29 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 21

Mind your language

In connection with J.R.R. Tolkien — who with the much feebler J.K. Rowling is soon to be dominating school-holiday cinema once again — there was an interesting piece in the TLS this month by that clever old philologist Tom Shippey. It was about Joseph Grimm's ironly scientific success in analysing and predicting historical sound changes in language and his lack of success in similarly regimenting myth. I can't help thinking that Tolkien wanted to supply a worthy body of myth for an ideal of England so obviously flawed in reality — a Shire under Sharkey, as we have it now.

Anyway, one of the remarks that Professor Shippey quoted from George Eliot (the inventor of Dr Casaubon, the sterile searcher for a theory of all myths) was that scientific philology taught us that when words look similar they are not in fact connected. I was reminded of this when leafing through New Fowler's and coming across a nice list of tempting but false etymologies. Here are some: belfry is nothing to do with bells; gridirons are nothing to do with irons; brier pipes aren't from prickly briars; to buttonhole is nothing to do with holes; crayfish are not fishes, even etymologically; to fall asleep is not a kind of falling; a greyhound is not grey; to curtail is nothing to do with tails; to egg on is nothing to do with eggs; shamefaced is no description of a face: walnuts don't grow on walls; a slowworm is not slow and a court card is not named from the royalty thereon.

The history of belfry is surprising. Italians have their own difficulty with battzfredo, of the same origin, mistaking the batti for the striking of the tocsin.

Let me telescope the story of English belfry. The -fry comes from the Old High German fridu, 'peace, shelter, security', as in the name Gottfrid (whence Godfrey, Geoffrey). The Teutonic word *bergfrid (the star is to show this form has not been found written down) was taken into late Latin as berfridus, thence into Old French as berfrei and from that into Middle English as berfrey. The first r became I, just as peregrinus became pelegrin, pilgrim. So far, in 14th-century English, the meaning was 'safe tower' — a siege tower or a watchtower. But the entry of the I was reinforced by its making the first syllable seem to mean 'bell'. By the mid-15th century the word acquired a new meaning as tell-tower'. Once we had imagined the bell in the belfry, like King Charles's head, we couldn't get it out.

Dot Wordsworth