Knight in shining armour

Posted by on November 18, 2010

Continuing our occasional look at the origins of words and phrases, we’re returning to a query posed by Ale, about possible Viking roots of English words.

The first is knight, and it turns out that, while knight has a long history, it’s not a Viking one. In Old English (around 850-1100AD), knight (‘cniht’ as it was spelt then)  meant a boy, servant, or other attendant, a meaning which survives in modern-day Dutch and German as ‘knecht’ (servant). By the 12th century, knight had risen in rank, and referred to an attendant or servant of the King, or other member of the nobility. It was a short step from there to the later idea of knight being a social and military rank, generally someone considered to be of high moral standing, and particularly reliable in a crisis (knight in shining armour, knight-errant). Knights often tended to fight at the side of the King, or on behalf the church, demonstrating their high social status; King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and the Knights Templar are two of the most famous examples.

The ‘kn-‘ element of knight is a regular feature of West Germanic languages (the ones which underlie modern languages like Frisian, Dutch and German and to some extent, English), and can be seen in other words like knee, knife, knock, know. The ‘k‘ sound wasn’t dropped from the pronunciation until the mid-17th century.

Ale also asks whether words beginning with by– have Viking roots; this one’s slightly more complicated. The word by, as in ‘near’ is of Germanic, rather than Scandinavian, origin and was already present in Old English by the 9th century. Words beginning in by-, like ‘by-pass’ are generally rooted in this meaning, so no, it’s not a Viking word.

There is another Old English meaning of by though, of ‘village’ or ‘town’ (it’s where places like Whitby and Grimsby get their names), which does come from Old Norse (the language of the Vikings). Since the places featuring –by in their names are generally in the North of England, it’s possible they were named by Danish (Viking) settlers, who brought the word with them.

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