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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Words of War, Part 2

A number of words we use today can trace their origins to the battlefields of our ancestors. This exploration into some of the earliest wars of recorded history show how phrases from those events remain in today's vocabulary, even though their meanings may have been dramatically altered.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 2252 (approx.)
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In a previous article we looked at some of the behaviors and clothing connected with military actions our ancestors may have been involved with. Here we will continue to examine some of the Words of War and how they have been altered from past centuries and cultures to be part of common vernacular in 21st Century America.

From the Old High German words "heri" (army) and "berga" (shelter) comes the word "harbinger," meaning an indicator that precedes something else as a warning or sign that the second entity will be forthcoming (e.g., "the robin is the harbinger of spring"). In the earliest days of warfare, someone was sent ahead of the troops to find sanctuary for the men who would soon be engaged in battle. That evolved to mean a person sent ahead of any travelers for the purpose of securing a resting place for the sojourners (Funk, Word Origins, p. 349; Hendrickson, p. 315). According to Morris & Morris, a harbinger is a person who announces the upcoming travelers or event (i.e., an early form of advertising) (p. 274).

The Franks also had a group of soldiers whose sole job it was to proceed ahead of the troops, bringing the company's provisions, seeing that the way was clear, and setting up camp for the warriors. These "paoniers" or foot soldiers carried the necessary tools to prepare the location and have everything organized when the rest of the party arrived. Eventually, the English adopted the term, changing the spelling to "pioneer," and used it to apply to any person who clears and prepares the way for those who are following in his path (Garrison, Why you Say it, pp. 296-297). Today we use that term for anyone who forges the trail for others to follow (Barnhart, Barnhart Dictionary, p. 570).

On the subject of the sixth century Franks and phrases originating with them, let us look specifically at the word "frank." Many feared these warriors, with good reason, and their actions of conquering France and making slaves of its citizenry gave rise to the behavior of taking liberties to say and do whatever they wished. This led to the term "frank," meaning a person who speaks his/her mind, and it is a word recognized in many languages (Garrison, Why you Say it, p. 290). Since the Franks were so diligent in fighting for their own freedom, the word franc was used to describe a free man (to distinguish him from a slave). Legal immunity was soon labeled franchise and, later, that term was applied to any action that was sanctioned or given special privileges by the respective ruler. Soon the term "franchise" was applied to any rights or privileges extended by public-service organizations (e.g., utility companies, railroads, etc.). Through the evolution of language, it was applied to actions that were done on behalf of, or connected to, a larger entity (e.g., a McDonalds franchise is a small restaurant that answers to the larger corporation and acts with the approval and as a representative of the corporate offices) (pp. 370-371).

When French troops were stationed in a particular town, the officers found it expedient to post their orders in a common location. These were written out and then fastened to posts in the village. These orders, called etiquettes, were inspiration for a Scottish gardener in Versailles, upset by visitors trampling his flowers, to create a series of instructional signs. Remembering the etiquettes from his army days, he posted his signs to indicate where pedestrians could walk and it was clear that "keeping with the etiquettes" was the proper way to proceed. Today, we use "etiquette" to guide us on more than paths through a flower garden (Garrison, Why you Say it, pp. 182-183), though it does seem that not everyone has the same set or understanding of "etiquette(s)."

It is suggested that the mere act of moving troops from one location to the next was a huge undertaking in Medieval Europe. Horses or oxen pulled the heavy wagons, and the driver was called a "conductor," a word with Latin origin: "con" (with) and "ducere" (lead). Over time this label was applied to the person who oversaw the entire operation. As civilization advanced, other modes of transportation recognized the value of a conductor and included one on stage coaches to make certain schedules were met, baggage was properly stowed, and people were on board, etc. The conductor was a person whose service record was exemplary, had possibly fulfilled the role of driver at one time, and who could be trusted with the responsibilities involved. With the advent of the railroad, the conductor's role was continued in much the same manner as before. The same name has been applied to the person who leads a band or orchestra, with the same basic job: to keep things on time and in order (Garrison, What's in a Word?, p. 153).

Ancient cities were protected from enemy attack by the walls that surrounded them. However, they had to maintain access to the interior and that entrance location was a particularly vulnerable spot. This was protected by a sliding door that used a mechanism of weights, dropping it into place at a moment's notice. Although invented by the Greeks, the Romans borrowed it and called it a "cataracta." Over time it was adjusted from being made of solid metal to being constructed of iron grating. When the enemy approached the city and viewed this blockade from a distance, it appeared filmy. We no longer block our cities with heavy iron doors, but the term has persisted in the medical field, describing the growth that obscures the eye, much like a filmy gate: a "cataract" (Garrison, What's in a Word, p. 106). Cataracta was also the term for a rushing waterfall (hence the concept of the gate, rushing downward), which also has a filmy sort of appearance (Funk, Word Origins, p. 395).

