Friday, December 16, 2011

Bell Etymologies

This Christmas I’ve been thinking of bells.  Wearing jingle bells reminds me quickly of the season.  Hearing “sleigh bells” conjures nostalgic stories.  The Polar Express is memorable to me for the beautiful silver bell and its mystical note.  Most of our words for the sound a bell makes are imitative, but what other associations do common bell-words have? 

Bell” comes from the Old English, belle, a word not found in Germanic languages outside of the North Sea family of dialects.   Happily, the phonology traces from Proto-Indo-European base *bhel- "to sound, roar."

One of the most common words used to describe what we do with bells is “ring”, descended straight from the Old English hringan, supposed to come from Proto Germanic *khrenganan (similar words are found in Old Norse, Swedish, and Middle Dutch).  Etymologists believe the word was originally imitative, but isn’t it interesting then that we find it in the Germanic and Norse languages, but it isn’t a root attested in languages all over the world?  Didn’t other people have bells?  What sound did theirs make?

Perhaps their bells “jingled” – a word existing in English since the late 14th century at least: gingeln.  We’re familiar with the famous winter tune, “Jingle Bells.” 

Tinkle”, "to make a gentle ringing sound," may be more likely to bring to mind the bell-voice of the fairy in Peter Pan, but ever since the late 1300’s, we have used it to express what we hear from a bell. 

Chime” can be a word for the instrument (which better suits the history of the word’s meaning) or the event of its sounding.  Circa 1300 either Latin or Old French bestowed “chime” on our English tongues, and we most likely misinterpreted it as chymbe bellen "chime bells," a sense attested from the mid-15th century.

Bells also “peal” – a word generally considered a shortened form of appeal, with the notion of a bell that "summons" people to church. This, according to the scholars behind, is not entirely convincing, but no better theory has been put forth. Extended sense of "loud ringing of bells" is first recorded 1510s. The verb is 1630s, from the noun.

I’m rather intrigued that such a delightful thought as “trolling bells” is the same word as a legendary sort of ogre or monster.  The verb sense comes from the Old French, troller, which was a hunting term meaning “wander, to go in quest of game without purpose” and in this unusual case, the French received this word from the German peoples.  Old High German has trollen “to walk with short steps,” and the root goes back to Proto Germanic *truzlanan.  Ever since its arrival to English in the late 1300’s, troll has meant “to go about, stroll” or “roll from side to side, trundle.”  In modern usage, its association with bells comes through the sense of “singing in a full, rolling voice” first attested in the 1570’s.  

Toll” is even more common than troll.  Meaning “to sound with single strokes," it was probably a special use of tollen "to draw, lure," a Middle English variant of Old English  -tyllan in betyllan "to lure, decoy," and fortyllan "draw away, seduce," of obscure origin. The notion is perhaps of "luring" people to church with the sound of the bells, or of "drawing" on the bell rope.

Who knew that “clock” would show up here?  However, since the word has to do with time, and so does the Christmas season (think Advent), here goes.  Originally "clock with bells," probably from Middle Dutch, from Old North French cloque, from Middle Latin (7th century) clocca, probably from Celtic! In Welsh and Old Irish the word only meant “bell.”  It is thought that it was spread by Irish missionaries (unless the Celtic words are from Latin); ultimately of imitative origin. “Clock” replaced Old English’s dægmæl, from dæg "day" + mæl "measure, mark." The Latin word for timekeeping was horologium; the Greeks used a water-clock (klepsydra, literally "water thief"). 

Finally, what would be bells without a tower in which to ring?  “Belfry” was originally, circa1400, a "siege tower" but early (1200’s) in Anglo-Latin already had a sense "bell tower.”  In Old North French it meant "movable siege tower.”  Compare to Modern French beffroi, from Middle High Germanic bercfrit "protecting shelter.  Literally this oldest known ancestor meant "that which watches over peace," from bergen "to protect" (see bury?!) + frid "peace." The first sense, a wooden siege tower on wheels ("free" to move), came to be used for chime towers (mid-15th century), which at first often were detached from church buildings (as the Campanile on Plaza San Marco in Venice). Etymologists suspect the spelling to have been thence altered by dissimilation or by association with bell.

Thanks entirely to for the word histories. 

To God be all glory.

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