November 8th, 2012

To call a spade a spade

Rolf Ganger was the son of Yarl Regnwald, and was banished from Norway by Harald Harfagra for undertaking a Viking expedition after it had been prohibited by that king. Rolf was a famous Viking, and in every respect an accomplished warrior, so that when he came to govern his duchy, it is no wonder that he made the people of Normandy as warlike as himself and his followers. But, unlike Hengst and Horsa, he at last foreswore the faith and language of his fathers.

What was the result ? A modification of everything which had previously marked him and his men. The sword, the most distinguishing feature of a nation, changed its form. Instead of the stout, stern Scandinavian weapon of former days, with its Oriental-looking hilt, its flattened "ball", small guard, and sturdy blade, we get the modification called by us a Norman sword, and by them the longue épée.

In this word épée we stumble upon something unfamiliar as applied to a sword. There is nothing for our ear answering to the spell that lies in the word " blade", with all its various meanings, whether of the leaf or the sword. We don't like épée, and épée never was and never could become English. We turn to a Latin dictionary, and find the word even there a foreigner, existing as spatha, derived from the Greek σπαθη, a flat piece of wood for stirring mixtures, our medical " spatula". The name is applied in the form " spatha" by the Romans to the leaf of a palm tree, and to a broad flat sword without a point. Unfamiliar as this proud Norman word for a sword may be, it lives in our humble spade. Nor does it seem anything more or less than a Teutonic word in its origin, existing, as it does, in the oldest Scandinavian dialect with which we are acquainted Icelandic where we find it as spaði, a spade. A spade in Swedish and Danish is called spadé, in German spathe or spathen, all from the root spa, whence also our span, meaning to spread out. From this foreign word the neo-Latinisms of spada, spardon, spadille, and so forth, are derived, all denoting a very broad sword ; and we are able to see the origin of the Greek word itself, as being nothing more than a borrowed expression from another race to denote expansion, or spreading.

But, as in the cases of gladius and blade, we are referred to leaf -like forms in nature, so we find in that of spathe a connection with the vegetable world. It is the name given to the broad sheath of a flower called spathe by botanists. Yet it does not seem that the application of the name to the part of a flower is the primitive use of the word. In the derivations from the root spa (whence span, space, and other words of the kind) we find one of the earliest words to be the Sanskrit sphay, to swell, increase, "broaden", having no special reference to the sword whatever. I need not say that the old form of the French épée was espée, whence the s has been elided.

The evidence is that the old Norman name for the old blade is artificial, as the object itself, a mere modification or alteration. It died off as a term for the sword in England, where it had already flourished in the form of spadu, a spade, long before the advent of the Normans. The ball at the end of the hilt, called by the Normans the pommelle, or little apple, has survived in our own military nomenclature, but almost all the other portions of the sword remain English. The two extremes, the pommelle and the point, are foreign, while hilt, guard (from warian), tang, blade, and grip, are all pure English.