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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Knomenclature of Knights

The terminology from the days of the knights of old persist today in many different forms. Here we examine how medieval words and phrases are kept alive in the 21st Century.


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While today we can see televised portions of combat, we are not likely to find any of our 21st Century soldiers wearing suits of armor (tanks notwithstanding), but perhaps some of your ancestors went to war with a full outfit of metal. Whether or not your ancestor was a mercenary in medieval times, all of us use English words that have their roots in the armor and equipment of those early knights.

Let's first look at the primary weapon of the early soldier: the lance, a piece of equipment that might actually weigh more than the man wielding it! The original lance, and its owner, were the inspiration for a term that has gained popularity in a great many fields far removed from war: "free lance." Originally coined by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Ivanhoe, the term refers to a medieval soldier who had no ongoing loyalty to anyone: he would sell his skills as a fighter to the highest bidder, regardless of that person's ethics or morals (Hendrickson, p. 264). Of course, today we think of a "free-lance" writer, artist, or genealogist as one who is following his/her ideals, with positive connotation. In the Middle Ages, the "free-lance" knight was considered untrustworthy and a "sell-out," anything but positive (Morris & Morris, p. 231).

The metals used to make that indispensable tool had to be sturdy to be effective: one made of iron alone was less desirable than one constructed of a finely mixed variety of ingredients. The French called this superior mixture tempre (meaning "proportion"). One of the ingredients of this formula was heat (applied at the right time and intensity) and, if not properly cooled, the blade would "lose its tempre." Over time the spelling was Anglicized and the "components of a well-balanced person" were also dubbed "temper." This has evolved today into the phrase "lose one's temper" for a person who is so distraught as to seem unbalanced or upset (Garrison, Why You Say It, pp. 391-392).

Another essential piece of equipment was the shield, used to ward off the blows of enemy lances. It was originally the Greeks who invented this relatively lightweight item that was easy to carry and looked like an oblong door. This shape gave it the name thyreoeides ("door"). Any similarly shaped object was given that same name, a tendency that carried over into the field of anatomy where scientists discovered that there are two oblong-shaped sections of cartilage in the human throat. These were called "thyroid cartilage," after the earlier shields. Early surgeons discovered the ductless gland behind the shields and they are responsible for giving it the name "thyroid gland" (Garrison, Why You Say It, p. 404). So today, while none of us walk around openly carrying shields, we have them tucked away inside.

The knights of old discovered early on that the close encounters caused by sword fighting made them particularly vulnerable. The wrist of the warrior was the most attractive target: once that was hit, the warrior would be likely to drop his weapon, causing his certain demise. For that reason, swordsmen would wear heavy leather bands as wrist protection. Those who were of the highest rank had bands that were decorated with jewels while the less experienced and less decorated knights had bands that were plain, but functional. This piece of equipment was called a bracel and was soon adopted by the non-fighting women, who wore similar adornments on their wrists called "little bracels" or bracelets (Garrison, What's in a Word, pp. 107-108). While today's young soldiers do not wear this equipment, one leaving for battle might well present the ladies' form of it to a woman he was courting, providing a vague reminder of a bygone era.

A complete set of armor is amazingly heavy and the appropriately attired knight required assistance to don it. As the pieces of armor were put on the warrior's body, they would be buckled into place so they would not come off during battle (Holt, p. 38). The word "buckle" comes from its original use of keeping the helmet fastened tightly to the head. The fastener, situated by the cheek (buccula, in Latin), derived its name from that part of the body, even though buckles are now found resting on many other parts of the human anatomy (Garrison, What's in a Word?, p. 130). The literal "buckling on" of the warrior's armor is the origin of the phrase, "Buckle down to work!" While we mean, "apply yourself to the task at hand," in the days of our ancestors, this "work" was far more vital: an unbuckled piece of armor could mean death (Mordock & Korach, p. 31).

Let's go back to the subject of the helmet, the origin of which preceded the medieval soldiers: even the earliest warrior donned headgear. The French used a helmet that was shaped like a basin and had the advantage of a visor that could be raised or lowered. Because of its unique shape it was called a "small basin" or bassinet. By the time the knights of old were involved in conquering neighboring communities, that helmet style was abandoned, but it was not forgotten. Its shape reminded folks of a baby basket, constructed of wicker; even though the material has been altered, the name remains and most nurseries are equipped with a "bassinet" (Garrison, What's in a Word?, p. 110).

Besides being tightly buckled, the warrior needed to carefully, and regularly, inspect his suit of armor for flaws or "chinks." A "chink in the armor" would be a weak spot: a slit or opening that would leave him vulnerable to the sword of his opponent. The term is still used to mean "a flaw, or problem, preventing success" in one's plan or program (Moreland), whether or not it is related to battle.

When today's soldiers enter the battlegrounds, it is not expected that they will arrive dressed in "petticoats," but our mercenary ancestors did. Before the "modern" uniforms of the 1800s' soldier, earlier warriors would wear gear that was uncomfortable, to say the least. To avoid the cold metal of his armor rubbing against his skin, a knight would outfit himself in a "petticoat": an undergarment that fit snugly against the body and was padded to protect the wearer from the metal chain mail (that term is derived from the French word maille, meaning "mesh of a net," and should not to be confused with the "mail" that brings this article to you, which is a word with a completely different origin) (Barnhart, p. 624). Anyway, the "petty-coat" resembled a coat and so was dubbed "petticoat" (meaning "little coat"). Civilians (men and women) observed the popularity of this garment with military personnel and adopted it for their own use, most likely for warmth. Eventually it became exclusively a woman's garment (Garrison, What's in a Word?, pp. 133-134).

Though we may not have any knights in our midst in this day and age, their language continues as a reminder of times gone by. As we trace our roots further and further back, we can take some satisfaction in knowing what those forefathers meant when they mentioned getting their petticoats, bracelets, and bassinets and heading off to war!


Barnhart, R. K. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology: The Origins and Development of Over 25,000 English Words. New York: Chambers Harrap Pub., Ltd., 2003.

Garrison, W. B. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Garrison, W. B. Why You Say It: The Fascinating Stories Behind Over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Hendrickson, R. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Holt, A. H. Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions, Rev. ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1936, 1961.

Mordock, J. & Korach, M. Common Phrases and Where they Come from. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2001.

Moreland, C. Origin of Phrases. Retrieved from, 2001.

Morris, W. & Morris, M. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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