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Naked and nude

La Maja desnudaTo the left, the famous painting "La Maja desnuda", by Goya. When rendering the title in English, a translator needs to choose between "The naked Maja" and "The nude Maja", the English words "naked" and "nude" meaning about the same thing (a Google search of the web shows "naked Maja" to be slightly preferred). Why is there one basic word for this concept in Spanish, but two in English? The answer says a lot about the origin of English, and of its vocabulary.

My American Heritage dictionary of the English language defines "naked" and "nude" in terms of one another:

      Naked: adj. Without clothing or covering on the body, nude.

      Nude: adj. Without clothing, naked.

The back of the dictionary also has a diagram of the Indo-European family of languages, of which English is a member. This large family of languages is believed to have descended from a single original source language called "Proto-Indo-European". It includes most (but not all) of the languages of Europe, as well as languages extending as far east as the Indian sub-continent.

For our purposes, I'd like to consider just the Germanic and the Italic branches of this family, shown much simplified below, with many languages missing:

      North Germanic
      West Germanic


Since English and the Latin-based languages (the so-called "Romance" languages) are on different branches of the language "tree", they have no ancestor languages in common until you go all the way back to Proto-Indo-European.

But the English word "nude" is related to the Spanish "desnuda".Note 1  How did this Latin-based word find its way into English? Despite English and Spanish being on different branches of the Indo-European language family tree, there were various ways Latin-based words crept into English. For one thing, during the height of the power of the Roman empire, the Romans, speaking Latin, occupied Britain. For another, Latin was once the "lingua franca" of educated Europe, and English-speaking scholars borrowed many Latin words.

But perhaps the greatest single factor was the outcome of just one battle, fought on a single specific day, October 14, 1066. It was the Battle of Hastings, and it's generally thought of as the decisive battle in Duke William II of Normandy's conquest of England. He was henceforth known as "William the Conqueror".

Well, actually, he was known as "Guillaume le Conquérant", because he was Norman (that is, from Normandy, in France), and he spoke Norman French. After his conquest, the upper class in England spoke a precursor of modern French. While the common people spoke assorted Germanic languages that ultimately evolved into modern English, French was spoken in the King's court, the army, and the legal system. A great deal of commercial trade was conducted with France, and over the next couple of centuries, a massive number of French words, which were originally of Latin origin, came into English.

I'll get back to "naked" and "nude" eventually, but first, let's pause and consider the meaning of the above. As I write these words early in the year 2011, a bit over 944 years have elapsed since the Battle of Hastings. If a time machine could plunk you down in an English town in 1066, you would be apt to find people speaking some version of Late Old English, and you would in all likelihood not understand a word they were saying. It's hard enough to understand Chaucer's Middle English, and Chaucer died much later, in 1400. The French of 1066 would have been equally incomprehensible, and furthermore, William spoke a Norman version of French, which varied quite a bit from Parisian French. Whether you found yourself among the French-speaking upper classes, or the Old English speaking common people, the languages would have seemed entirely unfamiliar.

Yet 944 years later, we can clearly distinguish English's everyday words of Germanic origin from its "upper-class" words of French origin. Given all the time and linguistic changes that have since gone by, I find it astonishing that the fingerprints of William the Conqueror are still to be found all over the English language. The most basic and simple words of English are still apt to be of Germanic origin. English words of Latin origin, which often came into English via French, are apt to be specialized, military, or legalistic.

I'm not an expert on Old English or old Norman French. Thus, in the examples that follow, I'll identify Germanic words by looking at their modern German equivalent, and Latin-based words by looking at modern examples from one of the Romance languages, such as French, Spanish, or Italian. Pick an ordinary English word, such as "hand". The modern German word is the same, "Hand", although it is pronounced more like HANT (and all German nouns are capitalized). The French word is "main", and the Spanish and Italian words are both "mano", coming from the Latin "manus". Some of the English words derived from this are words like "manipulate" (originally work done with the hands), "manual labor" (ditto), and "a manual" (a small reference book you can hold in your hand while working). The words from the Latin are "fancier", more "upper-class" words. The basic, everyday word is Germanic.

Let's go from hand to foot. "Foot" in German is "Fuß", where the final symbol is an "s-Zett", usually rendered in typing as "ss". English "foot" and German "Fuß" are cognates. The French word is "pied", Spanish "pie" and Italian "piede", from the Latin root "pedal". In English, we have the words "pedal", "pedestrian" (one who goes on foot, as opposed to an equestrian, who goes on an equus, a horse), and "pedestal" (the "foot" of a statue). Again, the Latin-based words are the fancy, upper-class words, and the Germanic words are the everyday words.Note 2

Want a verb? The English verb "to run" is related to the German verb "rennen". The verb in French is "courir", from which they get the French noun "courier". A "courier" in French is just a "runner", and I'll guess the word was largely used in the military. So the modern English word "courier" generally refers to a high-priced delivery service - this stolen French word is still an "upper-class" word 944 years later. Similarly, the French verb marcher is just an ordinary, everyday word meaning "to walk". But in English, "to march" has a military meaning.

