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Word of the Month: body-parts ‘canel’, ‘canole’, ‘eskanel’, ‘chanel’, and which is which?

Part of the current revision process of the Anglo-Norman Dictionary ( is the provision of (live) links to other relevant dictionaries for every single entry. This places all Anglo-Norman words in their wider linguistic context, mapped against their equivalents in English (Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Middle English Dictionary (MED)), Continental French (Godefroy’s Dictionnaire de l’ancienne langue française et de tous ses dialectes du IXe au XVe siècle (Gdf) and its Complément (GdfC), Tobler and Lommatzsch’s Altfranzösisches Wörterbuch (TL), Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (DMF) and Trésor de la langue française (TLF) and Latin (Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (DMLBS)). In addition, AND entries are also linked with two etymological dictionaries of (medieval) French: Französisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (FEW) and Dictionnaire étymologique de l’ancien français (DEAF). These in particular add an extra level of elucidation to AND entries by documenting the origins and original senses of words. And at times this type of information can shed new light on an entry or even suggest alterations or corrections.

One case in point is the emergence of the following group of AND entries under ‘C’ and ‘E’, all referring to body-parts:

canel1: ‘outer membrane of the brain’

canole: ‘collar-bone’

eskanel: ‘shinbone’

chanel2: ‘shin-bone’

Formally these words are very similar, with differences entirely within the realm of the phonetic or orthographic variation one expects to find in Anglo-Norman: variance between non-tonic ‘e’ and ‘o’, and the interchangeability of ‘c’, ‘k’ and even ‘ch’ are common. Even in the case of eskanel, the use of an epenthetic or superfluous ‘es-‘ prefix is not abnormal in Anglo-Norman (see for example eschine (and chine), eschivacher (and chivacher) and eschose1 (and chose)). So are these similar-looking entries, some with very different senses (but all referring to body-parts), really separate words? And how can etymology help us to determine this?

(‘Talbot Shrewsbury book’, Royal 15 E. vi, f. 21v (c.1445)
Alexander meeting blemmyae)

In the case of canole (‘collar-bone’) the FEW suggests an origin in the Latin word *cannabula (2,214b): a compound of canna (‘schilf’, i.e. ‘reed’) and the suffix -abula (‘was umschliest’, i.e. ‘that which surrounds’). Apparently, the sense of ‘reed’ or ‘cane’ widened to refer to anything tube-shaped or a conduit,[1] and the possible anatomical senses listed by the FEW include ‘clavicule’, ‘vertèbres du cou’ (i.e. ‘vertebrae of the neck’), ‘trachée-artere’ (i.e. ‘windpipe’), and ‘gosier’ (i.e. ‘throat’) – body-parts that are connected with or part of the neck. There are no attestations in Latin of cannabula itself (as the asterisk suggests: the word is a reconstruction on the basis of what the FEW believes must be the origin of certain romance word), but medieval Latin has canola: clearly the same term and glossed in the DMLBS as ‘cannel-bone’ i.e. ‘neck-bone’ or ‘collar-bone’ (DMLBS 259b)[2].

What is the likelihood then of Anglo-Norman canel1 (‘outer membrane of the brain’) being merely a variant spelling of this canole? Currently he FEW does not list any -el variants sub *cannabula. Medieval Latin has canella (‘channel, watercourse’, ‘tube’ and, most significantly, also ‘cannel-bone’) (DMLBS 257a-b)[3] as a separate entry. The DMLBS tentatively suggest that this word may be a diminutive form of canna, but also presumes the influence of Anglo-Norman canel and Old French chanel. Both etymologies are possible, and language evolves in such a way that one should not exclude the other.

(Diagram of the Muscles, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 399, fol. 22r)

Turning to English, we have the word cannel bone, attested from the second half of the fourteenth century (in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess), with a sixteenth-century variation as channel-bone.[4] A shorter form, cannel, is also attested as early as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c.1390) with, from the fifteenth century, also channel appearing. The OED’s glosses include ‘neck-bone’ as well as ‘collar-bone’ and ‘cervical vertebrae’), so despite the absence of any -ol spellings in English, semantically the word overlaps with Anglo-Norman canole. It seems that where French used the term canole, English had canel, perhaps under the influence of channel – the word for ‘canal’, which shares a similar etymology: channel derives from the adjectival form of canna i.e. cannalis (FEW 2/i,168a).

