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The barrage continues with “barricade” and ends with an appeal for peace

To finish the bar(r)- series, I deviated from my usual practice and chose a word about which there is at present relatively little controversy. However, all is not clear, and two theories about the origin of barricade still compete. According to one, the story begins with words like Italian barra and French barre “bar” (barricades bar access to certain places), while according to the other, the first barricades were constructed of barrels filled with earth, stones, and the like, so that the starting point should be French barrique or Spanish barrica. Dictionaries sometimes list one explanation as certain or modify it with perhaps and sometimes (rarely) mention both as equally possible. In English, the word is of course from French.

After the appearance of an article on this subject by the Swedish scholar Evald Ljunggren (1918), who was partly preceded by Gottfried Baist, the barrel etymology gained in popularity. However, Ernst Gamillscheg, a distinguished German philologist and the author a major etymological dictionary of French, did not relax the stance he once took up. Though hauled over the coals for his recalcitrance by Leo Spitzer, his bitter opponent (one can say, enemy), Gamillscheg believed to the end that the association between barrel and barricade is due to folk etymology. It is hard to predict how many people have read Ljunggren’s article, for it was written in Swedish, and unless a work appears in English, German, or French, it seldom transcends the language barrier (in 1918 the order would have been German, French, and English). Contrary to popular belief, linguists are not necessarily polyglots.

At one time, etymologists believed that barricade had originated in Spanish, but in Spain the word was from the start understood as French. In Italy it surfaced later that in France, and (perhaps the most important argument) the first famous barricades take us to France, to the resurrection of 12 May 1588, when barricades were indeed constructed of barrels. We face the familiar situation: a study of words cannot be separated from the study of things. As regards the French word barricade, Paul Barbier, about whom I wrote last week, cited a 1570 example. Antedatings are always to be expected, but it seems fairly certain that the noun in question came into being late in the second half of the sixteenth century. I found Ljunggren’s essay convincing and Gamillscheg’s doubts excessive. Yet it won’t hurt anybody to know that the situation is less clear than some reference books represent it.

To the barricades!
To the barricades!

And now I will leave the combatants on their barricades and plead for peace. I know the idiom cry barley from books and am not sure whether it is current only in Scotland and northern England or whether children in the south also shout barley, to announce that they no longer participate in the game. Barley is an enigmatic word, much more so than barricade, and little can be said about its origin. But first let me quote some authors who recollected the pastimes of their early days. “Children, when at play, often use the word [barley] when they want a moment’s respite; and if uttered sufficiently loud to be heard by their comrades, they are fairly considered withdrawn from the game until further notice” (1854). “It is—or was, at least, in my boyhood—a common play term among boys, and, as appears from the game barley-breake [sic] a common phrase in olden times among older people” (1881).

One of the variants of barley was ballow and balla: “If a boy chances to find anything, if another boy is with him at the time, he will invariably cry out ballow me halves or ballow me whacks. … It is no uncommon thing, when a number of children stop opposite a toy shop or a confectioners [no apostrophe] for one to shout out ballow me all this shop” (1882-1883). In Nodal and Milner’s old Lancashire Glossary, balla is defined as “to bespeak, to lay claim to.” “If at marbles a lad’s ‘taw’ slipped and he said baller, he was allowed to try again” (1882-1883). “In some parts of England boys say spooks as an equivalent” (1882-1883). Joseph Wright (English Dialect Dictionary) was, naturally, well aware of barley.

The next quotation is curious because its author is a woman (St. Swithin was the pseudonym of Eliza Gutch), and I assume that girls used play words that would have been unthinkable in the speech of boys, for this type of children’s slang is rarely unisex: “When I was at school kings was an exclamation which had a like effect. I suppose we thereby claimed temporary quasi-royal immunity from the ordinary rules of the pastime we were engaged in. Sometimes we said kings and queens, but I believe the traditional formula was merely kings, and that queens was only added as a kind of extra flourish ‘to make assurances doubly sure’” (1881). Doesn’t fains I mean more or less the same, and wasn’t kings a genteel, lady-like substitute for spooks?

