No One Ever Said It: On the Long History of “Ye Olde” in English
Hana Videen on Chaucer, Hamlet, and the Evolution of Middle and Old English
Wander down a small alley off London’s Fleet Street and you’ll find a pub with a crooked, creaky charm. Its black and white sign says “Rebuilt 1667,” the year after the Great Fire gutted England’s largest city. Go inside for a pint in its wood-paneled dining room, where literary greats like Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain ate their fill. This may not be London’s oldest pub, but it sure looks the part, with atmospheric vaulted cellars that supposedly date back to medieval times. And if you harbor any doubts concerning the pub’s antiquity, its name sets you straight: “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.”
It’s nearly impossible to spend time in London without seeing a number of traditional ‘ye olde’ English pubs: “Ye Olde Mitre,” “Ye Olde Watling” and the curiously named “Ye Olde Cock Tavern” are just a few. It may seem that these places are real relics, or at least their names themselves are written in an ancient language—but they are not. “Ye olde” is in fact a pseudo-archaic term; no one ever said “ye olde” except in imitation of an imagined speech of the distant past.
But that’s not to say it has no roots in the past. Once there was a letter called thorn that made a “th” sound. It looked like this: þ. Over the centuries, þ was written increasingly like the letter y with some scribes using them interchangeably. Early printers even substituted y for þ, so the word “þe” (the) ended up looking like “ye.” Eventually þ fell out of use, but people continued using “ye” to abbreviate the word “the” in print during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and in handwriting until the nineteenth century. English speakers’ memory of the origin of “ye” faded over time, until people began reading the word anew, pronouncing it wrong, and eventually creating the habit in English of saying “ye” to sound old.
So if Old English is not “ye olde” English, what is it and how far back must we go to find it? More than sixty years before the rebuilding of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, William Shakespeare wrote this monologue for his tragic hero Hamlet:
Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across,
Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face,
Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i’ th’ throat
As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?
Hah, ’swounds, I should take it; for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should ’a’ fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal.
The phrasing and vocabulary are unfamiliar, but the English is not “Old.” Hamlet’s speech, written by Shakespeare around 1600, is in Early Modern English, the English used from the end of the Middle Ages in the late fifteenth century until the mid to late seventeenth century. The phrase “gives me the lie in the throat as deep as to the lungs” sounds strange, although forcibly shoving unpleasant words down someone’s throat is a familiar concept.“Ye olde” is in fact a pseudo-archaic term; no one ever said “ye olde” except in imitation of an imagined speech of the distant past.
We still use the words “villain” and “slave,” but they are no longer common insults, and it’s more likely you’ll hear “chicken-shit” or even “lily-livered” rather than “pigeon-livered.” People no longer curse with “swounds,” short for “God’s wounds” (although you may spot “zounds” in a comic book), but in the sixteenth century using God’s name in vain like this was considered particularly foul-mouthed. Other Shakespearean oaths included “slid” (God’s lid, i.e. eyelid) and “God’s bodykins” (God’s dear body), the origin of the mild, antiquated oath “odd’s bodkins.”
Hamlet’s monologue is unlike anything you’d hear in modern English today, but a fluent English speaker can probably get the gist of it. Much of the vocabulary can be found in a modern dictionary, even if some words are now used infrequently. Shakespeare employs unfamiliar syntax, or word order (“who does me this” rather than “who does this to me”), but overall the passage makes sense grammatically, even to us today.
Compared to Shakespeare’s Early Modern English, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is significantly more difficult to read:
Lordynges, herkneth, if yow leste.
Ye woot youre foreward, and I it yow recorde. If even-song and morwe-song accorde,
Lat se now who shal telle the firste tale.
As evere mote I drynke wyn or ale,
Whoso be rebel to my juggement
Shal paye for al that by the wey is spent.
Now draweth cut, er that we ferrer twynne;
He which that hath the shorteste shal bigynne.
Written in the late 1380s to 1390s, over 200 years before Hamlet, Chaucer’s writing has more strange spellings and unfamiliar words than Shakespeare’s. But the grammar is familiar enough that you may understand the passage better just from reading it aloud.
The publican Harry Bailly is speaking to his traveling companions, reminding them that the night before they had accepted his invitation to take part in a storytelling contest. Anyone who argues with him, warns Harry, must pay for all the wine and ale he consumes throughout their journey. He orders everyone to draw straws, and the person with the shortest will tell the first tale: “he which that hath the shorteste shal bigynne.”
Chaucer’s English may look ancient but it is not “Old.” Chaucer wrote in Middle English, the English used from the first half of the twelfth century until sometime during the fifteenth. Some linguists suggest an end date of 1400–1450 based on fundamental changes in the pronunciation of vowels (the Great Vowel Shift). Others give a later end date, closer to 1500, by which time the impact of the printing press had really taken hold in England. The advent of printing in England was in 1476, when William Caxton set up his own press in London. Printing, as opposed to writing by hand, meant that far more books were available, with a much wider circulation, which in turn led to greater standardization in spelling and pronunciation.
Some of the words that Chaucer uses, like “juggement” and “paye,” may sound completely “English,” but they, along with many other French loanwords, had only entered the language relatively recently. The Normans defeated the English in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and this Norman Conquest would add many new words to the English language.Written in the late 1380s to 1390s, over 200 years before Hamlet, Chaucer’s writing has more strange spellings and unfamiliar words than Shakespeare’s. But the grammar is familiar enough that you may understand the passage better just from reading it aloud.
Throughout the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, under the influence of the new French-speaking ruling class, English changed bit by bit until it became “Middle English.” French introduced words like “juggement” and “paye,” and shaped the way Chaucer and his contemporaries spoke and wrote; slowly, the words that they replaced were forgotten.
But these forgotten words, the language that the English would have spoken in the Battle of Hastings— this, finally, is Old English. “Juggement” and “paye” replaced words like dōm (judgement) and gieldan (pay, pronounced ye-ell-dahn). These older words still persist in our current language, like ghosts from the past, in “doom” and “yield.” They are just two words among many that survived the Norman invasion, the Great Vowel Shift, the revolutions of grammar, and Shakespearean reinvention, to crop up in the language we speak today.
Excerpted from The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English © 2023 by Hana Videen. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.