Of Bread and Etymology…

Two loaves of Homemade Bread are in my oven.

Life is good.

So let me talk about bread for a bit.  As I am often wont to do, I am going to talk about the origins of certain words because I find it fascinating to understand and watch the systemic (or rather–perhaps not systemic, but evolutionary) change in the meanings of words.

Words are part of language and language is a very excellent part of human interaction.

Language, however, can be misunderstood.  As I remember from the lopsided, but still very interesting, film, Mr. Frost, one can think of language as the devil’s greatest invention, because it allows people to lie. Of course, even without intentional deception, language can often be misunderstood and it can be used to cause evil when people unintentionally (or ignorantly) forget that it is an invention.

Language, words, grammar–these are things that we have made.  They are constructs and therefore the content and interpretation of these objects always have a half-life and seed of change within them.

Literal interpretations of words, therefore, should usually be treated with care.  When arguments come to depend on a particular definition of a word–then one should be careful not to assume that the definition that is currently attached to that word is part of its essential nature, but instead should try to understand just how long that meaning has been connected to that word.  (These connections being constituted by the conscious decisions of various individuals over time–which gives them importance and relevance in a social context–but not in an existentialist one.)

To bring this back to a concrete example and the subject of this post, let us talk about “loaves of bread.”

What is a “Loaf”?  Well, according to the OED (and also backed up by German equivalents in the Duden Herkunftswoerterbuch), Loaf actually means “bread” in its orignal meaning back in Old English.  The word “Bread” itself, seems to have been a more general term that meant “food” or “morsel of food” and it came to take on the more exclusive designation for “leavened, baked dough” only over time.  Originally, however, the Old English hlaf (the a should have a bar over it, so I assume it is pronounced like the a in father.. so h-loff or something similar..), meant bread.

Okay. So what? You ask…

Well, the interesting part comes from how this word hlaf came to be the initial component of two other very important words in our vocabulary that have very different connotations.  In particular, the words Lord and Lady are both contractions of words that are based on the idea of Bread that was attached to the word hlaf.

Lord comes from the word hlafweard, which literally meant the Ward(en) of the Bread.

Lady comes from the word hlaefdige, which meant “bread” “kneader” as “dige” came from the germanic root word for “to knead/smear” and which is found in the word “dough” (as in bread dough!).

Thus, a Lord was someone who protects the bread, while a Lady was someone who helped make it.

Obviously, these meanings aren’t all that strange, and I don’t mean to imply that it is some grand epiphany to undertake this etymological journey.  However, it is interesting to me to contrast these very basic and general definitions of the original (or nearly original) menaings of these words and see how they have changed.

If I use the term “Lady” with someone, the first thing that probably does not come to mind is “female baker.”  The meaning of “Ladies’ room” has nothing really to do with flour and ovens.

On the other hand, being designated as a lady, in today’s vernacular, may actually have far more connotations of “baking/making bread” than other synonyms, such as woman. I’m willing to bet that far more grandmothers are referred to as “ladies” than just “woman” and that these grandmothers are more likely to have baked bread of some sort than any random member of the feminine sex today.

With regard to “lord,” the metaphorical connections between bread and the term have been obscured in many ways, but not entirely.  In fact, within Christianity, the fact that in the Lord’s Prayer, the Lord gives everyone their daily bread is quite interesting. It is also true, however, that when you talk about the English House of Lords that you are not referring to a bunch of overprotective bakers.

My loaves have just come out of the oven, so I should wrap this up.  Words change. They are constructs. They are fascinatingly useful constructs and the fact that we, as a species, have created such an amazing tool makes us some damn interesting critters.

This tool, however, is just that.  Words are no more and no less than our creations and we should not ever lose track of that fact.  We control the words, they do not control us.. at least if we are smart enough (and did you know that smart actually means “painful” as in that smarts…) to realize this.


About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
This entry was posted in Eating & Food, Linguistics and Languages. Bookmark the permalink.

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