Words matter

This morning, as usual, I caught the beginning of Thought for the Day on BBC Radio’s Today Programme (I know, I know), as I was preparing to leave my flat at 7:50 am. This morning the speaker, Bishop James Jones, took as his topic Yorkshire Day, the yearly celebration of God’s own county, as the natives like to call it. Bishop Jones, informed us that Yorkshire has 10% of the population of the UK (it’s actually nearer to 7% but who’s quibbling) and then went on to say, “Yorkshire is the most British region in the UK with over 40% of the population having Anglo-Saxon ancestry.

Now I’ve got nothing against Yorkshire, some of my best friends live there, but I fail to see how being of Anglo-Saxon descent makes somebody most British, in fact when I heard this my inner historian cringed. For those of my readers who are not up on the etymology of the terms of parts of the UK and its populations I will explain why this is fundamentally wrong. If the speaker had said most English I probably wouldn’t have reacted the way I did, as the words England and English are in fact derived from our Angle ancestors – England being Angle-Land. The problem is equating Britain or British with Anglo-Saxon.

The first mention of the origin of word Britain turns up in the reports of the Greek geographer explorer Pytheas of Massalia who voyaged around the British Isles in about 300 BCE and referred to them as the Prettanikē or something similar (Pytheas’ original writings are lost and we only have later secondary accounts of his report). This evolves to Britannia in the writings of Latin scholars. Now Pytheas undertook his voyages about four hundred years before Tacitus makes the first know reference to the Anglii, then still firmly on the continent, in his Germania and at least eight hundred years before the Angles invaded North East England.

Possible locations of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes before their migration to Britain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Possible locations of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes before their migration to Britain.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Viewed historically, the term British references the pre-Germanic pre-Roman, Celtic, population of the British Isles in contrast to the term English, which references the Germanic post Roman invaders. Etymologically the phrase of Anglo-Saxon descent would at best indicate most English and definitely not most but rather least British.

Angles, Saxons and Jutes throughout England Source: Wikimedia Commons

Angles, Saxons and Jutes throughout England
Source: Wikimedia Commons



Filed under Odds and Ends

14 responses to “Words matter

  1. Leaving aside the ancient history, the notion of a British identity was promoted by the propaganda efforts of James VI of Scotland and his men after he became James I of England back in Shakespeare’s day. Anyhow, if you’re really going to go in for an ethnic British identity, shouldn’t you be calling for a Welsh reconquista?

  2. On the map, the Jutes are completely within modern Denmark (in the part called Jutland, which juts out into the sea), the Angles are in both Denmark and Germany, and the Saxons in Germany only. Most of their region is in modern-day Schleswig-Holstein (which extends up to Denmark), but a bit is in modern Lower Saxony. Modern Saxony is far away, in the extreme south part of the extreme eastern part, above the Czech republic.

  3. “which juts out into the sea”

    Jutland is named after the people living there, Jutes, which is another term for Geats. It is a part of an old cultural land called Geatland which stretched all the way to Ukraine (geats were still around in Crimea speaking their native tongue until the 18th century). The term for the area of Geatland outside of Geatland proper, which is still called Geatland today in Sweden, is Reidgeatland, which means those geats that emigrated away (reid=travel, closely related to riding).

    • Yes, Jutland is named for the Jutes, but why were the Jutes called Jutes? Perhaps not from Jutland, but there might be a common root, namely a word meaning “to throw”, which shows up in jut, jet, jetty, and perhaps Jutes. Or perhaps they were named after Jutland, so-called because it juts into to sea.

      As far as I know, the etymology is not completely clear. I do have Skeat at home, so I’ll look it up there.

      Do you have a reference for a definitive etymology?

      Jag talar också svenska (och norska) och det är klart att Götaland är samma ord.

      • The Jutes are called Jutes because they are Geats and Jute is the same name as Geat. To jut out is not a Scandinavian word, that it has that meaning in english is simply a coincidence.

        I dont have any other etymologies then what is available online, they claim that the english word jut is a french loan word from the middle ages.


        About 1500-2000 years later then needed.

  4. David K Love

    I strongly recommend not listening to “Thought for the Day”. On the rare occasions when I do, it simply puts up my blood pressure and leaves me in a bad mood. Best avoided – just stick to the rest of the Today programme.

    • If I was still teaching formal logic I would use Thought for the Day as good examples of sophistry and get students to analyse the errors in the arguments, as it is when TftD comes on. it’s a useful reminder that I should be leaving my flat in the direction of the bus.

  5. Something seems to have gone missing at the end of the first paragraph?

  6. Jeb

    I think the most significant repeat offence here is to relate language and culture with genetics.

    Hot on the heels of that error is the notion of ethnicity as some primordial constant in the historical landscape.

    One of the more interesting early medieval questions is to ask why did Anglo Saxons did not become more British?

    Also why the switch on mass among speakers using a ‘Celtic’ language to a Germanic one?

    • If I recall correctly, not that many invaders came to Britain, compared with the size of the “native” population. I think this was established by genetic analysis. (People in Britain look substantially different than those in Angeln, Lower Saxony, and Jutland, at least if one ignores more recent immigration.) Presumably, the ruling class implemented its language and culture.

      More dramatic were the Normans, though in the other direction. Just a generation after Canute the Great, the Vikings were speaking French.

      • Especially British children often look completely different from those on the Continent. On a ferry, for example, it is immediately obvious who is who (even disregarding the bad teeth of the British parents).

      • Jeb

        You recall correctly. Its a hypothesis from archaeology ‘the elite emulation model.’

        Popular among archaeologists but not historians or linguists.

  7. Jeb

    “Presumably, the ruling class implemented its language and culture.”

    Early Anglo Saxon culture was socialy flat. No evidence of the emeregance of a social hirarchy in the early settlement archeology.

    The Normans and Germanic settllers in Gaul appear to have adopted local culture existing social and economic practises i.e. kingship and local landowning patterns (an imperial estate system).

    For early Anglo Saxon culture its ethnicity.

    Kingship and the form of corporate identity that seems to ential (adopting local culture & language) is abscent.

    The Bishops remark is typical of contemporary English nationalisim. The English are what makes Britian great, the natural rulers of the Island and it becomes perfectly natural to associate the postive parts of Britian with Englishness.

    The Bishops language would not make much sense but the setinment of the English being ‘more than’ would be perfectly understadable to an Early medevial inhabitant. “A Briton is still a Briton even if he has a gold hilted sword”

    English identity in the early period was inclusive, British speakers are part of the free warrior class but they are clearly distingushed as less than and also economically disadvantaged. The move from free to unfree status in these early cultures is the result of economic disadvantage.

    Ethnicity a notable tool of social economic and political dominance in this period.

  8. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #51 | Whewell's Ghost

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