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On the same page: Harlequin, harlots, and all, all, all

The post for August 26, 2020 was called “Harlequin’s Environment.” Two more essays followed, and ever since I have been meaning to return to the buffoon’s dictionary page, especially because in that post I misspelt the Dutch word for “harp” (my apologies and thanks to our correspondent who spotted my wrong form). Those who have read the entire series will remember that, though harlequin is still believed to be a word of “disputable” origin (the epithet in quotes means that the dictionary maker has chosen to remain noncommittal: “I am aware of all the conjectures but would rather not get off the fence”), it, most probably, was coined in medieval England and referred to Herla, the leader (“king”) of the Wild Hunt, a procession of dead warriors. From England it spread to the Romance world and after many adventures returned to English with its most recent sense. The root har– meant “army, troops,” as it still does in German (Heer “army”). We can only guess why the Germanic noun for “army” enjoyed such popularity in the Romance lands, but it certainly did.

Albergo: From Germanic to Italian. (Image by Hermann Junghans)

Take, for example, German Herberge “inn; hotel,” that is (literally), “army shelter, shelter for an army.” It made its way into Medieval Latin as heribergium; hence French auberge and similar words in Italian and elsewhere. Harbor is almost an etymological doublet of the words listed above, another shelter (this time, for ships). The difference between her– and har– should not confuse us. In Early Modern English, but, apparently, after the colonization of America, the group er– became ar-; hence clerk (as pronounced in American English, with the vowel of jerk) and Clark; Berkeley (in the United States) and the name of the philosopher Berkeley, pronounced as Bark-ly; University and varsity; sometimes the same word splits into two, as happened to person and parson.

There were enough native words for “barracks” in the Romance language, yet the German noun conquered most of Western Europe. (The ancient Romans called their barracks castra “camps.”) Someone who provided lodgings, a purveyor of lodgings (for an army), was called a her-berg-ere. Today, a harbinger (this is the modern continuation of herbergere) announces or foreshadows the arrival of someone else or of a future event, a forerunner, and the ancient association with the army is forgotten. Shakespeare was fond of this word (and I think his harbingers usually promised the advent of good things rather than disasters).

This is a German Harnisch, not a Modern English harness. (Image by Hans Braxmeier)

An instructive case is the English harangue, “a long, passionate oration.” Like Harlequin, harangue reached England from France, but in French and in other Romance languages (arrenga, arringa), it is from Germanic, where it referred to a crowd of armed warriors standing in a ring (and, apparently, listening to an oration by the leader). Next comes harness, first recorded in English around 1300 with the sense “baggage, equipment; trappings of a horse.” But around the same time, it could also mean “body armor; tackle, gear,” as it still does in German (Harnisch). The route is familiar: from Old French to Middle English. Harness, like harangue, is an ancient compound, ultimately from Old Norse, in which herr meant “army” and nest meant “food, provisions” (both words are alive in Modern Icelandic). The compounds, whose ancient structure has been forgotten, are sometimes called demotivated (for example, ransack, from Old Norse ran- “house” and saka, related to sækja “to attack”; only unusual length and antiquated spelling may give away such formations: the classic examples are Wednesday “Wodan’s day” and cupboard, the latter rhyming with Hubbard).

In that earlier blog post, I briefly mentioned the verbs harry and harrow (as in Harrowing of Hell). Harry is English, harrow reached English from Scandinavian. Harass, from French, seems to have a different (but also Germanic?) root. In any case, harass, recorded in English only in the eighteenth century and in American English still retaining its stress on the second syllable, found itself in good company.

Also, at least two her– words have the same root as harbor, harangue, and the rest. Their familiar itinerary may be, but not always is, from Germanic to Old French and back to Middle English. Such is herald, originally hari-wald, in which har– means “army” and wald– meant “rule”, as it still does in English wield. A herald is an envoy, someone who delivers proclamations, thus, a person, not so different from a harbinger. But heriot is “pure English.” It emerged with the sense “feudal service consisting of military equipment restored to the lord on the death of a tenant.” I’ll skip the history of –ot; the meaning of her– should be clear by this time.

John Haywood, the historian. (Image by Willem de Passe)

Such then is the linguistic environment of Harlequin. My main question is about harlot. Does it belong here? The next post will be devoted to this word. Today, I’ll only reproduce a passage from The Life of King William the First, sirnamed (sic) Conqueror, written by John Hayward (1613) and reprinted in the third volume of The Harleian Miscellany (London, 1809). The passage below will be found on p. 119 and in Notes and Queries 2/X, 1860, p. 44:

“Robert, Duke of Normandy, the sixth in descent from Rollo [that is, Hrólfr, a famous Viking, the founder of the duchess of Normandy] riding through Falais, a town in Normandy [the seat of the Dukes of Normandy], espied certain young persons dancing near the way. And as he staid (sic) to view awhile the manner of their disport, he fixed his eye especially upon a certain damsel named Arlotte, of mean birth, a skinner’s daughter, who there danced among the rest. The frame and comely carriage of her body, the natural beauty and graces of her countenance, the simplicity of her rural both behavior and attire, pleased him so well, that the same night he procured her to be brought to his lodgings; where he begat of her a son, who afterwards was named William. I will not defile my writing with memory of some lascivious behavior which she is reported to have used, at such time as the Duke approached to embrace her. And doubtful it is, whether upon hate toward her son, the English afterwards adding an aspiration [that is, h] to her name (according to the natural manner of their pronouncing), termed every unchaste woman Harlot.” (A note on p. 120: “…after the Conqueror obtained the crown of England, he often signed with this subscription—William Bastard; thinking it no abasement either to his title or reputation.”)

Left: William the Conqueror. Right: Bend sinister. (L: William the Conqueror on Horseback, R: Coat of arms of Sir Charles Somerset, 1st Earl of Worcester)

Doubtful indeed! Today, I’ll only say that the word harlot has nothing to do with King William and that the name of his mother has come down to us in many forms: Herleva (usually mentioned in history books), Arletta, Arlotte, and Harlette. Her social status can no longer be determined (it was hardly so low). The story of the girls dancing “near the way,” unlike the reference to “lascivious behavior,” inspires little confidence. Though in his youth William suffered from his illegitimate birth, at that time being a “bastard” was less important than being born to a noble father. Such “bastards” found it unnecessary to conceal their status, as the existence of the bend sinister on their shields show.


Feature image: Grande Ludovisi sarcophagus, unknown artist

Recent Comments

  1. Fred de Vries

    If ‘harbor’ is a ‘shelter for ships’, then German ‘Hafen’ and ‘Dutch ‘haven’ must have the same origin. So, would Dutch ‘haf’, meaning ‘cove behind a headland’, ‘fjord’, etc. simply mean ‘shelter’?

    But that can’t be, because you write that ‘her’ or ‘har’ via ‘heer’ means ‘army’.

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