Thursday, 13 November 2008

The earliest recovered word of English

Recovered, that is, from Gildas's De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ('On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain'), and its account of Vortigern's reign. 'Gildas adds several small details that suggest either he or his source received at least part of the story from the Anglo-Saxons. The first is when he describes the size of the initial party of Saxons, he states that they came in three cyulis ('keels'), 'as they call ships of war'. This may be the earliest recovered word of English.'

It is of course attractive to think that English makes its first mark upon recorded and written language with the keel of a boat. But surely it's just as likely that this is not English. Perhaps, for instance, its the mark of some confusion: perhaps the Latin 'culeus' (or 'culleus') mangled through English-Roman interaction. This could either be a genuine misprision, for culeus means 'a ship without rigging' ('what's that culeus there?' 'what-d'ye-say? ciulis?'); or perhaps it is the result of some kind of joke, because Lewis and Short tell us the word also culeus means 'the scrotum ' I like this better, because it would mean the first recorded English word is 'bollocks'. And that's more authentically English than the keels of boats.

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