top of page

Interesting Etymologies 43 : Heraldry

Updated: Mar 26, 2022

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

Today we are exploring the vocabulary surrounding the topic of heraldry. There are some genuinely interesting etymologies preserved within Heraldry which has effectively pickled some Norman French for us to enjoy.

Geoffrey Plantagenet is credited with carrying the first coat of arms. A picture of him commissioned by his widow shows his emblems on his shield and Heraldry is knowing what these symbols mean and depict. The Herald's job was to remember the symbology.

Herald - Frankish; Hariwald - Commander of an army. This goes back through Proto-Germanic (harja - army) to a PIE root : koro - war + waldaz - to command.

Colours in Heraldry do not follow the language we use in everyday discussion of colours (see IE14 Colourful Etymologies and IE14.2 More colourful Etymologies)

Gules (not red) : There is a mystery about this word. It meant a neckpiece of fur in old French or it could be from goules (meaning throat related to modern English gullet or French gueules) but why is the throat related to red? We don't know.

Verte (not green) : This is obviously related to the romance languages word for green.

Sable (not Black) : Again a mystery

Azure (not blue) : This like verte has a clear connection to romance languages word for blue. The word comes from Persian to Greek to Latin and was originally for the stone Lapis Lazuli. A path similar to Orange (see IE 7.2) in English which went from Norange to Orange. The French understood Laure to mean Le azure, giving Le the role of an article.

Purpure (not purple) : Porphyra in Greek a dye extracted from shellfish or a semi precious stone found in the Red Sea.

Argent (not white) : Direct to a PIE root Arg to shine.

Heraldic terms:

Ermine : A name given to a pattern. We know ermine as a fur but it actually meant Armenian to Latin speakers, Mus Armenius - The Armenian mouse. Old high German has something similar for Stoats and Weasels (Harmol) and this may be coincidental but Ermine patterns are heavily linked to Stoats partly because the fur is made from stoat winter pelts.

Ver: Another pattern that literally translates as "Squirrel fur". It seems to come from Varix in Latin which meant "bent", and also used to refer to varicose veins. It has a curious connection to wart and verrucas as Charly explains in his commentary. There is heated debate over the fact that the Cinderella story of the glass slipper is a mistranslation and the slipper was probably made of squirrel fur! The story is believed to go all the way back to China where the slipper is neither glass or fur but Gold.


The stripes in Heraldry are known as Bends. Once again we have no idea why.

But Chevrons are more recognisable. This word was originally the word for a rafter in a roof emerging from the word for goat, capron. This also gives us the word cabriolet and then cab meaning taxi.

A cross is simply a cross but a diagonal cross is known as a Saltire. From Middle French sautoir (stirrup) from the Latin saltatoria which is something to do with jumping.

Diamond originally from adamantem in Latin which meant the hardest thing or material.

Despliegue to mean displayed. Animals with wings or legs outstretched.

Passant literally means going for a walk, so the animal is in walking motion.

Rampant from rampe to climb or to scale

Statant : standing

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

SkipDeLirio's Worst Ever Gig : A novel by Charly Taylor

Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

So Caesar sends out soldiers to find himself a Scipio. Luckily, there is a man of such name right there in Rome – a local drunkard and tavern entertainer distantly descended from the legendary warrior. Kidnapped solely on account of his ‘heritage’, the lowly clown is forced to lead out the troops in the battle of Thapsus. There, ‘history’ tells us, Scipio ‘disappears from the historical record’.

Until now.

This is the story of how ‘Nobody’ Skip DeLirio, with the cards finally all dealt in his favour, still managed to fuck it up. History will only take you so far. The rest is make-believe.

Order your copy here


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page