Friday 5 September 2014

Guardians, Wardens and Gages

The British newspaper industry is looking up
I'm giving a Guardian Masterclass on grammar tomorrow (I think there are still tickets available). And it reminded me of mortgages and wardens.

Back in the dear old Dark Ages when all was umbrous, the French used to borrow words from the Germans. Some of these words began with a W, which the French, being French, found hard to pronounce and changed them to a G.

But not all the French. The northern Frenchmen could say their Ws and so French would end up with two forms of the word, one beginning with G and the other with a W. And then we English would import both.

I don't know if you've ever wondered what the difference is between a guarantee and a warranty, but really there isn't one. It's the same word one via Southern French and one via the Northern.

Similarly, when medieval chaps wanted to challenge somebody they would throw down their gage as a challenge. This sense still survives in en-gage (for marriage is really a long duel) and mort-gage, which, as I explained in The Etymologicon is really a death-challenge. Or, to be more precise, a death-wager, because gage gave use wage and wager, which both involve putting down items of value.

And the third of these doubles is guard vs ward. Same words, pronounced differently. And the same thing goes for a warden and a guardian. Hence my long train of thought.

The Inky Fool delivering his lecture


  1. There is a marked difference between waranty and guarantee if you look at these terms from a legal point of view.

  2. And I notice that when I think about guardian versus warden, I get a sense of a subtle but important difference to those. When I think of a guardian, I think protector; but when I think of a warden, I get the feeling of being a prisoner under watch.

  3. I think rather than the French just changing the w to g, they added a hard g to the Germanic word and miraculously could then say the w bit, so ward became gward, and then became spelt guard. The w stayed there for a while, but preceded by g.

  4. "which are both involve putting down" ... good luck with the master class.