November 25, 2013

Case File #013.11.25: MEAL

Here in the Western world, we English speakers have a time-honored tradition of getting together with family and friends at holiday time and indulging a large, extravagant meal. Even older than this tradition is the word meal, which can be traced back all the way back to the time of the original Anglo-Saxons. The word's Old English form, however, was m æl, and it meant not only “an act of eating a portion of food” and “an appointed time for eating” but also “a portion or measure (especially of time).” When Old English gave way to Middle English in the mid-twelfth century, the word's form became meel (also sometimes spelled mele or mel), and a century or so later, its spelling finally changed to the contemporary meal and its association with measurement was ultimately jettisoned. (Remnants of the noun's sense of “a portion or measure” are still around today, though, in both the adjectival and adverbial senses of the word piecemeal.) But the sense in which meal refers to ground grain has an entirely different etymological family tree. It ultimately traces back to the Indo-European root mel-, which meant “related to grinding” and later became the basis of several Proto-Germanic verbs and nouns. The Anglo-Saxons borrowed one of these Germanic words—etymologists and linguists do not all agree on the specifics—and used it as the basis for the Old English noun melu, which meant “ground grain” or “flour.” When melu passed into Middle English, its form initially changed to melewe (sometimes spelled melowe) but later became meale (sometimes spelled maile), and when Middle English gave way to modern English in the late fifteenth century, meale became the now familiar meal.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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