Wardens and Guardians

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A discussion prompted by Daniel’s word of the day ward put me in mind of one of my favorite etymological factoids: the relationship between words like warden and guardian.

English suffers a bad rap for its spelling, but the variety of spellings is an inevitable side effect of the richness of vocabulary acquired by borrowing words from different languages at different periods of history.

From 1066 until about 1250, English and French were spoken side by side in England. Then, because of political changes, the French-speaking ruling class shifted to English.

The words warden and guardian are good examples of the linguistic mingling that went on between the two languages at that time.

Old English had the verb weardian “to keep guard,” and the noun weard “a guard, a watchman, a sentry,”

Old French had the verb guarder, “to guard.”

Speakers of Norman French were people who had been Vikings a hundred years before William of Normandy invaded England in 1066. They brought their own distinctive pronunciations to French. One peculiarity was that Normans tended to pronounce the letter combination gu– as w-.

For example, Old French guarder, “to guard,” became warder in Norman French. However, Parisian French kept the gu– spelling and pronunciation. As a result, English ended up with words derived from both forms

The OED gives numerous meanings for the word warden, including one that is identical to one of its definitions for guardian. In general usage, however, a guardian is a “protector,” while a “warden” is a “keeper.”

A similar pair of words is warranty and guarantee. Both words have the sense of an assurance that a certain standard of quality or integrity will be upheld.

As a legal term, warranty means

n. a written statement of good quality of merchandise, clear title to real estate or that a fact stated in a contract is true. An “express warranty” is a definite written statement and “implied warranty” is based on the circumstances surrounding the sale or the creation of the contract. –Law.com

A new car comes with a warranty. If anything goes wrong with the car during a specified period, the warranty is a document that entitles the owner to have the problem corrected without charge.

The word guarantee is often used as a synonym for warranty. However, a guarantee can be something more concrete.

Warring sides might exchange hostages as a guarantee that neither will fight during an agreed period of truce. A parent might confiscate a child’s cell phone as a guarantee that he won’t be texting instead of doing homework.

Etymology nerds can have fun looking for modern French words beginning with gu– that correspond to English words beginning with w-. For example:

war/guerre: Old English wyrre; Norman French werre; Modern French guerre.

And of course there’s William the Conqueror whom the French refer to as Guillaume le Conquérant.

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3 thoughts on “Wardens and Guardians”

  1. What a pretty exciting article! I’ve confused the word warranty and gurantee. With the explanation of historical backgrounds, I got to be more interested in English language. Thanks…

  2. Actually warden is a norman nominalization of the old english verb to weard (now to ward), which is not a loanword in English as is inherited directly from the proto-germanic *wardojan-.

    Guard however is a loan from french, which in turn loaned the word from High German, which had inherited it from proto-germanic *wardojan-

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