The Queen and disco dancing: what do they have in common?

Posted by on June 04, 2012

Our new guest blogger Katherine Barber was the editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary for 17 years. She blogs about language at katherinebarber.blogspot.com and about ballet at toursenlair.blogspot.com

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With Queen Elizabeth II celebrating the 60th anniversary of her coronation this weekend, it’s an opportune time to look at an unusual word that we don’t hear much unless we are talking about thrones.

The throne sits upon a platform called a “dais”. Although this has been pronounced “DAY us” or “DIE us” since the 19th century, it was originally pronounced to rhyme with “lace”.

The other surprising thing about “dais” is its origin: the Latin word discus, which has also given us the words “disk”, “dish”, of course the athlete’s “discus”, not to mention “disco”, and even the word “desk”. So how does the platform on which the Queen sits have something to do with the Olympics, our hard drives, and Donna Summer?

The Romans had acquired the round discus from the Greeks, who liked hurling circular weighted objects about as sport; in fact, the word comes from the Greek verb dikein (to throw). As time went on, the Romans (perhaps the less athletically inclined ones) adopted the word for the similarly shaped object on which food was served, hence the sense that ultimately gave us “dish”.  I guess the Romans ate a lot at their feasts, so by the end of the Roman empire, discus  meant not just the dish supporting the food but the whole table. Indeed, in modern German the word for “table” is still Tisch, and it is this “table” sense of the Latin discus that evolved in English into the word “desk”.

But discus underwent a different branch of evolution as well. When the French got a hold of the word, by then squished down into the snappier dais in the way the French were wont to do with Latin words, they started using it not just for any table, but for the high table at which the quality folk were served, as well as the platform on which it was raised (just so everyone knew they were superior beings). As with most things having to do with the quality folk in Norman England, the French word either filled a gap for something for which there was no Anglo-Saxon word, or bumped out  whatever Anglo-Saxon word had previously existed for the object in question, so by the late 1200s “dais” was part of our language too.

All looked well for “dais” settling firmly in, but by 1600 it had pretty much died out. We would not use it at all today were it not for Sir Walter Scott, who wrote very popular historical novels in the early 1800s. He littered his books with archaisms to give them historical colour, and since his novels were such bestsellers, many words which had been dead for centuries were given a new lease on life, among them “dais”.

But just as “dais” was going into its two-hundred-year dormancy, the original Latin word discus came charging back, for the 1600s were a time when it was very fashionable for people, especially scientists, to borrow words directly from Latin into English. Round flat plates or anything that resembled them came to be be called “disks”.  Subsequently, the British started spelling the word “disc”, whereas the Americans stuck with “disk”. Since Americans were at the forefront of developing computers, senses of the word related to computers are spelled “disk” by everyone. Canadians tend to prefer “disc” for all other meanings of the word, including the records that were the basis of the 70s disco craze.

The English language certainly got its money’s worth out of that one Latin word, discus!

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Comments (4)
  • Half-naked athletic men, dancing till the wee-hours of the morning, “queens” celebrating…….sounds like Gay Pride Day to me!

    Posted by Michael Blackmore on 4th June, 2012
  • A very interesting read, Katherine, but don’t Americans also use the spelling ‘disc’ when applied to records?
    e.g. ‘spin a disc’, ‘cut a disc’

    Posted by Tim Harrell on 6th June, 2012
  • A very interesting etymological association from a renowned blogger ! Encore ! I shall utilize this as an introduction in my Semantics. Might be a good “disk” to throw in for motivation.

    Posted by Vridhachalempillay Subramaniam on 13th June, 2012
  • […] Extra reading: The Queen and Disco Dancing […]

    Posted by Conversation Topics: Global Issues « The English Learners' Blog on 18th June, 2012
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