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Victoria Day 2015: Digging into the Queen's English

05/15/2015 06:00 EDT | Updated 05/15/2016 05:59 EDT
While enjoying the May long weekend, Canadians may offer Queen Victoria a distracted moment of respect. But if we dig up the royal roots of her name, we find a prostitute and then the ultimate unity of humanity.

The ancient words we speak today passed from mouth to ear since a time long before writing. Words gained new meanings and lost old ones as people spread over the globe.

All the things our ancestors saw, all the rages they experienced, all the love they won, flow out of our mouths and fingers every day in the words they created. As the Gospel of St. John puts it, "In the beginning was the word."

Let's travel back in time 1,500 years and listen in on two tribal Anglo-Saxons standing in the British rain gossiping about their new ruler's cwen, or wife. The cwen played an important role in determining the kin-group's fate, so everyone wanted to know as much about her as possible.

Eventually, people restricted cwen's meaning to be the wife of the ruler — and later still to a woman ruling on her own. The Old English cwen hardly changed its pronunciation over the centuries, and today we use the word to refer to the Queen.

A related word, cwene, meant woman, and the two words merged and parted over the years. Cwene became quean, which meant a bold or impudent woman in the 16th century, and later a quean was a prostitute.

The two words are now merged as queen — but you can see hints of the double roots as we talk about Queen Victoria, or a drag queen.

The Conquering Ruler

Back to those rainy Anglo-Saxons. Their word for kin-group, or family tribe, was the cynn. Say it out loud with a hard "c" and you'll hear it sounds a lot like our kin — because it's the same word.

The male leader of the cynn was the cyning, and today we've modified the spelling and pronunciation to call that same person our king. We extended that root word — cynn — further to describe the way you ought to treat your family members — you should be kind to them.

Linguists can trace cynn all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European language, spoken 6,000 years ago in the steppes of Eastern Europe. For those little-known people, the word meant to give birth: your kin were those you were born into. Wanderers from that tribe founded almost every European language — including English — along with India's Sanskrit and Hindi, and cynn spread with them.

The king and queen often led their kin into battle, and one such great leader, now forgotten, earned the Latin title victoria, which was the ancient Romans word for conquer.

And so, Queen Victoria took that title as her personal name: she is the Conquering Ruler.

Our family keeps getting bigger

The last 1,500 years have seen the concept of your kin expand far beyond the local family group. The kin group most of us identify with is humankind, and that "kind" comes from kin.

Let's finish with an insight from Sanskrit, an ancient language "kinned" or created by the Proto-Indo-European speakers who travelled east into the Middle East and India and founded the ancient language of Sanskrit. 

The Upanishads, India's oldest spiritual texts, were written in Sanskrit, a kindred language to English. An English translation of one passage reveals the deep power of language: "All this world that you perceive, that you know, is words. It comes from words. All the meaning arises out of words, and those words come from you."

The better we know our language, the better we understand ourselves.

Word for Word is the CBC's monthly etymology column. Got an idea for a topic? Email jon@jontattrie. Sign up for Word for Word to have it delivered into your inbox.

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