Return to list of blog posts

Word of the Month: ‘Organe’

Pending online publication of the second edition of ‘N’, AND revision work continues with the editorial team currently gathering information, citations and references for the letter ‘O’.

To offer a glimpse of the process: it has already become apparent that while AND#1 only had one entry for organe, AND#2 (the second, online edition) will have (at least) two: one musical and one herbal.

The first entry (which was already present in AND#1), now becoming organe1, is derived from Latin organum. The word can be traced back to Greek οργανον, which originally referred to a tool or instrument to work with (cf. εργον, Greek for ‘work, task’), and more specifically to a musical instrument. That latter meaning persisted in medieval times, and the DMLBS lists as its 5th sense: ‘musical instrument that can be tuned’ (DMLBS 2053a).

Whereas the modern musical sense of ‘organ’, i.e. an instrument using pipes sounded by keys, is already well-attested in medieval Latin organum and Middle English organ(e, surprisingly no unambiguous examples have yet been found in Anglo-Norman. In contrast, all occurrences (both as a singular and a plural noun) seem to refer to a stringed instrument or lyre, for example:

‘Sur les flums de Babilone, iluec seimes […]; Es salz […] suspendimes noz organes’

(Oxf Ps1 213. CXXXVI.2)

[Translated in the King James Version as: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down […]; We hanged our harps […] upon the willows]

‘E David sunout une maniere de orgenes ki esteient si aturnés ke l’um les liout as espaldes celi kis sunout’

(Liv Reis 71)

[And David played a type of harp which was fashioned in such a way that one attached it to the shoulders of the person who played it]

‘les Helenis, quant voloient […] avoic les estrumens de musique, harpe, vielle ou orghene  solacier, bon vin usoient, car lors soi trovoient de milhor sens et de plus soutil  contretroveure a faire dittees et contretroveures et melodies’

(Secr Waterford#1 95.846)

[The people of Hellas, when they wanted to perform on musical instruments, harp, viol and lyre, drank good wine, because then they found themselves in a better mood and with a more refined ingenuity to make songs, creations and melodies]

Le roi David et des musiciens. Psautier anglais de Saint-Alban (Hildeshaim) XIIe siècle
(E. G. Millars English illuminated manuscripts)

Anglo-Norman also has the word orgues (always attested in the plural), which is an abbreviated form of the same Latin root organum. Again it seems to be used with reference to musical instruments. Trivet’s Chronicle provides a new attestation of the word being used referring unquestionably to an organ:

‘Gereberd […] fist orgues chauntauntz sanz eide de home’

(TRIV 278.19)

[Gerbert […] constructed an organ that played without the help of man]

The chronicle refers to Gerbert of Aurrillac who famously constructed a hydraulically powered pipe organ for the cathedral of Reims in the late tenth century.

AND#1 provided only one attestation of the abbreviated form, together with the definition ‘organ’. However, that example is, after all, ambiguous:

‘les chanz des angles e les dulz orgres des sainz’

(Eluc 105.106)

[the singing of angels and the sweet organs/lyres/instruments (?) of the saints]

The Ghent altarpiece (fragment)
Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, late 15th century

The context does not specify which particular type of instruments may have been used by the saints.

A second new citation for AND#2 provides a very different interpretation, as it uses the word to refer to birdsong:

‘Li oisel chantent, li rossignos lur orgues mostrent’

(Secr Waterford1 83.373)

[The birds sing, the nightingales bring out their songs]

This particular (perhaps figurative) usage of the word is also found in Latin (DMLBS organum, senses 8. ‘song, hymn’ and 9. ‘music, esp. vocal’) and English (MED, organ(e, sense 3 ‘a sung melody’). The reference to bird-song is, however, unique to this Anglo-Norman attestation. In any case, it adds to the ambiguity of the above Eluc attestation, where the saints may well have been singing hymns, rather than playing any instruments.

The abbreviated form orgues, while also well-attested in Continental French (see DMF orgue), is rare (and obsolete) in English, with OED listing only two examples (also meaning ‘organ’) from the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is surprising that the other senses associated with Latin organum (and also well-attested in medieval and modern English), such as ‘bodily organ’ or ‘instrument of speech’ or ‘device’, currently have no attestations at all in Anglo-Norman – though, of course, work on the second edition of ‘O’ is still on-going. Do send us a message if you come across any examples.

The second organe entry for the AND, which will be new in the second edition, refers to the plant ‘wild marjoram’ (or a variety of similar plants with aromatic leaves). As it is has a different etymology, derived from the Latin word origanum (DMLBS 2054b), the word will be given a separate AND entry.

Section on ‘origanum’ in the Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarium,
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 1431, fol. 29r (11th Century)

This plant-name is attested frequently in Anglo-Norman (mainly as an ingredient in medical treatises) and with many spelling variants, some of which are closer to the Latin form (such as origan or origanon) while others deviate further (orgon, orgoyne, etc.):

‘Item pouder ad purger la teste: [pernez] de gilgano e de gingivre e de pelettre e de organe e de ysoppe e temperez od mel e eisel e gargari[s]és en la bouche’

(A-N Med ii 209.25)

[Item, a powder to purge the head: [take] ‘gilgano’ (=unidentified), ginger, pellitory, marjoram and  hyssop, and mix it with honey and vinegar, and rinse the mouth]

The same word is equally found in Middle English as origane n. (with the variant spelling ‘organe’) or origanum n.,  and persists in Modern English as organ n.2 (OED link, through subscription only) and origanum n. (OED link, through subscription only). The word oregano n. (OED link, through subscription only) comes from the same Latin root, but is a later, post-medieval borrowing from Spanish.