Other Worlds is proud (er…kind of proud…almost proud…OK, so we’re a little ashamed) to bring you another “hysterical fiction” blog on the English language, from the past. This blog originally appeared on my old Myspace page back in ’07 and appears unaltered in all its splendor (save a quick spell-check) for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
Long has it been held, by certain linguistic (albeit naïve and dangerous) scholars, that the origin of the word “window” comes from a simple mistake made by a half-deaf simpleton, who, in passing, overheard, with his good ear, a conversation, between two stone masons repairing a hole in a nearby wall. There are several variations and sources to this rather dubious etymology, including one in which the simpleton is in fact half-blind and tone deaf, and an even more erroneous tale in which the alleged hole is in a hedge (What two stone masons would be doing, patching a hedge is beyond me.), but the conversation is generally reported to have gone something like this:
“What’s making that moaning sound?”
Needless to say, that the above explanation, while having the virtue of being short and simple, was simply not sufficient for your scholar. Thus I embarked upon yet another lengthy, exhaustive and expensive investigation to find out the truth for myself. The following is the result of my extensive research; scouring seven continents, six major cities, five minor cities, four townships, three towns without ships, two one-horse towns, and a partridge in a pear tree, and, oh yes, forty-two and one-half libraries for the answer.
I must also add, that during my scholarly adventure, I was harassed, cursed, chased, accused of heresy, ran out of one one-horse town on a rail (they didn’t actually have a rail, so they used the towns only skateboard), and sought for advice by several rebellious teenagers. In addition, I was threatened in Quebec (although not effectively) and in Chicago by the Window Washer’s local, squeaked through numerous attempts on my life in Europe (not including scrapes with death while competing for taxis in Paris), and narrowly escaped a stoning in Dearborn, Michigan. All of this was orchestrated by a dark and secret organization of linguists, known as “The Conspiracy,” whose roots go back to the founding of Rome; a group so secretive yet pervasive that the mere reading of this report will probably land you on their dreaded “white list”*. So be warned! All of this, I, your humble servant, have endured for your enlightenment.
Now, without further ado, on to my findings…
Certain scholars would have us believe that the word window comes from the Old Nordic word vindauga, which literally translates to “wind eye.” Now of course the wind has no eye since it is simply air in motion. However, these supposed scholars are right in assuming that the word window comes down to us from two root words. Those words however are not wind (moving air) and eye!
Let’s tackle the first part of this word; wind. While we have grown accustomed to thinking of windows, as something that wind passes through it does not have the exclusive on passage through said opening, now does it? In fact, if the window has a fixed, glass pane there is no wind allowed to pass at all. And these two facts form our first clue to the inaccuracy of moving air playing any serious role in the creation of our subject word, aside from the breath used in its utterance. No, instead we should be looking to the dim reaches of recorded time, when windows were first invented.
In those savage and dusty days, the only good purpose for a hole in one’s wall was to shoot arrows through, at the other savage and dusty creeps outside your abode, trying to get in to steal your venison, beer, pretzels and television set. They weren’t yet after your coasters in those days, since they hadn’t been invented yet, but I digress…
The windows in that time were remarkably slimmer (and of course without glass, since you can’t, and never could, shoot an arrow through a pane of glass accurately or without an expensive repair bill. One can only imagine the cost (in goats) of replacing a duel-pane in those days!). In fact these early defensive openings were nothing more than slits. These later were incorporated in castles and other corporate edifices for the protection against the still ravaging savages and angry stockholders outside. There were many adjustments, such as angled stonework, additional cross slits and, of course, ashtrays and cup-holders, but essentially they were the same arrow vomiting egresses. We now know these later advancements as “arrow slits,” but at the time they were known as “that arrow-launching hole-in-the-wall thingy,” which of course was awkward and much too long to enunciate during the heat of battle. So something had to be done.
