I believe in magic: the power of language, history, and story. This potent brew whipped-up a perfect storm of understanding and insight when one of my favourite podcasters featured on another of my favs the other day.
Both podcasts are in-depth histories by enthusiastic amateurs. One, an Englishman called David, spends weekends in his shed telling a wonderfully good-humoured history of England (in the summer you can hear the birds in the trees). The other is a lawyer called Kevin composing a marvellously detailed history of the English language from somewhere in South Carolina. Both have posted over 100 episodes. I have learned so much about the quirks and fun of a gripping story. I now know bits of Indo-European, Old Germanic, Old Norse, Frankish, Old English, Celtic (all which made the killer TV series Vikings more thrilling). It has been a treat to listen to these passionate enthusiasts as I painted the house and pottered away at renovations.
So when my fav amateur language geek did a guest spot on the latest History of England episode last week (which has just made it to the end of the 100 Years’ War) I was thrilled. His topic? The word ‘spell’. Here’s the magic.
Spell is derived from Indo-European (the parent language of many Eurasian languages). It originally meant to recite, tell or speak. In Old Germanic it came to mean a tale, fable or saying. The Anglo-Saxons brought it to England in the 400s to refer to ‘story’, especially a good or ‘true’ story (gospel is a contraction of ‘good story’). Over the next few hundred years it slowly applied to short phrases or sayings that held special truth or magic (think how we spout short phrases as if they contain a truth or agency ‘do the crime do the time’, ‘touch wood’, ‘I do’, ‘Go Broncos!’ etc).
When the Normans invaded in 1066 they brought the same Germanic word via their Norse and Frankish (the Germanic founders of France) roots. Except for them spell meant to break a difficult text or idea into its parts so that it may be understood i.e. to ‘spell it out’ and reveal the truth.
By the 1400s that meaning was refined to include breaking words down into the letters used to represent it. Dictionaries came later, and the spelling of words lost the fluidity they had always had (even the most educated people routinely varied spelling).
Today, all these meanings still exist in English. We refer to truth as gospel even in a non-religious sense. We spell things out to explain them. We break down words into letters to spell them. We talk of being under a spell (albeit of love, an idea, celebrity or charisma, as opposed to magic).
Even those who claim not to believe in magic use the idea in the old Anglo-Saxon sense, repeating phrases they believe hold a power. Think of all the hashtags amended to causes and sent out into the world. Does hash-tagging a phrase, cause, belief, or favourite sports team have a measurable effect on a physical object or outcome? It depends if you believe in magic and the power of language.