Thursday, November 1, 2012

Language of Confusion: Stranger Danger

See, I decided to do two words since neither one had enough to warrant a full post and, well, the word play was already out there. So let’s get dangerous.

I’ve always wanted to say that and have it make sense in context. Was it the entire reason for this post? Perhaps!

Ahem. Danger. Showed up in the mid-thirteenth century with a meaning none of us would recognize. Instead of trouble or peril, it meant the power or jurisdiction of a master. Yes, really. It came from the Anglo-Frenchdaunger and Old Frenchdangier, which can be traced to the Vulgar Latin dominarium—dominion, basically. That word is related to the classical Latindominus, the word for lord or master and the origin word for domain, as you’ve probably guessed. Dangerous has a similarly unexpected history, showing up in the early thirteenth century as difficult or arrogant. It’s Anglo-French word is dangerous (big leap) and in Old French, it’s dangeros. Although I haven’t found information on any Latin forebears, its relation to the danger line makes it easy to assume.

The question becomes when they so radically changed their meanings. In the late fourteenth century, danger switched because there was a sense of risk in being under the power of another. Another having dominion over you could do anything they wanted, making things unsure, risky, or as we call it these days…dangerous. Interestingly enough, by the way, dangerous didn’t take on its modern meaning for another hundred years. Until it caught up with its brother in the late fifteenth century, it meant “hard to please”.

Strange showed up in the late thirteenth century with basically the same meaning of unknown or unfamiliar. It was estrange in Old French, a word that meant foreign, and further back was extraneusin classical Latin, where it meant both foreign and external. The x softened to an s and then the e was dropped, but strange comes from a word that also gave us extra, extraordinary, and pretty much anything else with “ex” or “extra” at the beginning. And as I’ve discussed before, the ex- prefix  means “out”. Strange is extraneous, foreign…an outsider.

TL;DR: Danger changed meanings. Stranger changed pronunciation.

French as a Mother-Tongue in Medieval England,” by Jacquie Heys.


  1. Darkwing Duck! I miss Darkwing Duck.

  2. Fascinating roots for the words!

    And with the French root estrange, there we have the English word for a strained relation as well...


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