That’s when Thompson of Gattlingshire, a friar, was called in by his local liege to solve the problem. Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding and instead of working out a better name for the arrow-launching hole-in-the-wall thingy, Thompson came up with a much improved opening in the wall, and implemented it throughout the knight’s castle, while he was away on holiday. This new hole was much wider and open, allowing for a better view of the surrounding, serene countryside, however not very good for hiding behind. The knight who had brought Thompson in on the case was furious and demanded that Thompson do something about his new and larger arrow-launching hole-in-the-wall thingy. So the friar thought and thought and prayed and prayed. He paced for days around the courtyard and eventually wandered into the smithy to tinker. After a few hours at this, he came out of the shed with a startling new invention, the windlass crossbow, which allowed the knight to smite his enemies with greater vigor.
Well, the knight was so pleased with this new device that he completely forgave Thompson for not coming up with a better name for the hole-in-the-wall thingy.
However, this does little for solving our mystery. Now I can hear you right now, saying, “They probably named it after the windlass, you long-winded fart!” but you would be wrong. While the windlass does play a part in the creation of our word, it is not the direct source for the “wind” in window, because, as you see, they did not yet call it a windlass in those days, but a cranking crossbow. I only used the word windlass, as it was convenient. If you insist on grabbing hold of every word and trying to decipher the entire English language in one sitting then I must ask you to do so on your own time. You might want to pack a lunch.
Now where was I? Oh yes…This new cranking crossbow allowed the knight to dispense death from his new, larger arrow-launching hole-in-the-wall thingies than had previously been imagined. In fact, the noted historian, Norwit of Neverwood stated that, “ne’er had I seen such blatant disregard for human life as did I witness at Gattlingshire, where upon three large companies of knights laid siege to the castle there, and were utterly defeated by that castle’s liege from his cranking crossbow. He was really cranking them out. He was winding his demonic contraption like the wind, and his missiles filled the air with tangible death, and there was much suffering and haranguing and bleeding and cries cut short by a quick second tap to the crotch or head. And they snuffed it.”
It was the expression “winding…like the wind” which really caught the attention of the knight of Gattlingshire. And he decided at that point to dub his stone domicile “Winding Hall,” and the arrow-launching holes-in-the-walls he then called “winding holes.”
Eventually, as the cranking crossbow caught on, so did the winding holes and before long everybody had one. As a side note: It was sometime after this that the cranking crossbow was named a windlass, after the winding hole, except of course in Gattlingshire where they were still called cranking crossbows. Of course, with the advent of Heinrich Fjord’s crossbow manufacturing plants, in Lower East Sutton, the windlass crossbow became available to just about anyone with a winding hole and a few pence.
Winding holes soon gave way (as a term) to the earthier slang of the day and became wind-holes and eventually descended into wind’oles as Cockney influences took root. Shortly after this, some ignorant peasant, completely unaware of the laborious work of those who came before him, decided to pronounce the first syllable of the subject word in much the same manner as we do today, “wind” (as in the moving air). And since, most people would rather knowingly mispronounce a word rather than come to blows over it, the new pronunciation soon stuck.
As time passed, in much like its usual manner, the “windoles” became the location for peaceful activities and practices, such as spying on the neighbors and cooling off baked goods, and the warlike arrow launching days were forgotten, along with the illustrious roots of the word “windole.” This lack of historical awareness led to the most interesting twist in our story.
Along with the influx of many good, honest poor into the cities of medieval Europe came an influx of thieves. These clever swindlers and cut-purses developed a secret language all their own, known as Thieves Cant, so as to throw off the authorities who might be listening in to any alleged conversations concerning past, concurrent or future heists of note. Since these thieves were frequently quite poor, they constantly needed to steel food to feed themselves. One such favorite food was freshly baked bread left in windoles to cool. Since they couldn’t very well say they were going to steal bread from someone’s windole, without raising suspicions and none too few eyebrows, they incorporated a new term “wind-dow” into their Thieves Cant vocabulary. In those days, dough was spelled “dow” and rhymed with bow, like the thin, bent branch used to launch arrows. As the thieves became more affluent and influential, they slowly crept into politics and soon made their words part of the official language, exactly like the politicians of today.
