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Category: Welsh

Royal Rules on Rich Rectors

Royal Rules on Rich Rectors

Last month, the Guildford Shakespeare Company put on a production of Richard II, a fascinating tale of political strife and the perils of having a leader lacking in competence when the country is in crisis. Sound familiar? In any case, this got me thinking about the name Richard and its many etymological links.

First with the name Richard. It’s borrowed from French, but it didn’t start there. In fact it is one of a number of French words that was borrowed from Germanic, deriving from Frankish *Rīkahard, meaning ‘hard/brave king’. This also gives modern German Richard and through the travels of the Goths and Vandals also made its way into Spanish as Ricardo and Italian as Riccardo. The first part of this name, the *rīk- ‘ruler’ part, in other derivations also gives words like German Reich and Dutch rijk, both meaning ‘empire’ or ‘kingdom’, which in English is also found as the ‘domain, kingdom’ suffix -ry, as in Jewry ‘the Kingdom of the Jews’. As different derivation again gives us English rich, something you’d rather expect a king to be. As a component of names it is ubiquitous in Germanic, such as in Old English Godric ‘God(ly) king’, Wulfric ‘Wolf-king’ and Theodric ‘King of the people’. This last one turns up in German as Dietrich and, again courtesy of the Franks, through French Thierry comes into English as Terry (see also my previous post on the Germans for more on this Theod-).

But it is not only Germanic languages that have this root. Indeed, some form of it crops up across the Indo-European language family, usually meaning something like ‘king’ or ‘ruler’. In Celtic (from which Germanic likely borrowed the rīk- words) we find e.g. in Irish and rhi in Welsh, both meaning king. In Gaulish, rulers such as Vercingetorix and Ambiorix had an earlier form –rix it as part of their name, and in a reduced form we find the same in the Welsh surname Tudor, originally meaning ‘ruler of the people’ and thus cognate with Theodric/Dietrich/Terry.

In Latin too we find rēx, again meaning ‘king’ or ‘ruler’. This form survives as such in many modern Romance languages, for example Spanish rey and French roi. We also get two separate adjectives in English: regal from Latin and royal from French. Further afield, we find this word cropping up as far away as India, in the form of Sanskrit rāja, once again a ‘king’ word, as well as rāṣṭrá, a ‘kingdom’.

All of these forms can be traced back to a form in Proto-Indo-European (the reconstructed ancestor of all of these languages), which we represent as *h3rḗǵs. In the terminology of Indo-European studies this is an ‘athematic root noun’, meaning a short root without additional derivational suffixes onto which inflectional endings such as the nominative singular *-s are suffixed directly, rather than having an additional ‘theme vowel’ *-o inbetween. As with many such forms in Proto-Indo-European, when we isolate the root itself, *h3reg-, which probably meant something like ‘stretch out the arm, direct’, we can find even more related derivations.

Adding a thematic vowel *-e/o- we get a verb which shows up in Latin as regō ‘rule, govern, direct’, along with an array of derived nouns which we have inn English. We have the agent noun rector, the instrument noun rule (from a French reflex of Latin rēgula) and the abstract noun regimen. Additionally, we have prefixed verbs such as dīrigō, ērigō and corrigō, which through their respective supine forms dīrēctum, ērēctum and corrēctum give us English ‘direct’, ‘erect’ and ‘correct’ respectively.

Germanic, meanwhile, provides us with a different set of reflexes of this verb. While we have already seen the rich set relating to wealth and kingship, the ‘straighten’ meaning of *h3reg- results in other interesting links. We have the (originally separate) verb and noun rake, a device for making straight lines, and the former participle right, originally meaning ‘straightened, directed’. Then we have reckon, perhaps a natural extension of the metaphor of lining things up in order to count them. Finally, from a causative ‘make straighten up’ we have reach (as if ‘straightening out one’s arm’).

This here is the greatest joy of etymology for me; by untangling these webs of relationships, we can show how so much of our vocabulary results from variations upon a common root. It reminds us of the continual creativity involved in using language and, by extension, the creativity of language users, i.e., humans.

