Using the DMLBS to track down Italian loanwords in medieval British texts

This is a guest post by Megan Tiddeman, a PhD student with the Anglo-Norman Dictionary team at Aberystwyth University.

The working title of my thesis is “Money Talks – Anglo-Norman, Italian and English language contact in medieval merchant documents, c1300-c1500”. Its aim is to investigate a neglected area – the linguistic (rather than the political or the economic) effects of the huge commercial activity of Tuscan, Genoese and Venetian traders and bankers in England during the late Middle Ages.

A major part of the project is compiling a two-part glossary of around 300 loanwords from this period, firstly, Italianisms in Anglo-Norman (which were nearly always then transmitted into Middle English) and secondly, insular Gallicisms and Anglicisms in Italian material.

Many of these words were technical trading, nautical or military terms which are attested once or twice or later vanished into obscurity, though they are none the less valuable for it (e.g. attaby, a rich fabric imported from Baghdad, belendin, a high quality ginger from India or braeil, a small rope fastened to a sail’s edge). However, a sizeable proportion of these Italian borrowings in Anglo-Norman were destined to become part of the everyday lexis of Modern English:

candy / canon / carat / carpet / carrack / coton / creditour / cremosyn / escarmuche / golfe / materas / orange / reprisaile / ris / satin / sucre / taffeta / yndigo to name but a few.

A quick glance at this list confirms what we already knew – that Italian merchant galleys brought with them from their vast, trading empires, a whole host of “exotic” vocabulary (from Arabic, Persian or Turkish) into England as well as the actual goods for sale.

Gathering these loanwords together involves scouring through numerous sources – account books, port registers, Exchequer Rolls, business letters (both original manuscripts and edited material) and, of course, dictionaries. The DMLBS is an essential part of the etymological jigsaw along with the other major medieval dictionaries from Britain (AND, OED, MED), France (TLF, DMF, DEAF, Godefroy, Du Cange, etc.) and Italy (TLIO, OVI, LEI, DEI, etc.).

It would be so easy if we could type ‘Italianism’ or ‘Prestito anglo-normanno’ into a search box and come up with a ready-made glossary but unfortunately, it takes a lot more time and effort to try and sift through an immense dictionary corpus in the hope of finding the odd Italian jewel. Firstly, and most obviously, not all dictionaries are digitised. Even when they are, the metalanguage used in labelling borrowings varies greatly, often within the same volume, and can be vague or inconsistent e.g. how does “cf. Italian” differ from “<Italian” or simply “Italian”? Lexicographical “loanword policy” also changes with each dictionary you deal with and each has its own theories on the inclusion and flagging up (if they do at all) of words from other languages. A very large number of the terms in my glossary have entered Middle English (or British Medieval Latin) from Italian via French and are, naturally, labelled as Gallicisms in the OED, MED or DMLBS. Highlighting the importance of the transmission route:

ME / BML < AN < Ital. (< Arab. / Pers.)

is a fundamental part of my thesis and so it is vital that I also track down these “indirect Italianisms”. Some of them, of course, will not have their own headword at all but be hidden in the citations of another article and only discovered by happy accident and others still are labelled “origin unknown”. Finally, it can be difficult to pinpoint the direct or indirect nature of an Italian borrowing in BML e.g. vernagium, ‘strong, sweet Italian wine’, att. 1336 in the Durham Accounts. Could this be:

BML vernagium < AN vernage < Ital vernaccia or

BML vernagium + AN vernage < Ital. vernaccia ?

Despite these caveats, you have to start somewhere! DMLBS editor, Richard Ashdowne, very kindly sent me a list of around 50 headwords which have Italian in their label. Comparing this list with one I had already compiled using AND, MED and OED proved incredibly fruitful in finding evidence of both direct and indirect Italianisms in British Medieval Latin. The majority of borrowings I have found so far in the DMLBS (and I am sure there are many more) fall into four main categories:

The headword is labelled as an Italianism …

  1. … it confirmed the Italian origin of borrowings I had found in Anglo-Norman and Middle English e.g. BML caffatinus, att. 1349, < Ital. caffetinno < Ar. quffa(t) (‘basket’). This describes rounded, sugar loaves boiled in double-bottomed moulds. Also BML bukaramus, att. 1225 < Ital. bucherame < Pers. Boukhara, a costly cloth from Boukhara.
  2. … it provided (in many cases, 13th century) evidence of Italian borrowings in Britain that have no extant equivalent in Anglo-Norman or Middle English e.g. BML waldana ‘rabble, band of (armed) men’, att. 1297 < Ital. gualdana, BML calamite,  ‘lodestone’, att. c1235 < Ital. calamita or BML balzanus, ‘piebald horse’, att. 1207 < Ital. balzano.

The headword is not labelled as an Italianism …

  1. … but labelled as an Arabism. While many of the loanwords currently labelled as Arabisms in the DMLBS are indeed direct, erudite borrowings, I believe that in some cases Italian was in fact the language of transmission:  e.g. cutono attested in the Close Rolls in 1208 could very likely have been passed on from Ar. qutun via Ital. cottone. At times, both immediate etymons could  have played a role e.g. sandalum (a type of silken fabric) could be direct borrowing from Ar. sandal in its lone 8th century attestation and then be influenced by Ital. zendale the next time it emerges in BML in 1227. Obviously, text type can be a significant indicator here and it is always essential to take the nature of the source document into account.
  2. … but labelled as < OF < Ar. There are several cases where I believe Italian is the “missing link” e.g. tarita, ‘type of merchant ship, tarette’ att. 1340, Wardrobe Accounts: BML tarita < AN tarette < Ital. tareta < Ar. taridah. Also e.g. baldekinus, ‘a rich brocade from Baghdad’, att. 1218, Close Rolls: BML baldekinus < AN baldekin < It. baldacchino < Ar. Bagdadi.

The next step in exploring the DMLBS corpus would be to do a search based on Arabic labels. This would undoubtedly provide many more hidden clues as to the extent of Italian influence on Britain’s medieval merchant and maritime lexis.

The Anglo-Norman Dictionary project can be found online at and its blog at It is also on Facebook.


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