Now I know a great many of you must be saying, “We’re almost there! We’re almost there! We’ve got wind-dow and that’s almost the same as window!” But first, let me say that you are undoubtedly an excitable bunch and you should consider less caffeine and a career in lawn manicure. Second, let me tell you that “wind-dow” and “window” are not, by a long shot, the same. Beyond the dropping of the hyphen (any Tom, Dick or Harry can drop a hyphen; after all a hyphen makes no sound, no indelible imprint upon the eardrum, except while typing), you’ve still got two d’s, and two d’s do not become one d overnight. And it didn’t. It took a great number of nights, and one long night without coffee. That is when John Tittle, an overworked scribe in the bureau of beheadings and fish-head tax (there were a lot of beheadings and a lot of taxes then) inadvertently missed the second d in window (notice the hyphen was already missing) and the new spelling was born.
Shortly after, Tittle’s mistake was discovered and he ended up on the same books he used to tend — without a head, but not before word of his invention got out. The single d spelling of window spread like wildfire across the land, as did word of Tittle’s unfair punishment. And in recognition of his “courageous contributions to the English language,” the King made Tittle’s spelling official, before an angry, torch-bearing mob of single-d spellers from Stratford, who had surrounded his carriage.
But before we slip by the simple spelling of dough as “dow” in the ancient tongue, let us briefly examine this oddity in our own modern spelling. As stated before, the word for unbaked bread was spelled “dow.” This spelling stayed with us for many centuries, all the way into the 15th century. Many people are not aware of this earlier “dow” spelling, however, they are well aware of the now common “dough.” For those unfamiliar with the origins of the spelling of “dough,” I have prepared a brief history below.
As we all know, the spelling of “dough” was invented by Jonathon Longbow a royal herald, to confuse the French during Henry V’s very successful 1415 campaign in France. The success of which is in no small part due to the confusion this brilliantly conceived spelling caused the French, who granted were already pretty confused. This, in turn, has lead to another point of confusion and is the reason for the longbow (not Jon Longbow) mistakenly being credited with the victory at Agincourt**.
More to the point, the entire “dough” incident became a favorite joke among the English, especially in pubs, where most of the official spelling of English was firmed up. Precisely when it stopped being a punch line and became the official spelling is uncertain. (As, I’m sure you’ve observed many of these things are.) However, it must be observed that at the time of its acceptance, the English countryside was crawling with unemployed French scribes, having been laid-off in the fallout following the adoption of “cliché” into the King’s English and the entirely too bloody “vogue debacle.”
*The Conspiracy’s dreaded “white list” is reserved for those individuals the organization wishes to be “erased.” The name of their intended target is written (very lightly, in pencil) on the list and then symbolically erased until there is no trace of it (thus the reason for the delicate pencil strokes). This secret (blank) list if then left, bi-weekly, in a secret location shared by the organization’s Sicilian connection, which is paid up front to “take care of” the problematic individual. To date, there is no evidence that these Sicilian associates have actually ever completed one of these contracts. Whether this is due to an inability to actually read the name of the intended target, or whether they are so professionally competent, is unknown. However, I have learned through my sources that I, your humble scholar, have been put on the list a number of times. Oh, the things I endure for you!
**Further proof of the immense confusion among the French, comes down to us in a little known report on prisoners from the Battle of Agincourt. One of the few surviving nobles, being held for ransom, under stern questioning (which is the extent of really brutal English torture) was asked to spell several words, one of which was the subject of our lesson today. The nearest thing this educated Frenchman could come up with — “windeaux” — was only produced after several quickly scribbled attempts, following an offer of “tea and spotted dick.”