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Housewives Club
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Lions Club

A door by any other name..?


By Christine Lovatt

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!

Happy puzzling!

Christine Lovatt


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 ...


8 Responses to

A door by any other name..?

June 14, 2011 at 2:12 PM

Fenestra is actually the English as well as Latin word for window, (n.b. feminine noun, naturally, what else?) and predates the French. There is also "fenestella" (also femine)a small window or window-like opening. But that is all that my Chambers 20th Century Dictionary, 1983 edition, can come up with.

kragzy said:
June 15, 2011 at 10:42 AM

I agree Christine - English is a rich and intriguing language because of its many and varied origins. I wonder whether crosswords could be compiled in the more 'pure' languages that presumably lack so many synonyms. Many years ago I corresponded with a friend in Canada who was fluent in both French and English. We decided to adopt French for a while in our letters but I grew tired of its limitations in terms of rich expression, sentence structure and a vocabulary with few synonyms. Then again, perhaps that simply reflects that French is not my first language (and indeed, these days has all but disappeared from my memory). I will always delight in reading beautifully crafted English writing. By the way, my son, an architect, speaks of "fenestration" when describing the proposed windows for the buildings he is designing.

June 16, 2011 at 10:04 PM

In the operating theatre(I'm a veterinary nurse) we drape a piece of green fabric with a hole in the middle over the patient. This covers the patient yet leaves the operation site clear for the surgeon. It is called a "fenestrated" drape - now I know why!!!

June 18, 2011 at 11:17 AM

The first German word to stick in my head was "fenster" meaning window, so why we have adopted window is strange, unless it sounded like "wind no" and somehow stuck that way. Certainly the barrier known as the "door" has very limited other options apart from say "moving barrier" or such like which described the function. The portal is becoming a more widely used word meaning the doorway into a website which is generally password only access, such as the one for my employer. It is also being used in the science fiction world as the passage or entry to another world or time. The doorway itself can have portal, entry, access point, wall opening and I'm sure there are others which escape my brain at present. It is interesting that the words with wider synonyms were developed from the lower classes. Maybe to enrich the language even further we need to pay attention to the person on the street a bit more rather than the sticklers for tradition!

June 18, 2011 at 12:17 PM

Just a few for window from my thoughts, added to by an online thesaurus.....casement, fanlight, sidelight, porthole, sashes, transom lights, aperture, louvres, dormer, oriel, skylight, lancet, lucarne, fenestella, lunette, pane. is there a special name for the glass panels in doors which would come into the window category as well? i also thought there was a special name for the circular windows on federation houses but I can only find bull's eye window. I'm nearly certain there is another name for them. For door we have hatch, trapdoor, panel, ingress, egress, threshold or closure.

dj1 said:
June 18, 2011 at 2:57 PM

Further to the use of English in court cases, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding, the lawyers would often use the English AND the French words, like last will and testament, part and parcel, goods and chattels.

Jf said:
June 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM

What about words that mean opposites? E.g. "cleave"?

dj1 said:
June 21, 2011 at 12:35 PM

and "fast"