In a Word: From the Barley to the Barn

English owes more than you’d think to how Old World farmers chose to store their barley.

Old stone barns in the English countryside
Stephen Bridger / Shutterstock

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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.

An Old English word for “house” was ærn, but it didn’t always signify a house where people lived. For example, a building where people would make salt (saelt in Old English) by boiling or evaporation was called a saeltærn. Today, it’s a saltern, one of the few modern English words that can still be traced back to ærn.

Another more common word derived from that ærn root is barn. In a time when barley — called bere in Old English — was a common crop in England, many farmers would store their harvest in a building called a bereærn,a “barley-house.” You can see — or rather hear — how, in a preliterate society, the spoken word bereærn could become condensed to just the barn we know today. (Just say the word three times quickly and you’re practically there.)

Not all farmers stored their barley in a barley-house, though. A lot of that barley harvest was destined for the brewhouse, where brewers stored their wares in large containers or casks called a tunnes. (Tunne eventually became tun, a word that survives today, primarily in British English; it’s a great word to know for Scrabble and crossword puzzles.) Sometimes they would store the barley in a tunne as well, and it would be called a beretunne, a “barley-tun.”

This was common enough that word found its way into the names of a number of English villages, places today called Barton. Eventually the place-name also became a surname. Clara Barton, for example, owes her last name to a good English barley harvest.

Featured image: Stephen Bridger / Shutterstock

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