I have chosen to research the word ‘travel.’ The etymology and history of this word and its use are very interesting and demonstrate some important factors to consider when considering any word’s history, as well as offering insights into the ways in which word use can be effected by changes in technology and in human culture.
The derivation of ‘travel’ is from the French ‘travail’ and its original meaning was “to torment, to suffer affliction, to labour, toil.” In modern French the verb ‘travailler’ still means ‘to work.’ In Middle English the same word ‘travail’ had two meanings: to be distressed and to to make a journey. By 1375 the second meaning had begun to be spelt differently, according to the OED: “Sen scho mycht nocht trawel hym til” and in 1410 we get the first usage with the letter ‘v’: “To men that traveld in lond of ware.” However, the original spelling – ‘travail’ – was still being used in 1714: “Proeme, Other poet travailing in this plaine Highway of Pastoral.” After this date there are no recorded uses of this spelling of the word, but it continued to exist as a word, with this spelling, but limited to its original meaning of work or difficult labour. Bothe forms of the word show great fluidity in spelling until the late 18th century. ‘Travel’ and the past tense form ‘travelled’ become standardized, according to the citations from 1768, 1855 and 1901, although we should note the American variant with a single ‘l.’
What light does this word throw on the history of the English language? In itself, as originally a loan word from French, it is like tens of thousands of other words which entered the language after the Norman invasion of 1066. English became an underground language after 1066, replaced by French in most written documents that survive, although continuing to be spoken by the mass of the population. (Bragg 41-53) When English does emerge as the national language in the mid fourteenth century, it contains many loan words from French. (Crystal166-188) The fact that it had two meanings which were not differentiated by spelling is not unusual either. However, the two different meanings do perhaps give us an insight into how difficult travel must have been in the Middle Ages: the fastest means of transport on land was by horse, but a rudimentary system of roads, easily disrupted by inclement weather, must have meant that even a journey of just a few miles might have seemed like hard work or it might have tormented or distressed the participants, thus showing the original link between the two separate meanings of the word.
The fluidity in spelling is something we would expect to find in a word this old. Early variations in spelling reflect the lack of an agreed standard, and possible variations in pronunciation and writer practices. Although the establishment of Caxton’s printing press in 1472 could be said to begin the process of standardization, the process was slow. In addition, the modern use of ‘u’ and ‘v’ in the middle of a word did not become fully established until after 1770 (Crystal 210), although we might note the first instance of our modern spelling occurs in 1550. The process of standardization really cohered for the English language during the eighteenth century and the later citations of the word bear this out. The pressure for standardization was led by writers like Swift and Johnson, whose dictionary did much to standardize spelling and was considered the leading authority until the Oxford English Dictionary itself. (Bragg 199-218) The process of standardization did not just bring uniformity to the spelling; in this case, it separated the two different meanings of the word, so that ‘travail’ remained as a word but carried the first of the two original meanings (and now would be regarded as rather archaic). The American variant should not be ignored: Webster did a lot of work in the United States in the eighteenth century to try to make English more logical. Not all his suggested reforms were adopted but the single ‘l’ in the US variant ‘traveled’ is witness to his ideas and the growing orthographical differences between British English and American English. (Crystal 246-250)
What is probably most interesting about the verb ‘to travel’ is the semantic shift that has occurred over the centuries. In one sense it has remained constant: ‘to travel’ meaning ‘to make a journey’ has always implied a long journey. Even today you might travel to Africa, but you would not travel downtown. However, because of technological change and the ease of modern transportation, ‘to travel’ now is full of positive connotations which were completely missing from the original loan word. In the Middle Ages ‘to travel’ was a ‘travail’; now ‘travels’ are full of pleasure and comfort, something we look forward to, not something that torments or distresses us.
Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English. 2003 London: Hodder & Stoughton. Print.
Crystal, David. The English Language. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Print.