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Fun with words at Volokh Conspiracy

Submitted by Pat on Wed, 07/12/2006 - 10:35am

They've been having a lot of fun with the Oxford English Dictionary over at Volokh Conspiracy of late, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Unfortunately, Sasha too casually dismisses "alder" as a candidate for earliest English word, because:

First, in this meaning (not the tree), it's marked as obsolete. In its meaning of "parent, ancestor," it's been superseded by "elder," and in its meaning of "the head of a family or clan; a patriarch, chief, prince, or ruler," it's not used today either.

But the word is in fact in quite common usage in modern America, as a component of the compound word "alderman", a term frequently used for members of a city or town council. My grandfather was an alderman for the town of Bastrop, La. many, many years ago. It is quite common to refer to the town council as a whole as the "aldermen" or the "board of aldermen", which is very much in accord with the ancient meaning of "alder".

Aside from that quibble, Sasha's post is excellent and a lot of fun for anyone who loves the history of language.

UPDATE: Thanks to Sasha for the link, who also points out that he was referring specifically to "alder" standing alone. I did some more research and discovered that "alderman" itself is quite an old world, appearing at least as early as 690AD, in the laws of Ini, King of the West Saxons:

Cap. 36. Let him who takes a thief, or to whom one taken is given, and he then lets conceals the theft, pay for the thief according to his 'wer.' If he be an ealdorman, let him forfeit his shire, unless the king is willing to be merciful to him.

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