Thursday, September 24, 2009


Cute Angles

Anglo-saxon, in French (and its equivalents in other languages), is a vague sort of term, not usually clear as to who or what it is intended to include or exclude: at times it appears to be more or less synonymous with English-speaking but enough of the original sense lingers on to make it incongruous with a large subset of English-speakers (the likes of Groucho Marx or Billie Holiday for example).

But in Le Monde recently, I saw it used in a quite precise sense:
L'animal, long de 82 centimètres, a été découvert par une équipe de chercheurs anglo-saxons
With the next reference to these anglo-saxons (assuming nothing edited out) being this:
Durant les cinq semaines de leur expédition (financée côté britannique par l'université d'Oxford, le zoo de Londres et la BBC, côté américain par la Smithsonian Institution), les naturalistes ont recensé plus de quarante espèces.
So anglo-saxon is being used in the specific sense of Anglo-American i.e. joint British and American, a usage I had not previously observed.

But using anglo-saxon to mean Anglo-American seems to leave Saxon meaning... American?

Once upon a time, of course, it was the English who were the Saxons. The memory of that is preserved in the erstwhile vernaculars of their neighbours e.g. Sassenach in Scotland. So how did the change come about? Why are English-speakers Anglophones and not Saxophones?

In The Tribes of Britain, archeologist David Miles suggests it may be the result of a famous papal pun:

In spite of the impression given in many history books, Pope Gregory and Augustine, in AD 597, were not the first to bring Christianity to Britain. They just had the best story. Bede tells the tale – and it may be no more than a tale concocted in Whitby Abbey to appeal to an Anglo-Saxon audience – that Gregory saw some fair-haired boys for sale in the Roman slave market. He was told that they came from Britain, where people were still ignorant heathens: ‘They are called Angles.’ ‘That is appropriate,’ Gregory replied, ‘for they have angelic faces.’ And their province is Deira (Northumberland – Bede’s own). ‘Good,’ said Gregory. ‘They shall indeed be “de ira” [saved from wrath] and called to the meaning of Christ.’ This is a typical piece of Anglo-Saxon wordplay: to see messages in names. It may be partly because of the ‘Angels’ pun and his own origins that Bede entitles his nation ‘English’; to earlier commentators, the Germanic incomers were usually called ‘Saxons’.
Bede's account of an Anglo-Saxon invasion (and Gildas's of an ethnic cleansing of the native Britons) is not supported by the emerging genetic evidence which seems to show that as far as the great majority of the present-day population of England is concerned, it was as stone-age hunter-gatherers that their ancestors arrived (overland!) rather than on board the longships of Horsa and Hengist.

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