Spooks may deserve a moment’s attention. In Russian, the equivalent of barley and spooks is chur! Or, in the plural and with a diminutive suffix, churiki! (a word used by smaller children). Older mythologists referred the word to the Slavic deity Chur, but his existence has never been demonstrated. Modern scholars unanimously reject “pagan” overtones and derive chur from a word for “border, threshold” (once again I notice that thresholds keep haunting me), though they recognize the magical sense of the exclamation. I wonder whether spooks! can give some support to the allegedly wrong treatment of chur. Wasn’t the unattested Chur the god of borders and thresholds (and see below)?

Quite naturally, the origin of barley, which has nothing to do with barley “cereal,” is unknown. But it has been noticed that in the fourteenth-century English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, line 296, barley occurs and means “truce”; it can be the same word. The Scots word was first recorded in the fifteen-hundreds in the compound barlamafumill. Jamieson, the author of a great Scottish dictionary, suggested that barley goes back to either Burlaw ~ Byrlaw, approximately “peasant law” (which sounds fanciful) or French parler, corresponding to Engl. parley. The second etymology is equally unlikely, but it has been repeated many times. Even an alternation (“corruption”) of but allow me has been proposed. The connection with barleybreak, emphasized by the OED and The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, is, as we have seen, old and, most probably, correct.

Playing barley-break
Playing barley-break

Br. Nicholson (1881) suggested that the first element of barley may be bar, that is, the line separating the participant from the rest of the players (if he was right, the idea that Russian chur refers to a boundary receives reinforcement!), with the second being ley, which he defined as “law in northern phraseology, as in the French and English leal.” He also wondered whether lei may be understood as lie, with the whole meaning “barring any falsehood or false play” and whether barley is decomposable into bar play; both hypotheses are unappealing. An etymological doublet of leal (now only Scots) is loyal. Another etymology traces barley to French baillezmoi “deliver, bestow to me.” In those extremely few works in which barley is today discussed, parler and baillez-moi usually figure as possible sources of the English word. In my opinion, neither deserves serious consideration, and I am sorry that Nicholson’s idea has not been noticed.

Is it possible that a rare ancient word, used once in the North West dialect of a Middle English poem has been preserved only in the language of children’s games in Scotland and northern England? Quite possible, especially because Cheshire, for example, is next door to Greater Manchester. Moreover, it is a common occurrence. Long ago, I wrote a post on the word alairy, as in one, two, three, alairy (4 April 2007). It too turned up once in Middle English (in Langland’s Piers Plowman) and was saved from total disappearance by children. I looked it up in this blog and was amazed to find very many comments added in later years; I had no idea that they existed! Eeny in eeny, meeny had a similar history (I discussed it in a special entry in my dictionary).

May children play long and happily! And now I’ll cry barley and leave the bar(r) words behind, at least for the time being.

Image credits: (1) La liberté guidant le peuple by Eugène Delacroix. Musée du Louvre. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Jongensspelen. H.A.M. Roelants, Schiedam ca 1860-1870. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jules Levin

    Re “barley” meaning ‘truce’; could this just be ‘parley’, from Fr, referring to the two sides talking under a flag of truce?

  2. John Cowan

    Jules: It certainly could be. The question is, is it? Plausible etymologies aren’t enough: there also needs to be a transmission path from the supposed source to the recorded form.

  3. Julian Barker

    As it says in the article “…or French parler, corresponding to Engl. parley. The second etymology is equally unlikely, but it has been repeated many times. ”
    It was my first thought too: I’d be interested in why it is “equally unlikely”.
    I guess kids nowadays are most familiar with “parLAY”, with a heavily stressed second syllable, as used in Pirates of the Carribean.

  4. […] Most of what I had to say on bug can be found in my book Word Origins and in my introductory etymological dictionary. But such a mass of curious notes, newspaper clippings, and personal letters fester in my folders that it is a pity to leave them there unused until the crack of etymological doom. So I decided to offer the public a small plate of leftovers in the hope of providing a dessert after the stodgy essays on bars, barrels, barracks, and barricades, to say nothing about cry barley. […]

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