You may have noticed when solving crosswords that while some words have many synonyms - such as bowl, dish, basin etc - others have none. Can you think of a single word that means window?
The main reason for words having synonyms is based in history. When foreign hordes invaded England, they often stayed – and their vocabulary came to stay as well.
Before 1066, the English language was made up mostly of words from the Germanic languages including Norse from the Vikings and Latin from the Romans.
Once William won the Battle of Hastings, he and his Norman pals used French at the English royal court, and legal documents were written in Latin or French.
The peasants working in the fields spoke their own English while the upper classes spoke French, and these two distinct languages were spoken in England until 1362, when Parliament passed a law requiring courts to conduct cases in English.
That’s why in some cases we have several words for one object.
Bowl comes from Old Norse bolli, dish is from the Latin discus and basin came from the French bacin.
More sophisticated words, such as parliament, government, judge, hospital and poetry come from the French, and were not used by the simple farm workers, who used old Germanic words such as husband, wife, plough, egg, gate and boulder, things that were part of their everyday lives.
Some very ordinary words have no synonyms, such as door and window. Why didn’t the French words for these stay in use?
Door comes from the old German duru. The French for door, porte, survives in our language as the little-used portal, which means a large or impressive doorway or gateway (those upper classes again!)
Window (which comes from old Norse vindauga) is fenêtre in French, which didn’t catch on probably because in those days the peasants couldn’t afford windows. However, fenêtre has survived in the form defenestrate, which means to throw someone out of a window – something the upper classes did more of than the peasants, as they had windows.
So the invading hordes did us a big favour, enriching our vocabulary with synonyms that are very handy when creating crosswords – although I’m sure the inhabitants of England didn’t see it that way at the time!
JESSIE SAYS: Thanks to all who entered the Winter Warmers competition, your comments were fabulous and we loved reading through them. Winners can be viewed here ...
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