Skip to main content

The Lost Letter Eth (ð)

Image result for letter eth
Capital and lowercase letter eth.  May Þey rest in peace.




In Old English and Middle English there were two letters that we don’t use today: Þ and Ð (called thorn and eth—written in lowercase as Þ and ð).  Thorn was the hard th sound, like you hear in the word then; eth could be used for the soft th sound, as in thin, but could also be used for the hard th.  Eth slowly disappeared from English writing, falling out of use by the year 1300.  Thorn lasted a while longer, maybe another century, but its demise was hastened by the popularity of printing.  Signs and handbills were printed on paper with sets of wooden blocks.  The best blocks came from Germany and Italy, where the languages don’t have the th sound at all, so these sets included no thorn or eth blocks.  To fill the need of the missing thorn, printers would just use the letter Y instead.  This is why you would often see medieval signs like “Ye Olde Bakery”.  This is just because the printers couldn’t print “Þe Olde Bakery”!  Of course they could paint signs with any letters they wanted, but as printed material grew more common, so did ye.  If you lived in medieval times and could read, you knew this was pronounced the way we pronounce the today.

The letters eth and thorn are still used in modern Icelandic. 

Þat’s all, folks.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Betty Crocker: A Brief Biography

Long have our supermarket shelves borne products with the name Betty Crocker.  This name has long since lodged in our heads an essential part of americana.  It seems to evoke the past.  It seems to always have evoked the past, a past when life was simpler and Mother and Grandmother cooked at home, using time tested recipes and only the purest ingredients.  We can’t go back to that simpler, wholesome past, but we can give ourselves a Proustian shot of nostalgia by tasting the past we remember, or the past we only wish we could remember, but know must be so good.  That is the Betty Crocker brand.  You might have seen drawings of her, but have you ever actually seen the legend herself?  Here’s an image of Miss Crocker from a 1953 television ad:


The full "Betty Crocker" TV commercial.

Okay, that’s actually actress Adelaide Hawley, who played Betty Crocker in a number of commercials for the brand from 1949 to 1964.  Betty Crocker was born in 1921, so this representation looks to be…

The Star-Spangled Banner: The Original Lyrics

If you’re an American (and quite possibly even if you’re not), you’ve certainly heard the tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” numerous times.  It’s a stirring melody, and can often sound very proud, and if someone asked you to hum a few bars, you probably could do a creditable job of it, even if you have no musical ability at all.  The tune is that familiar.  Of course, it has another name that you probably know better: “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

But the song’s first name was “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  The song asserts that Anacreon is in heaven, right from the first line.  Whether Anacreon actually is in heaven, I’ll take no position on, but he most certainly is dead.  Anacreon was a Greek poet who lived from circa 582 BCE to 485 BCE, which is a remarkably advanced age for the times.  Anacreon was celebrated for his songs about drinking and love and having a good time.  Maybe not the weightiest of literature, but even the most serious poets and thinkers need to take a break now and …

At, Hashtag, And Per Se

Since the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s, there has been little change to the keyboard used in English.  The position of the letters has remained the same, and the numbers and punctuation have as well. The advent of the personal computer has required additional keys, most of which have found their own standard spots on the keyboard, but for the most part, there haven’t been many changes to the original design.

If you look at the above keyboard, you can see there have been some changes. Keys for fractions don’t really exist anymore; nor does a key to write the ¢ symbol. But the ¢ key on this 1900 model typewriter also includes the @ symbol, which has been common on keyboards since the dawn of typewriters. It’s older than that, even. But of course it is: how else would anyone write an email address? Except… who are you going to email in 1900? No one was emailing anyone before 1972. That’s when programmer Ray Tomlinson invented email. He figured that if you’re going to …