It is clear that fortification of a city was of prime importance. The Dutch discovered that if they wished the ultimate protection, a means of shooting from within the barricaded area while being protected from enemy fire was the most advantageous. To achieve this, they developed a slope in the wall, allowing an archer, on the inside, to position himself for attack, while the actual opening on the outside was too narrow for anyone but the most excellent shot to be successful in gaining access to his adversary. Since sentries would be positioned at these openings, they were called "lupen," meaning to watch or to lie in wait. Over the years, this term was altered to "loophole" and the device became instrumental in military maneuvers. Even after the demise of city walls, the word has remained, referring to the outlet, means of escape, or weakness in a structure or an argument. Ironically, the meaning today is the exact opposite of what was intended by its original purpose (Garrison, Why you Say it, 287-288).

A person whose behavior seems erratic may be said to have "bats in his/her belfry." This appears to be a reference to a church bell tower, where bats are known to frequent. Since the bell tower is usually the highest point of a building, it is an analogy to a person's head, so this euphemism for "crazy" provides a picture of a person whose head is full of flighty thoughts (emulating the movement of bats) (Hendrickson, p. 55; Drake, p. 17). Funk suggests that this also led to the term "batty," as in a person who is crazy, or behaves in a crazy manner (Hog on Ice, p. 118). At this point in the discussion, it seems as if this term has been misplaced: church and bell towers hardly have anything to do with warfare or weaponry (the sign in the window of the Old North Church, signaling the advent of the Revolutionary War in America, notwithstanding). However, originally, the term "belfry" was applied to the highest tower in the community; i.e., the watchtower (Mordock & Korach, p. 143). In Medieval times, such a tower was a necessity and it was called a berfrei, German for "castle" (berg) for "peace" (frid). It is surmised that the word alteration may be because of the use of high towers as bell towers, thus evolving to bell-frei and, eventually, "belfry" (Shipley, p. 46).

Barnhart states that the original berfrei (alternate spelling: berefrei) was a movable tower (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, p. 87). Garrison agrees with this definition, but the term is slightly different: "bergfrid" means "shelter shed," and this apparatus could be moved into position in front of a walled city so that those inside the shelter could be protected as they attacked from a height above the wall (Why you Say it, pp.293-294). It has even been suggested that the first person to actually call the church bell tower a "belfry" might have been creating a pun (Castle, pp. 31-32). However, another perception is that once the tower had no further need to be moved and had become a stationary structure in a town, the installation of bells added to the watchman's ability to warn of attack (Funk, Word origins, p. 269).

Still another speculation is that the shape of the original berfrei so resembled church towers that the latter became known as "belfries" (Morris & Morris, p.53). While all these sources explain what a belfry is and where its name originated, none sufficiently addresses the issue of the "bats." Holt suggests that bats flapping around an empty area would appear to be an eerie sight (pp. 20-21), but this does not connect to the allusion of craziness, which figures into the definition of the phrase. Perhaps, when the warriors were maneuvering the berfrei into position for attack, because of the awkwardness of the structure and the inability to see clearly where they were going, the movement of the primitive tank was erratic, much as a bat flies. It is possible that all the warriors inside the structure were thought to be as bats in a belfry. Or, on the other hand, perhaps they were all thought to be crazy to venture out from their own city to attack an enemy with no more security than a movable, and somewhat unmanageable, fortress. Whatever the thoughts of the person who originally uttered, "He has bats in the belfry," the majority of the etymologists agree that its origin involves warfare.

From the watchtowers that did not leave their cities, but were used to spot the enemy approaching, we get the term "alert." The Italian phrase, "stare all'erta," meaning, "to stand on the watchtower," was eventually shortened to "to stand watch," changing the phrase to one word: "alert" (Funk, Thereby Hangs a Tale, p. 9). While the warriors in the Italian villages were alert for the enemy, most of us use the term to refer to anything from being vigilant (Evans, p. 12) to something we need to focus attention on, or even, simply, "focus attention" (e.g., "it is important to be alert in class," where, one hopes, there is no impending danger).

As genealogists, when we conduct our investigations we must be careful to follow the rules of etiquette for the repository where we are researching. Some of our family members may think that we have bats in our belfries because of the zeal with which we study the lives of our ancestors. Frankly, many of us are pioneers for our family history, being the first in the clan to do the research. We are alert for clues, hoping that they will be harbingers of the findings to come. We search for loopholes that will allow us to get our hands on documents of our forebears and pray that we will not ever suffer from cataracts that might make reading the records difficult.


Barnhart, R. K. (Ed.). The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology: The Origins of American English Words. New York: H. W. Wilson Co.. 1995.

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

Castle. Why do we Say it? The Stories behind the Words, Expressions and Clich├ęs we Use. Secaucus, NJ: Book Sales, Inc., 1985

Drake, Paul. What did They Mean by That? A Dictionary of Historical and Genealogical Terms Old and New. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 2003.

Evans, B. J. A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists & Historians, 3rd Ed. Alexandria, VA: Hearthside Press, 1995.

Funk, Charles Earle. A Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions: The Origin & Development of the Pungent & Colorful Phrases we All Use. New York: Harper & Row, 1948, 1985.

Funk, Charles Earle. Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins. New York: Harper & Row, 1950, 1985.

Funk, Wilfred. Word Origins and their Romantic Stories. New York: Bell Pub. Co., 1978.

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

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

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

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

Shipley, J. T. Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Dorset Press, 1945.

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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