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Doublets (and Triplets) in English

Have you ever heard of doublets before? No, I don’t mean a type of old-fashioned men’s shirt used until the 17th century, I mean doublets in the linguistic sense. A doublet in linguistics is two words that have something in common. Usually, this ‘thing in common’ has to do with where the words originally come from or their meaning. They can either have the same meaning and come from different places or vice versa. Triplets and so on also exist under this definition.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Doublets can split within a single language, for example too splitting from to. The word to already existed in English and the word too developed from this word. This is an extremely simple example of doublets of native origin.

You can find more complex examples of native-origin doublets in the words for food/animals in English. The most well-known example is beef/cow. The word beef comes from the Old French word boef and arrived with the Normans to England during the Norman Conquest in 1066. The word cow comes from the Old English word cu, which is of Germanic origin. Beef and cow are synonymous in the sense that they originally referred to the same thing. The dual layer of society under Norman rule (read The Most Important Word in the English Language and Its History for more information about English Language history) led to beef describing the meat and cow describing the animal. This example is also “native” as cow comes from Old English and a cognate is borrowed from a sister language (French).

Additionally, there are cases where the doublets are of borrowed origin. Within this case, there are a few subclassifications:

  1. borrowing from a language and then again later on once another word has developed
    1. warranty – borrowed from Old French during the Norman Conquest
    2. guarantee – borrowed from French in the 17th Century
  2. borrowing from a parent and daughter languages – usually Latin and French/Old French for the English language
    1. extraneous vs strange
  3. cognates from two different languages (
    1. sauce from Old French
    2. salsa from Spanish
  4. from other languages that have also borrowed from other languages – Greek words in English borrowed originally from Latin.

English Doublets

As one might have guessed, English has thousands of doublets (triplets, quadruplets, etc.) due to its dual nature as a Germanic language that was heavily influenced by French. In fact, there are three periods where borrowing from French saw a sharp increase in English: just after the Normal Conquest, when the nobility in England switched from French to English (13th/14th centuries), and the 17th/18th centuries (the influential height of the French Empire).

This has left us with sextuplets such as mister, master, meister, maestro, mistral, and magistrate, all of which come from the Latin word for ‘teacher’. These repetitions can also come from several languages, such as right (Germanic), rich (Celtic), raj (Sanskrit), rex (Latin), regalia (Latin), reign (French), royal (French) and real (Portuguese/Spanish).

Legal English

English also has another reason for doublets and triplets, which also has to do with history. The mixing of Old French and Old English after 1066 led to some curiosities in many fields, but none more curious than Legal English. In 1066, legal matters were conducted in either Latin or Old French. As time progressed, both Latin and Old French vied for dominance while underdog Middle English also started to creep into the picture. By the 13th centuries, law was being practiced in all three languages, so legal matters had to be understood by users of each. This led to repetition in terms, such as cease (from Latin) and desist (from Old French). Some more examples of doublets in common use in legal English are:

An additional aside: it seems that the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic tribes also used alliterations in their legal language, many of which are still used in a variety of contexts today, such as ‘fame and fortune’, ‘aid and abet’, and ‘part and parcel’.

If you are interested in reading more about the English language, take a look at my Learning English page, where you will find some gems on a variety of topics, such as What is the plural of ‘you’ ?

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