So while Continental French has one form (canole) and English another (c(h)annel), Anglo-Norman seems to have both: canole and canel1. While slightly different etymologies seem to have been involved (*cannabula vs. cannalis, or even, as suggested by the DMBLS, a diminutive of canna), they all revolve around the etymon canna. And even this simplex form is attested, both in Anglo-Norman and Latin, with anatomical senses (‘spinal column’ sub AND can, and ‘windpipe’ sub DMLBS canna1 (258c). To conclude, it appears that canna, in a variety of possible forms or derivatives, produced vernacular words for a range of related or interconnected body-parts.

(Cambridge Trinity College’s, O.1.20, Doctor closing a neck-wound)

This complicated etymological intersection has its semantic consequences, which also call into question some of the AND’s definitions.

To begin with the simplex, the AND entry for can currently defines the word as ‘spinal column’ – a sense supported by Gdf (cane 1 1,778c). However, Tobler-Lommatzsch (chan 2,206) rejects this and suggests the meaning ‘collar-bone, clavicle’, synonymous with canole. As editors have pointed out, a blow to the collar-bone is not normally lethal, whereas in the following case, striking someone on the can de col clearly is:

El can del col l’a si feru Qu’a terre l’a mort abatu [Waldef BB 11905]

(‘He hit him so hard on the spinal column / clavicle / … (?) that he struck him dead on the ground’)

On another occasion, the effects are less extreme:

Le glotun fert si lez la cane […] Ke les orailles ad estunez [Mir N-D153.87]

(‘He hit the glutton so hard along his spinal column/clavicle/ … (?) […] that his ears started ringing’)

The DMF (sub canne) adds another interpretation, and translates the word as ‘windpipe’ or ‘oesophagus’.

As for canole, the sense ‘clavicle’ seems plausible in the following example:

Par le bras l’ad saké […]; Mes le bras estret de la cavole (l. canole) [Man pechez 6972]

(‘He has dragged him by the arm […]; But he pulled the arm away from its clavicle’)

Bringing together all these senses, and keeping in mind the meaning of the FEW’s proposed etymon (‘(around) the neck’), a conclusion might be that these different translations are perhaps too precise – that the words can (de col) and canel/canole are being used with reference to different parts of the body, distinguished by the taxonomies of modern science, but perhaps seen as one zone of the body in medieval times. What these usages have in common is that they refer to the neck and its surrounding anatomy, thus including the nape of the neck (with the uppermost part of the spinal column), the windpipe, and the clavicles or collar-bones to the sides.

(Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493)

The OED, sub cannel-bone n., best acknowledges this modern ambiguity by listing the two senses: “1. The ‘neck-bone’: perh. properly the cervical vertebræ, which form the medullary canal. (But it is not easy to know in what sense early writers used it […]) 2. The collar-bone or clavicle.” The OED’s third edition, which includes the revision of etymologies, is likely to expand upon the interpretation of this 1888 entry.

Even so, the AND’s definition of ‘outer membrane of the brain’ sub canel1 still stands out. This, however, is based upon a single citation and is supported solely by the fact that the word is glossed in Middle English as tey:

[…] Toup, canel (M.E. tey) et cervel […] [Nom 5]

This Nominale is basically a collection of thematic word-lists (juxtaposing Anglo-Norman and Middle English vocabulary), at this point naming the different parts of the head: ‘hair on top of the head, “canel” and the brain’.

The very same citation is glossed in MED (for their entry teie n.2) as ‘the membrane forming the outer covering of the brain, the dura mater’, and this is what must have prompted the AND’s definition. Without calling into question the meaning of the Middle English gloss, the Anglo-Norman word and its presumed etymology suggest that the part of the body referred is perhaps the upper part, or nape, of the neck, in this case the cervical vertebrae.

It becomes apparent that some revision of the definitions of these AND#2 articles is called for, reminding us of how medieval scientific terms often require a different approach than our modern classifications suggest. The entries canel1 and canole should perhaps be merged, while a broader definition, along the lines of ‘(anat.) area of the neck and shoulders (including the clavicles, nape of the neck and throat)’, seems necessary.

* * *

But no anatomical system could confuse these parts of the body with the shin-bone … And this is exactly what seems to be happening with eskanel and chanel2 (the latter listing canel and kanel as a variant spellings)[5] – if indeed these words share the same etymology as well.

