man to take a wife. For the woman, on the contrary, there was another verb, weddian, which developed into the modern “wed”, and meant “promise, pledge” and ultimately, “marry”.


Glossologics: a blog on language, with special emphasis on etymology, and including references to languages other than English. [@AlexpolisTigers]

Gossip by @MillieSlavidou

In honour of Women’s History Month


Given today’s meaning for this word, you might be surprised to learn of the elements that make it up. These days, we use gossip to mean “casual chat, social conversation” or, more negatively, “unconfirmed reports repeated and circulated about somone/ something”. However, it didn’t acquire this meaning until the early 19th century, fairly recently in the history of the word.

To see what the word meant, we shall look at its components, and the context in which it was generally used. It comes to us from Old English, via Middle English, and it is made up of godand sibb. The first part, god, has not changed a lot in meaning, except that it could be used in a more general sense of “religious” or “spiritual”, as well as “divine being”. You may recognise the second element, sibb, in the word “sibling”.

So if we put the two parts together again, what we have is god-sibb; “religious/ spiritual relative”. It referred to a person who had become a relative either by being a baptismal sponsor (a godparent) or by being the person baptised (godchild).

An example of it used with this meaning is in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Wife of Bath, from 1395:

He..hadde laft scole and wente at hom to bord With my gossyb dwellyng in oure toun; God haue hir soule! hir name was Alisoun.

(He had left school and went to live at home. With my godchild living in our town, God rest her soul, her name was Alison.)

So how did the word develop from meaning “spiritual relation” to “idle chatter”? This is not as odd as it might at first appear. The people chosen to be your child’s godparents were generally close friends. In the 14th century, the word started to become associated more with women and childbirth. This was because childbirth was a time when women would gather together to help and support the pregnant woman through labour and giving birth. Of course, labour and birth were fraught with risk and many women died giving birth. At a time like that, who better to offer you support than your close friends and relatives? God-sibs would attend a birth.

Naturally, as with any situation where people get together, there would have been conversation. Women encouraged the labouring woman with stories of their own positive birth experiences, or distracted her with stories of what was going on in the community, to try and take her mind off the pain. This sort of conversation came to be regarded as the talk of god-sibs, and the sense evolved to mean firstly “woman who attends a birth” and gradually “person, especially a woman, who engages in idle talk”, and over time, the things that were said rather than the people themselves became associated with the word.

Thus, it went from being a relative, to a positive meaning of women supporting one another, to a negative meaning of frivolous or even malicious chatter, as it is sometimes used today.