15 English Words that First Appear in the Fourteenth Century Poem Piers Plowman


illiam Shakespeare reputedly invented over 1,500 new words and phrases (or at least his are the earliest record), while the King James Bible has given us many memorable expressions such as ‘filthy lucre’ and ‘the powers that be’. At over 7,000 lines, the fourteenth century alliterative poem Piers Plowman by William Langland is not to be outdone (and, anyway, predates the other two by 200 years). I don’t know if anyone has yet tracked down every one of Langland’s coinages – that would be a task indeed – but here are 15 of my favourite words and phrases first recorded in Piers Plowman. [Fellow Langland-nerds, these are taken from the C-text, ed. Pearsall, unless otherwise stated.]

1. As dead as a doornail

Towards the beginning of the poem, the dreamer, Will, is instructed by the dazzling Holy Church that ‘fayth withouten feet [deeds] is feblore then nautht / And as ded as a dore-nayl but yf the deeds folowe’. The Christian imperative to do good deeds is one of Langland’s central concerns in Piers Plowman.

2. Woe betide me

In Passus III of Piers Plowman, Conscience is asked whether he will marry Lady Meed (a character who represents ‘money’ whose wedding to False has just been interrupted). Conscience declines, saying, ‘Ar Y wedde suche a wyf, wo me bytyde! / For she is frele of here fayth and fikel of here speche / And maketh men mysdo manye score tymes.’

3. Bad penny

Deep in the theological labyrinthine of Passus XVII, Langland compares false clerics to ‘a badde peny with a gode printe: / Of moche mone the metal is nauhte’. The language of money is everywhere in Piers Plowman, reflecting perhaps the anxieties of an age of economic flux, in which a market economy was emerging from the collapse of the feudal system.

4. Middle age

In Passus XII of the B-text (the second of the three versions of Piers Plowman Langland wrote), a character called Imaginative appears to warn the dreamer that he must amend his ways. He has been following Will, he says, for forty-five years. After the ‘wilde wantownesse’ of his youth, he must now behave better ‘in thi myddel age, lest myght the faille / In thyn olde elde’. This passage gives us a tempting hint of the poet’s age at the writing of the B-text.

5. Mum’s the word

Technically we’re just looking at ‘mum’ here (we get the whole phrase from Shakespeare). It comes from one of my very favourite lines of Piers Plowman. In the Prologue, the dreamer witnesses the entrance of Conscience and the king into court, along with his lawyers – ‘Seriantz it semede that serveth at the barre’. This is what Langland has to say about lawyers.

Thow myghtest betre meten myst on Malverne hulles
Than gete a mum of here mouth ar moneye were hem shewed.

[You might better measure the mist on the Malvern Hills
Than get a ‘mum’ from their mouth before money has been shown.]

‘Mum’ here is probably onomatopoeic, representing the ‘murmuring’ sound made when you try to speak without opening your lips, and could be related to Mummers’ plays – performances in which the actors said few, or no, words.

6. Robin Hood

Yes, the very first mention of Robin Hood is in Piers Plowman. In the fantastic – and often very bawdy – episode concerning the Confession of the Seven Sins, Sloth admits that he does not know his Our Father as well as the priest, but he does know ‘rymes of Robyn Hode and of Randolf erle of Chestre’.

7. Ragamuffin

Towards the end of Piers Plowman, we descend into the underworld and witness Piers-the-Plowman-as-Christ perform the Harrowing of Hell. Pitched against Piers is Satan and his demonic army. With Piers threatening the high walls of Hell, Satan orders: ‘Ac arise up, Ragamoffyn, and areche me all the barres / … / And Y shal lette this loerd and his liht stoppe.’

8. Waifs and strays

One of the frequent targets of Langland’s satire are clerics (whether priests, bishops or monks) who abuse their power. In the Prologue to Piers Plowman, he attacks clerics who abandon their parishes and instead take up positions at court in London, collecting the king’s debts. Amongst these debts are ‘wayves and strayves‘ – respectively, unclaimed property and stray animals found on land owned by the king. Nowadays, the expression is synonymous with lost children.

9. Curlew

The curlew, with its long, curved beak and familiar call, was first mentioned by Patience in Passus XIV of Piers Plowman [B-text]:

First the wilde worme under weet erthe,
Fissh to lyve in the flood, and in the fir the criket,
The corlew by kynde of the eyr, moost clennest flessh of briddes,
And bestes by gras and by greyn and by grene rootes…

10. Cockney

The origins of Cockney are much contested. Originally a disparaging term to describe Londoners, it has since been reclaimed as a badge of pride (though arguments rage about who can claim to be a ‘real’ Cockney – one line goes that you have to have been born within the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside. (That would have made Langland, who was born in Herefordshire but lived in Cornhill, an honorary Cockney!)

In Piers Plowman, we find the word with one of its possible original meanings – a small or yolk-less egg. (It was once believed this kind of egg was lain by a cockerel, hence the name and the associations of deformity.)

‘Y have no salt bacoun,’ says Piers the Plowman in Passus VIII, ‘ Ne no cockeney, be Crist, colloppes to make.’

11. Grammar

That’s right, the word ‘grammar’ is first recorded in Piers Plowman. Not much, it seems, has changed in 600+ years.  In Passus XVII, Langland bemoans the teaching of English, complaining that children don’t understand grammar because the ‘new clerkes’ can’t versify, write formal letters or interpret poetry.

Gramer, the grounde of al, bigileth nouthe [now] childrene,
For is noon of thise newe clerkes, ho-so nymeth hede,
That can versifye vayre or formallych endite
Ne construe kyndelyche that poetes made.

Plus ça change.

12. Beetle-browed

Another trip to the Seven Sins. This time to Langland’s description of Covetise. ‘He was bitelbrowed,’ he writes, ‘and baburlippid, with two blered eyes’.

13. Cobbler

The old word for shoe-repairer is another Langland first and it appears at the high-point of the Confession of the Seven Sins, when Will is taken on a medieval pub crawl with Gluttony. Among the ne’er-do-wells drinking in Betty’s ale-house is a certain Clement the Cobbler, who ends up having a rather unfortunate role at the end of the night.

[Gluttony] thromblede at the thresfold and threw to the erthe,
And Clement the coblere cauhte hym by the myddel
For to lyfte hym aloft and leyde hym on his knees.
Ac Gloton was a greet cherl and greved in the luftynge
And cowed up a caudel in Clementis lappe:
Ys none so hungry hound in Hertfordshyre
Durste lape of that lyvynge, so unlovely hit smauhte.

[Gluttony stumbled at the threshold and fell to the ground,
And Clement the cobbler caught him by the waist
So as to keep him upright and lead him on his knees.
But Gluttony was a big man and caused trouble in the lifting
And spewed up a curdle in Clement’s lap:
There is no hound in Hertfordshire so hungry
That would dare lap up that leaving, so unlovely it smelt.]

14. Experiment

This rather Latinate word appears in Passus X of the B-text of Piers Plowman as ‘Experiments of Alkenamye’ (alchemy – the Islamic-derived scientific and pseudoscientific study of transforming base metals into precious substances).

15. Farewell

An appropriate final item to end our list of words that first appeared in Langland’s hallucinatory masterpiece. In Passus XI, Fauntelete (childishness) and Elde (maturity) vie for superiority, with Fauntelete dismissing Elde with the line, ‘Ye, farewel, Fyppe! [sparrow]’