Wednesday, 30 October 2013


I have been pondering off-and-on about bread-based metaphors. And I want to post something on my blog today, as all the footers are now wrong (as they point to a non-existent work-in-progress). At least one post must point to the Real Thing.

Some time ago, in my early days as a moderator at, I added this to a discussion about self-referential words:
Re borrowed words that mimic the translation of a two (or more)-part analogue in the 'donor'-language; in my previous post I mentioned 'almighty'. The word is a "calque", often replaced by the more informative 'loan translation': loan translation: Definition and Much More from The example given in Mugglestone [ed.] The Oxford History of the English Language is the Old English wellwillende ['well-wishing'], formed on the analogy of benevolens [Latin - 'benevolent'].

Another, going back one step in the story is the Vulgar Latin companione(m) (conventionally, Vulgar Latin words are cited in what classicists would call 'the accusative case', with the final m of the singular in parentheses - as it was nearly always [?always] dropped). This was coined on the analogy of the Celtic* ga-hlaiba [meaning "with-bread"]

Which required further explanation:

I left out the final bit of the derivation. The Celtic* ga hlaiba meant 'someone you shared bread with'. The speakers of Latin maintained that idea in companione(m). The idea of eating together is vestigial (if it's there at all) in 'companion', 'compagnon', 'compañero' etc.

Some years later I dismissed another question about 'what a word really means' with this perhaps rather curt riposte:

A word means what it means. If you care to 'stop the clock' at 1553, then a company has to involve more than one person. Online Etymology Dictionary

If you wind the clock back another thousand years to when French was being formed you will find that companio was borrowed because of the strength of the analogy with the Gothic* ga hlaiba - which meant someone who shares bread (hlaib is related to the English 'loaf'). Online Etymology Dictionary. You're not suggesting that company directors should share bread?
They do, of course, in a colloquial meaning of bread. But, discounting that sort of 'bread' all the non-execs share is Rich Tea biscuits, if they're lucky.

I returned to this example more recently. It is a commonplace of philologists. (And that word, in Portuguese. is lugar comúm – 'common place'; I wonder which language got there first.)

The gothic-speaking* tribes conquered by Rome had a word for someone you were friendly enough with to break bread: GA HLAIBA (which means with bread). (If you wrinkle your eyes up you can just about see the origin of our 'loaf'.)

The Roman soldiers knew a good thing when they saw it, and coined the word COM-PANIO - which ultimately (probably via French compagnon) gives us 'companion'.

And a 'lord' is a loaf-ward. Bread-based metaphors seem pretty central to a lot of things. Use your loaf, and you're bound to come up with more  – and not just in English .


Update – 2013.10.30.22:15: Added this note:

* 'Gothic' is what Elcock says in The Romance Languages . Maybe the Goths were Celts: I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Update – 2017.06.13.12:50: Added this PS

PS Removed old footer as the book whose development it charted is now real. But as this piece is now four years old, some of the links will take the clicker to The Great 404 Error in the Sky.

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