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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Eight, the Crusades

There was bound to be trouble.

Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

Whenever the One True Religion of an All-Good All-Powerful God runs into another One True Religion of an All-Good All-Powerful God, there's bound to be trouble.  In the case of Jerusalem, it was claimed as sacred to the All-Good All-Powerful God of at least three different One True Religions, so you can just imagine the bloodshed.

The first Crusade was launched in 1096, on that everyone pretty much agrees, and they went on until 1291 give or take a couple of hundred years.  Exactly how many Crusades there were is hard to say.  Between seven and nine major crusades, and a lot of little ones.  Like the Crusade of Louis IX, is he supposed to get credit for two Crusades or just one big Crusade?  It's all very complicated.

Anyway, this brought English-speakers and a lot of other Europeans into contact with Arabic languages.  Not surprisingly, we gained a lot of words had to do with military matters - a Saracen military commander was an amir, from which we get admiral.  The "d" probably got stuck in there because people thought the rank meant we were supposed to admire him.  Darsina, which was Arabic for manufacturer, became arsenal, and of course the ḥashāshīn, which wasn't really a religious sect, but a nickname for one, like "Quaker" or "Mormon," gave us assassin.

Check is such an Anglo-Saxon-sounding word, it's hard to believe it comes from, shah, king.  An exchequer works for the king handling the petty cash drawer and the Christmas fund and what-not, and is entitled to write checks.  In chess, we say, "check," when the king's in a pickle, and when he's completely cornered, it's "checkmate," from shah mat - the "king dies."

The Muslim world was way ahead of Western Europe in things like algebra and chemistry and gave us words like, well, algebra and chemistry.  Zero, of course, is Arabic as are cipher, and azimuth, and zenith, and algorithm.

Then there were all those thing Westerners didn't have words for because Westerners had just never seen them - things like jasmine, harems, guitars, gauze, hashish, aubergines, tangerines, oranges, sugar, sherbet (and also syrup and sorbet) saffron, and gerbils.

The Crusades were a dark spot in history, but they did serve to enrich English culture and language in many ways.  The last of the Crusades was 1296, I think I said, or maybe it was really closer to 1396, or it might have been 1456, but that was absolutely the last one, really.  It took awhile, but we finally learned our lesson, I'm glad to say, and the West and the Middle East have been at perfect peace and haven't given each other a lick of trouble ever since then, thank goodness.  

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