top of page

Interesting Etymologies 55 : Opposites

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

We have reached the penultimate instalment of our first trip around the roots and branches of the English language. But never fear! Series Two will continue to forage for obscure and little known etymology facts and surprising revelations regarding the words we use everyday!

The final episode of this series will feature some of Charly's favourite etymologies but in the meantime, in this episode we will explore the ide of opposites.

In the last episode of 2022 (Interesting Etymologies 53: Scottish) we looked at the Scottish word for Saxons (Sassenach - The old enemy) but this must be a very old word indeed, especially as since the 11th century the dominant ruling class of England have been the Norman French and their descendants. These were actually Norse men (Interesting Etymologies 47.1-3) who had come via northern France. This has meant that traditionally the Anglo Saxons have been the poor, represented by characters such as Robin Hood, while the French are the rich, the aristocracy. This distinction is vividly seen in our language, nowhere more so than the words we used for animals contrasting with words used for meat. Our words for meat are familiar to Europeans as they are from the French, while our words for animals are distinctly different, coming from the Saxons. This indicates that Saxons tended the animals, Normans ate them!















Another interesting area is words whose opposite did not exist, so words must be invented to keep track with change. Analogue clocks have only been given this label since digital clocks have become widespread.

Similarly the label Cis for a hetero individual who identifies with their biological gender. This term is relatively recent in common parlance but in etymological terms it comes to us from Latin and can be traced to geographical naming convention. The land in the northern reaches of modern Italy was known as Cisalpine Gaul while the region of modern day Alpine and Southern France was known as Transalpine Gaul.

The movement of the Sun across the sky is understood by most cultures and is the basis for the concept of clockwise movement. It was widely adapted by cultures to move with the natural order of this cycle but some people mad the decision to operate in a counter or or anticlockwise direction. These "witches" were described as Widershins, from Scottish, to move against the natural order. The etymology can be traced back further to High German : widersinnig - widar "against" and sinnen "to travel, go", related to sind "journey".

And finally a swift investigation into the words Left and Right. The reason these words are related to political views is down to the 1789 French National Assembly. When the Speaker looked out over the Assembly the different factions were sat to either side of his chair. The nobility to his right and the commoners to the left.

Right : Old English Riht meaning straight, related to good. Associated with what is correct, hence law and rights, such as human rights. From the Latin Rectus - ruled. This is reflected in most languages with right representing good and left for the bad. French for Left gauche, meant clumsy. The French word Maladroite - into English as maladroit - clumsy, but literally means, bad on the right. Ambidextrous means two right, or skilful hands. Many languages have a clear connection between straight ahead and right - Spanish Todo recto, and of course English , everything will be alright. Left handed people have it tough. In English maybe the idea of leftfield in recent times means free thinking or avant garde approach is resetting the imbalance but it will be a long road to unstitch this ancient ingrained superstition of sinister lefties.

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