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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, May 4, 2012

I could have danced all night

I'm just back from a wonderful week in Germany escorting a group of ballet lovers to see 21 ballets in 10 days. What better time to look at the word "dance".  Surprisingly, its origins are somewhat obscure. It didn't show up in English until the 1200s, borrowed from the French, who seem (along with other Romance languages) to have borrowed it from an Old High German word dansôn (to stretch out). The sense ‘to form a file or chain in dancing’ is thought to have arisen from this. 

But people had danced in Anglo-Saxon England before the French arrived, despite severe moral disapproval from the church and even attempts to ban dancing. For one thing, dancing had been used in pre-Christian fertility rites. What's more, dancing was associated in the Bible with Salome: clearly dancers had a propensity for demanding people's heads on a platter.

 Never trust a dancer

Clerics notwithstanding, the Anglo-Saxons carried on dancing, their word for it being tumbian. Like the Latin word for dance, saltare, it also meant "leap". Tumbian later acquired an -le ending (what linguists call a frequentative ending, which indicates frequent repetition or intensity) and became "tumble". Is it not interesting that a word that started out meaning "dance" ended up meaning "fall over"? We saw this with the word "trip" as well (click here). What does this say about the innate English ability to dance? Perhaps my tendency to fall over my feet in my ballet classes can be ascribed, not to any individual failing, but to an unavoidable genetic inheritance!

For the origin of some dance terms:
For  "adage", click here.
For  "entrechat", click here.  

For "ballotté", click here.
For "fouetté", click here
For "bourrée", click here
For "pirouette", click here

 
If you're interested in travelling to see great dancing in beautiful places (no tripping, tumbling, or heads on platters, I promise), please check out my website at toursenlair.blogspot.com

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.