Menu Close

A history of English … in five words

What’s in a word? Caleb Roenigk/flickr, CC BY

In 1582, Richard Mulcaster, headmaster of the Merchant Tailors’ school, wrote that “our English tung is of small reatch, it stretcheth no further than this Iland of ours”. It didn’t stay that way. Today, English is spoken by more than a billion people all over the world.

It is a colourful, vibrant and diverse tongue, that long has picked up words from the many languages with which its speakers have come into contact. Here are five words that illustrate the English language’s fascinating history.


The English language originates in the dialects spoken by the early Germanic tribes – the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – who began to settle Britain following the departure of the Romans in the fifth century AD. The Angles established themselves in the kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria and it is from them that the word English derives.

Its ultimate origin is the Latin Angli “the people of Angul” – the name given to an area of Northern Germany (now Schleswig-Holstein) where the tribe originated. It was so-called because of the peninsula’s hook-like shape (the same root lies behind angler “fisherman”).

When Pope Gregory the Great (590-604AD) encountered a group of young Angles at a Roman slave market, he remarked that they looked more like angeli “angels” than Angli, prompting him to send St Augustine on a mission to convert the English to Christianity.


Although roast beef is seen as a quintessentially English dish, the word beef was introduced from the French boeuf during the Middle Ages. It was one of a group of words, including pork, veal, venison and mutton, that were taken from the speech of the French noblemen who settled in Britain following the Norman Conquest of 1066, and whose only encounter with these animals was at the dining table.

A slice of history. Shutterstock

The Anglo-Saxon peasants, by contrast, who tended to the living beasts continued to call them by their Old English names: cow, pig, calf, deer and sheep. This distinction was alluded to by Walter Scott in his historical novel Ivanhoe, set during the reign of Richard I (1189-1199), in which a jester explains to a peasant that:

Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet while he is under the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him.

Although Scott’s depiction is something of a romantic simplification – Shakespeare has Shylock compare his flesh to that of “Muttons, Beefes, or Goates” – it does capture the extent to which the language of English cuisine (from the French for kitchen), is indebted to French. It is also interesting to note that the French now brand the British les rosbifs.


Dictionary is a borrowing from medieval Latin dictionarius liber “book of words”; it first appeared in English in the 16th century, along with numerous adoptions from Latin and Greek, reflecting the rebirth of interest in classical learning.

Although it is the most famous, Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is not the earliest; the first English dictionary was Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604). Unlike a modern desk dictionary, Cawdrey set out to gloss only the most unfamiliar words – concinnate, deambulate, pactation, refractarie – whose meanings would have caused problems for those not educated in Latin and Greek, an audience Cawdrey described as “Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other vnskilfull persons”“.

Although Dr Johnson was revered by his contemporaries as the ultimate authority, whose work would fix the English language and prevent further change, he was less sanguine about his achievements; he defined a lexicographer as "a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge” and poured scorn on the folly of trying to “enchain syllables” and “lash the wind”.


Tea was first imported into Britain early in the 17th century, becoming very popular by the 1650s; London diarist Samuel Pepys recorded drinking his first cup in 1660.

As English as… Shutterstock

By the 18th century it had become a symbol of fashionable society and a staple of the coffee house culture; Dr Johnson was a self-confessed “hardened and shameless tea-drinker”.

The word tea derives from the Mandarin Chinese word chá, via the Min dialect form te. The Mandarin word is also the origin of the informal char, as in a nice cup of char. A love of tea is so ingrained in British life that the phrase cup of tea has come to stand for anything viewed positively. We express dislike by saying: it’s not my cup of tea, we comfort the bereaved with tea and sympathy, and gloss over any social faux pas with the phrase more tea, vicar?


Emoji were originally developed in Japan in the 1990s for use by teenagers on their pagers; the word emoji derives from the Japanese e “picture” + moji “character, letter”.

The future of English? Shutterstock

Its successful integration into English has been helped by its similarity to words with the e- “electronic” prefix, such as e-mail and e-cigarette. E-communication is a form of writing that resembles casual conversation more than formal prose, often situated in real time with a known recipient, but lacking the extra-linguistic cues such as facial expression, tone of voice, hand gestures, that help to convey attitude in face-to-face interactions.

The emoticon (a blend of emotion and icon), or smiley, enabled the transmission of a restricted range of attitudes in bulletin boards of the 1980s. Emoji have replaced the comparative crudity of the emoticon, enabling the representation of a greater range of expressions with less ambiguity. But, despite the Unicode Consortium’s official listing of emoji and their functions, users are finding creative new ways to employ them. The Japanese pine decoration emoji is deployed in the West as an offensive gesture, since it resembles a raised middle finger, while the suggestive shape of the aubergine (eggplant in the US and Australia) has made it a favourite among sexting teenagers. Emojis are just another example of the evolution and spectacular diversity of English.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 179,000 academics and researchers from 4,895 institutions.

Register now