This column presents some English words that came to us, often through French, from medieval Latin, words like agency, ambush, annex, appoint, abstract, subject, communicate, matter and probable. So we must take a moment to define in quick outline the stages of the Latin language, its progression and procession through history.
Stages of Latin
753 BC — On this traditional date of the founding of Rome, Latin is the language spoken by several thousand people in and near Rome.
Archaic Latin or Old Latin or Early Latin — 1000 BCE (?) to 75 BCE
Classical Latin — 75 BCE to 400 CE
Late Latin — 400 to 700 CE (written)
Vulgar Latin — 400 to 1000 CE (spoken source of the Romance languages like French, Spanish and Italian)
Medieval Latin — 700 to 1500 CE
New Latin — 1500 to present day Chiefly scientific coinages, a few dribbles of Latin poetry, for example, by John Milton, and various documents of ecclesiastical Latin.
Medieval Latin was written in the Middle Ages, primarily as a medium of scholarly exchange and as the liturgical language of the medieval Roman Catholic Church, but also as a language of science, literature, law and administration.
Let’s look at two examples of the language. The first is also important in the history of pre-printing. It’s a medieval Latin inscription at a monastery, Prüfening Abbey in Germany. Shown below, it was made by pressing wooden letter-stamps into wet clay, done in 1119 CE, more than 300 years before Gutenberg!
The first sentence of the Latin inscription above, with epigraphically abbreviated words expanded to their full spelling, reads:
+ Anno domini MCXVIIII, IIII idus mai, consecratum est hoc monasterium in honore sancti Georgii a venerabilibus episcopis Ratisponensi Hartwico Bambergensi Ottone.
Translation into English:
“In the year of our Lord 1119, on the fourth day before the Ides of May [12 May], this monastery was consecrated in honour of St. George by the venerable bishops Hartwig of Regensburg and Otto of Bamberg.
Now let’s look briefly at a few words from medieval Latin, all of which begin with the letter a, and which entered English, often through the intermediary mode of French.
This is an unaltered verb form in medieval Latin that means ‘he has stated on oath’ or sworn this on faith. Affidare ‘to swear an oath’ has its ultimate etymon in the classical Latin word fides ‘faith.’ Then as now, an affidavit is a statement one swears on oath so that it may stand as judicial proof of some fact.
This term from French arose from medieval Latin affiliation whose first meaning was ‘adoption of a son,’ shown by its embedded root word filius Latin ‘son.’ But then affiliation broadened its meaning to encompass organizations adopting new groups into its control, like a father taking a new son.
This word evolved from medieval Latin agentia ‘state of acting upon some order or summons, probably as a short form of the medieval Latin legal phrase facultas agendi ‘the working-out or operation of some defined activity.’ In Victorian English, agency came to signify intermediation or to express instrumentality, as in this quotation from Darwin’s Origin of Species: “Requiring the agency of certain insects to bring pollen from one flower to the other.”
The word, of course, is Arabic, although this form of it is medieval Latin. But it began as a Semitic word for eye-shadow! Arabic الكحل al-kuhl referred to a collyrium, a fine-ground powder, often containing antimony or lead ore (!), used to stain the eyelids. Its Hebrew cognate appears in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel (xxiii.40) as kahala. The eye shadow was prepared by distillation and eventually the meaning passed from reference to the eye-shadow to the means of distilling it, and thence one of the distilling liquids used came to be called alcohol.
The Old French form was embuschement from medieval Latin imboscāmentum, a wonderful verbal contraption that suggests one hid in a bush and leapt out at the enemy to surprise and capture him.
English ambush has cognates in Spanish embuscar and Italian imboscare. The sheltering woods appear in the very word, for Late Latin boscus means ‘bushes’ or ‘woods’ and gives English words like boscage ‘shrubs’ and an obsolete English verb imbosk, whose enclosing sound I love. Imbosk is well worth revival. To imbosk is to hide oneself in a wood. What an apt command to yell at a human pest: “Get thee to a low shrub and imbosk thyself, base varlet!” Perhaps not too loud a yell, lest you be apprehended by a master of lunacy and his thuggish minions.
And so, on that apopemptic brush-off, let us effect a swift exitus.
The Frankish army of Charlemagne, one of the most dominant forces the world has ever seen, were caught so unprepared that this famous ambush became a total slaughter of Charlemagne’s rearguard. Pictured is the moment of Roland’s death, Le Mort de Rolland, by Jean Fouquet (1420-1480 CE). Roland was Charlemagne's nephew, leader of the rear guard at this famous Battle of Roncevalles in 778 CE. The Song of Roland or La Chanson de Roland is a heroic poem based on the battle. It is the oldest surviving major work of French literature.
copyright © 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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