It's commonly pointed out that while the English names of animals are generally of Germanic origin, the names of foods are often based in French. After all, the commoners raised the animals, while the upper classes ate the fancy meals. Hence our modern word for "cow" is related to the modern German "Kuh", while our word "beef" is related to the modern French "boeuf". We speak of "swine" (German "Schwein") and pork (French "porc"). We speak of "sheep" (German "Schaf"), and of "mutton" (from the French "mouton", sheep).

In the law, of course, there are many Latin-based words that came to us from the French legal system. We even still use phrases with the French adjective-second word order, such as "Attorney General", instead of "General Attorney". You can tell which word is the noun by forming the plural, "Attorneys General". The English legal system in the years after 1066 is also the source of the large number of doubled constructions used in the law, in which an English term and a French term are paired, presumeably to be sure that at least one of them is understood by all listeners. Think, for example, about "breaking and entering" (German "to break" = brechen, French "to enter" = entrer) and "last will and testament" ("will" comes from Old English, and "testament" from Latin).

You can play this game forever, with word after word. In particular, let's come back to where we started, "naked" and "nude". "Naked" is definitely a word of German origin, the modern German word being "nackt" (and it's routine for a "t" ending in German to become an "ed" ending in English). As previously noted, "nude" is a word of Latin origin, which came into English via French.

I think most English speakers will agree that "nude" is the more "upper-class" word of the two. It's the one generally used when talking about fine art, and it has even given rise to a noun: "a nude" is the unclothed subject of a painting or photograph, or by extension a work of art containing such a subject. We say a canvas depicts a "nude woman", not a "naked lady". The term "nude recreation" is practiced by "nudists", while "naked recreation" is seldom heard, and "nakedist" is even rarer. "Nude" is definitely the "upper-class" word, while the Germanic "naked" is an everyday word.

Which brings up a question about the picture shown at the beginning of this entry: why is its title, "La Maja desnuda", more often rendered in English as "The naked Maja", and less often "The nude Maja"? That would seem to be at odds with my discussion in the paragraph above. In general, the word "nude" is much more frequently used when speaking of fine art.

I think the reason may be that the work was considered scandalous when it was first painted. Goya was called to testify before the Spanish Inquisition about his "obscene" canvas. What is a "Maja", anyway? A Wikipedia entry reports, "Majo (masculine) or Maja (feminine) were terms for people from the lower classes of Spanish society, especially in Madrid, who distinguished themselves by their elaborate outfits and sense of style in dress and manners; the English term 'dandy' carries a similar, but not identical meaning." Note 3  The subject is not the madonna, nor a Greek goddess, nor a nude figure from ancient mythology. She's just a naked lady.

In 1930, letters carrying Spanish postage stamps bearing this image were refused entry into the United States. Not about to be outdone by the Spanish Inquisition, the United States Postal Service sent them back to Spain.

All the above casts some light on why the English language has such a large vocabulary. There are many reasons, actually, but one of them is that a huge number of Latin-based words has been grafted onto an already complete Germanic vocabulary. We lucky English speakers have two languages in one.

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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted January 27, 2011, and slightly modified March 29, 2011

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   The Spanish word "desnuda" sounds a bit like the English word "denuded". So I suppose you wouldn't be entirely off-base to translate "La Maja desnuda" as "The Maja stripped". But I don't think that gives a very good idea of what the title sounds like to the Spanish ear, as desnuda is the ordinary Spanish word meaning "nude". Perhaps I should mention that it's the feminine form, the masculine form being desnudo. All adjectives in the Romance languages have masculine and feminine forms.  [return to text]

Note 2:   Studying Latin can enlarge your English vocabulary precisely because the words of Latin origin in English are the more complex, less well-known words. Native speakers of English don't need to be reminded what "foot" means, but some may need help deciphering "pedestrian". It comes from the Latin pedester, "on foot", which apparently actually was formed by analogy to equester, "on horseback". Even in Latin, pedester also meant "plain, prosaic", which is also a figurative meaning of "pedestrian" in English.

I think that the English vocabulary help one can get from studying Latin is often exaggerated, perhaps by Latin teachers trying to "sell" the study of Latin to the practical students of today, who want to see some tangible benefit. A student who's not careful might find himself imagining that a "pedophile" is a lover of feet, and a "pediatrician" is a foot doctor. In fact, the "ped" in those words doesn't come from Latin at all, but rather from a Greek root "paid-", the stem of "paîs" (child).

Nevertheless, identifying the Latin root(s) of a word can certainly be a useful mnemonic device to help you remember what it means.  [return to text]

Note 3:   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majo  [return to text]

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