Interestingly, all instances of these two words appear in Walter of Bibbesworth’s mid-thirteenth-century Tretiz de langage or in the closely related fifteenth-century Femina text. The only other dictionary to attest these words/uses (be it only in the form without the ‘es-’) is TL (chanel 3, 2,216: ‘schienbein’), and only uses the same Bibbesworth source. The words are absent from any of the abovementioned other dictionaries, and without any clear etymological support, the current AND definition is based entirely upon the ME gloss: ‘shynbon’ and the context:

En la chaunbe avez la zure, et tant cum braoun i est ensure De meillur force home se assure, Si l’eskanel seit saunz blezure [Bibb Roth (G) 148]

(‘On the leg you have the calf, and the more muscle on it, the more a man can be sure of his strength, if the shinbone is unharmed’)

(unidentified medieval Bible)

Where does this word come from? And how did it acquire this sense? With no other etymology readily available, and considering the formal similarity with canel1 and canole, can these words be interpreted as deriving from the same canna etymon? In that case, is it possible that Bibbesworth used the wrong Anglo-Norman word? There seems to have been a common confusion in medieval English of ‘shin-bone’ and ‘chin-bone’ (cf. MED sub shin(e n.1), and indeed, some variant manuscripts of the Bibbesworth text gloss eskanel with ‘chin-bone’[6]. A chin-bone, or jawbone, once more belongs to the aforementioned general area of the neck, and indeed some of the uses of canole may be interpreted as ‘jaw’ or ‘jaw-bone’:

Cil feri le Gyu lez cele joue Ke la canole le deslowe [Mir N-D 158.282]

(‘He hit the Jew on the cheek, so much that it dislocated his jaw’)[7]

But since this sense hardly fits the context (which talks about leg-muscle and physical strength), must we assume that Bibbesworth hit upon the wrong French word based on a formal/orthographical confusion of two very different Middle English body-parts? Not only is this near impossible to prove, it seems an unlikely slip-up for an author like Bibbesworth – particularly as none of the variant manuscripts seem to have felt the need to correct.

In the absence of any other etymological explanation, it may be suggested that while the word for ‘shinbone’ may have come from the same etymon (canna), using the general sense of ‘tube-like shape’ to refer to the elongated shin-bone or tibia. Why, however, the word, with this sense, does not appear anywhere else than in this Bibbesworth/Femina cluster remains odd.

(‘The Rutland Psalter’, BL Add. 62925 fol. 072v (c.1260))

How will these findings further alter the AND entries? Allowing for the possibility that the word for ‘shinbone’ after all derives from a (hitherto unidentified) different etymology (and do let us know if you have any suggestions!), eskanel/chanel2 (‘shinbone’) will be kept separate from canole/ canel1 (‘area around and including the neck’). However, instead of four there will now only be two entries, both of which provided with revised definitions and a commentary discussing the possibility that ultimately they may derive from the same Latin etymon or group of etyma.




[1] The same word lies at the origin of chanel1, i.e. ‘channel, bed (of river)’, which in medical text was used for passages or tubular cavities in the body. See also English channel n.1 (and post-medieval canal n.). Further English derivatives are, for example, cane n.1, cannon n.1, and canel n. (an obsolete word for cinnamon, probably in the form of tube-like strips of bark), which have their Anglo-Norman counterparts in can, canon1, and canele1.

[2] The earliest attestation of this word dates from 1267, i.e. later than the use in Anglo-Norman.

[3] The anatomical sense is attested from 1260.

[4] In fifteenth-century Latin we even come across os canale[4], a straightforward translation of cannel-bone (DMLBS canalis1 254a)

[5] The separation of the two forms is complicated: the Bibbesworth text inevitably uses a definite article, with editors unsure about whether to leave ‘le chanel’ as such, or transcribe as ‘l’echanel’ – producing a variant spelling for eskanel. Even allowing for the possibility of the coexistence of forms with or without prefixes, it seems logical to create one AND article to cover all citations.

[6] With ‘ch’ usually interpreted as a mere orthographical variant of ‘sh’.

[7] Also the abovementioned Mir N-D citation Le glotun fert si lez la cane […] Ke les orailles ad estunez (Mir N-D 153.87) might make best sense if ‘cane’ is interpreted as (lower) jaw.