Friday, 27 December 2013

Cambrian - The Influence of Welsh on the English Language



Adjective & noun. Mid-17th century.
[from medieval Latin Cambria Wales, variant (with differentiation of sense) of Cumbria (see CUMBRIAN), + -AN.]

A(1) adjective. Of or pertaining to Wales, Welsh; a Welsh person. M17

A(2) GEOLOGY. Designating or pertaining to the earliest period of the Palaeozoic era,
preceding the Ordovician. M19

B noun. GEOLOGY. The Cambrian period; the system of rocks dating from this time. M19

It's hard not to feel sorry for the rather unappreciated Welsh. Not only do they have to endure being the butt of numerous jokes and slanderous aspersions about their penchant for consonants and sheep, they must suffer the utter ignominy of (particularly English) people imitating their rather lovely and melodic accent. Internationally things aren't much better, with Wales lacking the cultural punch of similarly sized countries like Scotland and Ireland. Not only is Wales the only constituent country to be unrepresented in the Union Jack, but the European Union has omitted it entirely from its maps several times - wiping it from existence, annihilating it, as if it were never there at all.

Wales is like the smallest and youngest in a big, brash, self-absorbed family - the Wilkerson's Dewey, the Simpson's Maggie, the Bluth's Maeby: talented and resilient, but habitually overlooked and drowned out in the cacophony of its rowdy family. Lexicolatry, however, stands up for the little guy. Wales might be smaller, it might be quieter, but it is no less proud and you ... yes you! ... the way you speak has been touched by Wales, the Welsh people and the Welsh language. If you're still in denial, Lexicolatry is proud to present to you a list of seven Cambrian words that you speak every day (or at least quite often) that you had no idea were Welsh. Enjoy!
In case you're not from these parts (or are an EU bureaucrat), Wales is dark green.

Seven English Words of Welsh Origin

I like cardigans; at times I've even been known to wear a cardigan. And we all know, of course, that they're named after the 7th Earl of Cardigan, leader of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade. Where, however, does his title and the surname come from? It's likely that its use as a surname comes from Cardigan, which is an Anglicised version of the Welsh Ceredigion, meaning 'Ceredig's land'. As for that ill-fated 7th Earl of Cardigan - sadly there's no offloading him onto the Welsh. His name was James Brudenell, he was from Buckinghamshire, and he was most definitely English. Nuts.

Corgis may be a favourite of the Queen, and their abduction to force her abdication might even be a spy thriller plot, but corgis are most definitely Welsh. Just in case there's any ambiguity on this, the two distinct corgi breeds are called the Pembroke Welsh corgi and the Cardigan Welsh corgi. Oh, and corgi is Welsh, from cor (dwarf) and ci (dog). 

Ah! Dad - my daughter's first word! How the thought of that day warms my heart and tickles my nostalgia-bone. And who would have thought, of all languages, her first word would be Welsh? Well, this one is, I grant you, a teensy bit tenuous, with the OED unwilling to definitively say that dad is of Welsh origin. However, some etymologists claim that dad did come from the Welsh tad. Or the Irish daid. Well, let's not quibble OK? It's a lovely word. And Dads are the best. 

There's not much to say about this, other than if you washed your face (or any other body part) with a flannel today, you washed it with a little piece of Wales (metaphorically speaking), as it's from gwlanen, meaning 'woollen article' in Welsh.

Flummery, which is akin to the blandandering of a bombastic blatherskite, is from the Welsh llymru. I hope that's clear.

Well this one is less surprising, what with Wales having a long history of coal mining. Its etymology isn't completely clear, entering English through Old French, but its Celtic origins, particularly when compared to the Welsh word mwyn meaning 'ore', are convincing.

And possibly the least likely word on the list - penguin - which is probably from the Welsh pen gwyn meaning 'white head', originally applied to the now extinct Great Auk, a similarly coloured flightless bird which, to an untrained eye like mine, looks a lot like a penguin.  

I can personally attest that the Cambrian countryside is spectacularly beautiful
(photo by Vic Spears)
So there you have it - there's a little bit of Welsh in every English speaker. And just in case you're wondering, the following words are not of Welsh origin: leek (Germanic), daffodil (Latin), choir (Latin), rugby (English), consonant (Latin) and ... no ... not sheep either, which is Old English.

Are you a proud Cambrian?

Do you speak Welsh?

Do you know any other words of Welsh origin?

Do please leave your most Welsh-centric comments in the box below.


  1. Replies
    1. I know the etymology of London is disputed, but I didn't know Welsh had staked a claim. Interesting.

  2. Interesting! Cardigan reminds me of Cardiff.

    1. Have you been? I've thoroughly enjoyed Cardiff each time I've visited it.

  3. Welsh flannel is wonderful stuff. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North Wales, constructed by Thomas Telford in 1805, was, almost unbelievably, caulked with a mixture of flannel and boiling sugar.
    How about that?

    1. Umm ... really? I don't if you're teasing me, Sally Prue ... you prankster, you!

    2. No, that's a genuinely genuine fact, Eddie, and has been confirmed by both the internet AND Alan Titchmarsh (he's one of the cuddlier and less threatening English TV presenters). I wrote about it here:

    3. Well that *is* interesting. I see the post was from April 2012 - when Lexicolatry was merely a glint in ... umm ... no, this metaphor doesn't really work for this. Thanks for that, Sally - I've linked to your excellent post in the main article too.

  4. Afon is the word for river in Welsh and in Irish Abhainn which is close to the name of the river 'Avon.' The word for rabbit in Welsh is cwningen which is similar to conĂ­n in Irish to the English slang word for rabbit: coney. (The word Coney is used by Sam in the Lord of the Rings to describe rabbits.) In Australian slang cack is the word for shit which is cac in Irish and cachu in Welsh. (The Australian movie Adventures of Barry Mackenzie used cack in the phrase, 'Go bathe your eye in hot cocky (ie cockatoo) cack.') However, since there are more Irish that settled in Australia than Welsh, it is more likely that it descends from the Irish than the Welsh. Cheers, @petrovdempski

  5. Interestingly enough, it sounds like Welch has had an influence in Spanish too with "caca" and "conejo."