Adventures in Middle English: Semantic Drift tarnishes a perfectly good word.

silly,Special MomentOnce upon a time, when I were a wee thing, my mother gave me the sage advice never to take up with a man who reffered to women as ‘chicks’ or ‘birds’. Men like this, she impressed upon me, infantalise women and treat them like objects. Somewhat tangentially, I cannot hear the word ‘chick’ without remembering the object I was holding at the time, a teatowel.

Accordingly, I was somewhat startled, reading along in Sir Gawain, to find Bertilak’s wife reffered to as the gay burde.1 Along with the intrusive teatowel, this conjures up a mental image of twenties men in smoking jackets reffering to their flapper friends as ‘quite a gay bird’.

A quick check of the TGD gloss returns ‘maiden, damsel, lady’, and suggests nothing dismissive about it. The etymology of the term is obscure, though- TGD suggest Anglo Saxon byrde, meaning embroideress.2 My Anglo-Saxon dictionary, meanwhile, doesn’t turn up that definition for byrde, instead giving me an adjective, ‘well born, noble, rich’.

The OED suggests that the term may be a poetic application of the Norse term for ‘bird’; they also suggest association with the Middle English bryde or the Anglo-Saxon bryd, but they note that even with the older form the phonetic development would be very odd indeed were that the case; the Anglo-Saxon adjective for ‘well-born’, meanwhile, they tell us is rare, occuring only once and then in a masculine form.

Advice for the week: next time you are disparagingly called a ‘bird’, hold your head high in the knowledge that you are either well born, marriagable, poetic, or possibly an embroidress.

If he calls you a chick, though- that one only turns up in the twentieth century, and has no pedigree at all.


Pratchett,pun,books1. ll. 1003
2. To which my inner Pratcheteer responds “SEAMSTRESS, nudge nudge wink wink”.


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