Who are the Germans?

Who are the Germans?

You may be familiar with the fact that the Germans refer to themselves as Deutsch and their country as Deutschland, and we find this term also in most other Germanic languages, such as Dutch Duits or Swedish Tysk, as well as Italian Tedesco. However, there are many other names in other parts of Europe. The French and Spaniards call them Allemand/Alemán, as do the Welsh with Almaenaidd; the various Slavic languages share a different term again, seen in e.g. Polish Niemiec or Russian Nemets. In the Baltic the Lithuanians and Latvians have their own terms not seen anywhere else (Vokietis and Vācijis respectively), while in Finland and Estonia they call them Saksi. We could also add some assorted forms from smaller languages, such as Miksas from Old Prussian, an extinct sister language to Lithuanian and Latvian.

An aerial shot of the meeting of the Rhine and Mosel rivers at Koblenz
The Deutsches Eck, or ‘German corner’, in Koblenz

Now, it is not unusual for inhabitants of a country to refer to themselves and their country with a different form from that used by outsiders (when was the last time you called China Zhongguo or India Bharat?). What is particularly notable about the German case, however, is the diversity even among its immediate neighbours. Contrast e.g. France, where everyone uses some form of derivative of Latin Francia (after the Germanic tribe the Franks), though the Greeks still call it Gallia after the Roman province of Gaul. Similarly, most call Spain some form derived from Hispania and Italy one from Italia. So, this diversity in names for the Germans requires some explanation.

Whence this plethora of terms? A consideration of history leads us to our answer. Recall that the modern country of Germany is a relatively recent creation, only being officially united in the mid 19th century by Otto von Bismarck. While there was a political entity that occupied the area in the form of the Holy Roman Empire it was only a relatively loose collection of small states, and prior to that the area was inhabited by a number of distinct Germanic-speaking peoples.

As a result, some of these names derive from the individual groups or tribes which lived in part of the area: so in the Western Romance and Brittonic Celtic languages the name of the Alemanni tribe was applied to the Germans as a whole. The same process occurred in the northeast with the Baltic Finns and the Saxons: not only were the Saxons the nearest group, but also, due to a combination of the Hanseatic League controlling trade through the Baltic and the anti-pagan crusading of the Teutonic Knights (another Deutsch-relative, see below), many Saxons came to settle in the Eastern Baltic, with some of their descendants still living in Estonia and Latvia today. Some small varieties show different groups again: some of the smaller Germanic varieties use a form derived from Prussian, after the state which ended up uniting the German peoples.

English takes a slightly different approach, deriving the term Germans from the Latin name of the region; Germania. This term included two Roman provinces covering much of modern-day Belgium, Switzerland, parts of eastern France and the Rhineland in modern Germany, as well as applying to the larger swathe of barbarian territories further east. Interestingly, several languages use this term to refer to Germany the country despite using a different term to refer to the Germans: Italian and Russian are the most notable examples.

We find a different source again with the Slavic Nemets terms. There is again some dispute in origin, but the general consensus is that it derives from a Slavic root *němъ meaning ‘mute’, itself of contested origin. The meaning likely was not ‘mute’ necessarily, but rather simply denoted that these groups were not Slavic-speaking. This puts in a similar group to the word ‘barbarian’ in fact, which derives from a Greek word meaning ‘those who go bar-bar/talk incomprehensibly’. Similar origins to do with ‘talking’ are likely behind the Baltic Vok-/Vāc-/Miks- forms as well.

Finally, what of German ‘Deutsch’? Well, as is the case with many endonyms it is a relatively simple and self-referential etymology. It ultimately derives from an Indo-European root *tewteh2 meaning simply ‘people’, which shows up also in e.g. Irish túath with the same meaning. This form may also be the source of Romance forms such as Spanish todo or French tout meaning ‘everyone/everything’. This root even survives in Slavic, in Russian giving the form čužoj, meaning ‘foreign, alien’. This ended up as Germanic *þeudō, which through an adjective formation *þiudiskaz meaning something like ‘of the people’ ultimately leads to the modern German form. This form also gives Latin Teutones, a likely Celtic or Germanic tribe which lived in the North German region and was encountered by the Romans early in their expansion northwards.

