Thursday, 9 July 2015

Longships





















Back in the mists of time when the Blether Region was learning Irish, it was intrigued by the word long, meaning 'ship' — or rather by its etymology. Long is apparently a loan from the Latin navis longa. Now, as anyone who knows a bit of Latin is aware, the "ship" part here is in fact navis, ultimately the origin of the word "nave" in church architecture (German Schiff). It seems that the ancient Celts, encountering a word meaning something like "longboat", started using long as their word for 'ship'.

That isn't the only occasion where something similar has happened with a Latin loan. The English word "street" (German Strasse) comes from the Latin via strata, meaning 'paved road'.

Adjectives of course often become nouns in English, and vice-versa. One need only consider the political terms "red", "green" or "true blue" — or, in Northern Ireland, discuss what links "the Orange" and "the Black" (leaping through an Arch Purple, if I recall correctly).

That sort of change, however, is conscious, since we all know that those nouns are also adjectives. Long and "street", on the other hand, are interesting etymologies, and thus interesting stories for linguists to tell.

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