In a Word: Cracking the Window

Have you heard about the amazing technology that lets us see through walls?

A small, white-framed window on a blank white wall.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Imagine, for a moment, the earliest inhabitants of Britain, who were also the earliest speakers of any form of English. They would have lived in small communities, housed in homemade dwellings to protect them from the elements and wildlife and to afford them some privacy.

Sometimes, these dwellings would be built with a hole in the roof to let in light and fresh air and to let out smoke. In Old English, these holes were called eagthyrel,* combining eage “eye” and thyrel “hole.” These “eye-holes” were English speakers’ first windows.

From the 8th through the 11th centuries, Norsemen settled in northern Britain and often enough raided southward. This offered many opportunities for the languages to mix. It was during this time that the Old English eagthyrel was slowly replaced with the Norse vindauga, a combination of vindr “wind” and auga “eye.” Through shifts in pronunciation over time, vindauga became window, and by the Middle English period, “eye-holes” were out and “wind-eyes” were in.

Window had some competition, though. As these holes moved from the roof to the walls and were covered with clear glass panes, many European languages reached back to the Latin word for window, fenestra, to name them. (Even the Germans, for whom such a window was a Fenster.)

English did, too: Some late-13th-century English texts use the word fenester, borrowed from the Old French fenestre. Fenester and window existed side by side in the English language for generations; window didn’t solidify its position in the language until the mid-16th century. Now, fenester remains in English only in the (fun but) rarely used word defenestrate, which means “to throw out a window.”

Bonus etymology: Although the Old English compound eagthyrel disappeared, part of it did manage to just squeak its way into Modern English: Thyrel “hole” was also used in the compound nosthyrel, which literally means “nose hole.” Today we spell it nostril.

[*Note: The Old English alphabet included a distinct letter, called the thorn, to indicate the modern th sound. Eagthyrel and thyrel are more accurately rendered eagþyrel and þyrel, but for ease of reading, I went with a modern rendering.]

Featured image: Shutterstock

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