Sunday, 30 October 2011

Lordly language

There are few words that carry as much weight in the English language as ‘lord’. Lord is used to describe both God and Jesus Christ in the Bible, where the word is used over seven thousand times. The word also has a myriad temporal meanings – the master, ruler or sovereign of men. The upper chamber of the Houses of Parliament is still called the House of Lords, and newly ennobled male peers take lord as part of their title.

So to find the word’s humblest of etymological origins was a surprise. David Crystal’s new book The Story of English in 100 Words points out that lord comes from loaf. How did the word used to denote ultimate sovereignty derive from a lump of bread?

The Oxford English Dictionary’s thorough history of the word shows its development. It started out in Old English as hláford – a combination of hláf (bread or loaf) and ward (keeper). The hláford was the keeper of bread, or the head of the household who had responsibility to feed his servants (those who eat his bread, or hláfǽta (bread eaters). Eventually shortened to lord (by the 15th century this spelling was common), it was shorn of its original meaning and elevated in importance.

Other Germanic languages did not follow this etymological development, but share the root in some of their words. So an old German word for ‘employer’ is brotherr, or brot herr – bread-lord (and similarly archaic to the term ‘master and servant’ in English). In Scandinavaen languages ‘meat-mother’ means the mistress of servants (matmoder in Swedish, madmoder in Danish and matmóđir in Icelandic).

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