Up to index  There are Two Words for Everything in English

One of my hobby-horse theories is that English has at least two words for every common concept, one an older word of Norse/German origin and one a newer word which came into English from French. The Norse/German word is usually a short single-syllable word with a single vowel sound while the French word often has several syllables. English was basically a northern-European Germanic language before 1066 derived from the northern European Angles, Saxons (now Germans) and Jutes (now Danes) and from the invading Vikings (Danes and Norwegians). The successful invasion of 1066 by the French-speaking Normans basically ended the German/Norse influence on English and began a period in which upper-class English language was often derived from French and Latin. Hence we arrive at a point today where there are two words for everything in English, a very old, simple word describing something which would have been familiar to the Vikings and a fancier, longer, possibly more polite word of French origin.

Here are some examples. Useful references are the Oxford English Dictionary or the Online Etymology Dictionary by Douglas Harper.

Articles, prepositions, simple words

Most very short words in English are from German or Norse including `a', 'the', 'on', `off', 'in', `out', 'of', 'at', 'to', 'up', 'down' etc. Also eye, ear, arm, leg, toe, tooth, gum etc.

German / French

be / exist, existence

beat / defeat

bed / couch, litter

boat, ship, yacht / barque, bark

book / volume

cow / cattle

do / perform

feel, feeling / emotion

gate / port, portal

go / move

half, twice / double

heal / cure

home, house / castle

island / isle

kill, quell, slay / destroy, execute

laugh / risible, ridicule

man, wife, woman / person, male, female

saga / story

scrap, offal, trash / refuse, ordure, garbage, litter

seat, stool, bench / chair, throne

see / view, perceive

smart / hurt

string, thread / cord

sweet / candy

talk, tell, tale / converse

trip / travel, journey

tie, tether, bind, knot / leash, strain (v), restrain

wed / marry


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