So, as with many other terms, such as the aubergine words which have been discussed here before, the differences between languages are reflective of a complex history. In this case the wide array of disparate terms of different etymologies reflects the complex history of the entity involved, specifically the absence of a country that even called itself ‘Germany’ until the modern era, as well as the extent to which different groups of ethnic Germans have moved about in Europe.

Siôn Corn: The bloke who comes down the chimney

Siôn Corn: The bloke who comes down the chimney

It’s December, which means you’ve probably been bombarded with ‘Christmas cheer’ since the beginning of November. Bah humbug I say! And if you’re from down under, I feel really sorry for you having to celebrate twice a year – once in July and then again in December! You may think of me as a bit of a Scrooge spoiling all your fun but…

Speaking of Scrooge, that’s a great instance of personification, how a characteristic of a person gets attached to their name. The name is then used to refer to that characteristic. It happens a lot, just look at the recent phenomenon concerning poor Karen. Something similar happens when common and frequent names get hijacked into standing for the average Joe.

Moving on to Joe, that’s one of the many names in English used for the everyman, as in Joe Bloggs, or Joe Public. Similarly, John or Jane as in John Doe or Jane Doe, a term for an unknown person, especially used in the USA for unidentified cadavers. And in the UK, John Bull is the personification of the nation.

John Bull: the personification of the UK

And let’s not forget Jack, itself a nickname for John. Jack is found in many phrases relating to the everyman, especially in reference to someone of historically low status (hence Jack in a pack of cards being lower than the King or Queen) or in phrases about working in a rural employment, as in lumberjack, or the Australian Jackaroo (or Jillaroo!) for someone learning to work on a sheep or cattle farm. Jack has also been extended to objects that are generally handy and helpful – such as carjack and jackhammer.

This brings us to the title of our post, Siôn Corn, which is the name of Santa Clause in Wales and can be translated as ‘John Stack’ (as in corn simnee ‘chimney stack’) or ‘Chimney Pot John’. Siôn is the Welsh equivalent of the everyman, and is used to mean, the guy, the bloke etc.

Siôn Corn and his Welsh dragon.

The name Siôn is used in many different phrases and is the personification of many personal characteristics.

  • Siôn Barrug ‘Jack Frost’
  • Siôn yr offis ‘personification of laziness’
  • Siôn Chwarae Teg ‘personification of fair play’
  • Siôn o’r wlad ‘itinerant worker’
  • Siôn Cwsg ‘sleepiness, or the sandman’
  • Siôn Ben Tarw ‘John Bull’
  • Look up Siôn at the dictionary of the Welsh language for many more interesting examples
    As for the use of Siôn Corn denoting the personification of yuletide, the earliest reference comes from the Welsh scholar, poet and songwriter, J. G. Davies in his 1923 Children’s songbook Cerddi Huw Puw:

    The history of Sion Corn is unknown to me any further back than my father’s dialogues with him in the seventies. He was a benevolent spook, living up the chimney in comfortable apartments. He had some mysterious interest in getting children off to bed early, and a more rational habit of making presents at Christmas, as a Welsh Santa Claus. I do not know whether my father found him in Edern, his mother’s home, or invented him. Anyhow, Sion Corn has done untruthful and amiable service for two generations.

    So it seems, before Siôn Corn took on the persona of Father Christmas, he had another job, helping to get children to bed, much like a Siôn Cwsgsandman’. Though, of all the meanings that Siôn connotes, I like Siôn llygad y geiniog ‘miser’ the best. Basically, Siôn can be both Father Christmas and Scrooge at the same time – Siôn really is a Siôn pob crefft ‘a Jack of all trades’.