Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘12th Century’

Thon

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 20, 2017

In an effort to be politically correct and gender sensitive, government departments, agencies, organizations, businesses, and schools are trying to agree on a gender neutral pronoun that’s acceptable to everyone.   Some have considered using zie, sie, se, xe, ey, ve, tey, e, and hir while others have rejected those options as being awkward and contrived.  Others have suggested going with they, their, and them while others argue those options are too impersonal.  The dilemma is one that no other generation has ever faced.  Or is it?

What about the word thon?

The word thon is chiefly Scottish and is a mish-mosh of this and that with the pronoun yon.  It was most popular in the 1700s and 1800s, and although it made its way into the Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary in 1903, it was removed sixty years later … mostly because no one bothered to use it.

SIDE NOTE 1:  The gender neutral pronoun ou can be traced back to the 14th century as used by Cornish writer and translator John Trevisa (1326 – 1402).

SIDE NOTE 2:  John Trevisa is the 18th most frequently cited author in the Oxford English Dictionary, and cited as the source for evidence of a word after Geoffrey Chaucer and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

SIDE NOTE 3:  The pronoun she first appeared in the mid-12th century to reduce the confusion and ambiguity of the gender neutral pronoun system that was used in English at the time.

In 1894, the word — and a variation therein — was used by Henry Graham Williams (1865 – date of death unknown) in his book, “Outlines of Psychology Designed for Use in Teachers Classes, Normal Schools, and institutes, and as a Guide for All Students of Applied Psychology.

Every student should acquaint thonself with some method by which thon can positively correlate the facts of thons knowledge.

In 1884, American attorney and composer of church music, Charles Crozat Converse (October 7, 1832 – October 18, 1918) wrote in a letter published in the August 2, 1884 edition of “The Critic and Good Literature” that a gender neutral pronoun should be used and that thon was such a pronoun (a word he lay claim to having created in 1858).

It was, according to Mr. Converse arrived at by “cutting off the last two letters of the English word that, and the last letter of the word one, and uniting their remaining letters in their original sequence in these two words” thereby producing the word thon.  The purpose of the pronoun was to bring equality to situations where stating a gender was to give one gender more respect than the other.  In his explanation, he wrote:

Use of it will so individualize and pronominalize (so to speak) this word as to show its manifest grammatical distinction from the words that and one of which it is born; and the mental process by which it leads its user to the noun it represents will, I think, be found to be easy and natural, it not being an arbitrary sign.

Oddly enough in a Letter to the Editor submitted to, and printed by, The New York Times on October 19, 1905, the history of the word thon was outed as having been in use thirty years before the Charles Crozat Converse lay claim to creating it.

So while people today are busy congratulating themselves on being gender sensitive and incredibly progressive in their thinking, the fact of the matter is that long before the term transgender or gender fluid was part of our language, people had a gender neutral pronoun.  It just never quite caught on.

Idiomation pegs this word to around 1825 based on The New York Times Letter to the Editor with a nice nod to Charles Crozat Converse in the process.  Isn’t it interesting to learn that the more things change, the more things stay the same … or revert to a much earlier time in history?

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Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 14th Century, Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Never Cast A Clout Until May Is Out

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 30, 2010

Ne’er cast a clout till May be out is an English saying with a long and difficult history.  In 1855, F. K. Robertson’s Whitby Gazette published the following rhyme:

The wind at North and East
Was never good for man nor beast
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May be out
.

The earliest published version of the rhyme can be found in Dr. Thomas Fuller’s  “Gnomologia” published in 1732. 

Since at least the early 15th century ‘clout’ has been used to mean a fragment of cloth or clothing and was spelled as clowt, clowte, cloot, or clute.   It’s here that the saying took on two meanings rather than just the original.  The new meaning was a reminder not to be too quick to shuck the warmer winter clothes before cooler days during the month of May were most likely over.

That being said, English farm-workers working the fields in their winter clothes throughout the month of May could suffer from heat exhaustion if they kept all their winter layers on until the end of May!   The flowering of the hawthorne (May) tree was a more reliable guide to the state of the weather.

This means that the original meaning goes back even further than the 15th century and indeed, it can be traced back to the 12th century.  During Medieval times in Brittany, a man proposed to his beloved by leaving a hawthorne (also known as a Mayflower) branch at the door of his beloved on the first of May. By leaving the branch at the door she accepted his proposal.

Traditionally, it was taboo to bring hawthorne into the house in Medieval England because it was feared it would bring death with it.  This is because the hawthorne blossom has a distinctive fragrance and in medieval times, the blossom was said to carry the ‘stench of death’.  (This is due to the trimethylene that the flowers give off as they deteriorate.) 

The exception to that rule was during May-Day celebrations (for one day only) when it was permitted to bring flowers into the house for decoration.  No marriages were allowed during the month of May and it was considered unlucky to marry in the hawthorne month since most people during Medieval times rarely bathed, June was usually one of the months in which most people had baths.  The exception to the rule, of course, would be those who lived in castles. 

It would make sense for the general population to keep at least some (but not all) of their winter clothes on until they could bathe and be fresh for any wedding celebrations coming up during the month of June.  This is verified by another English saying:  “Marry in May and you’ll rue the day.”  What’s more, washing in May was not a favoured activity as evidenced by yet another English saying:  “Wash a blanket in May; wash a dear one away.”

Posted in Idioms from the 12th Century, Idioms from the 15th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »