Word Stories - September 6, 2021 - 2 min

Ping-Pong Words

In researching the etymological evolution of words, it’s taken for granted that we’ll see them passed down from one language to the next. Today’s Word Stories instalment is a little different. Every once in a while, a word that has been passed from one language to another can find itself passed right back, like a serve returned in a game of ping-pong. The etymological notes below shine a spotlight on this curious phenomenon, by showing how the game can be played out between English and French.


The roots of the English word bargain stretch back to Old French, and its fruits include developments in modern French. The Old French verb bargaignier/barguigner meant “to do business,” probably thanks to the same Germanic root that gave English the word borrow: burgōjanan (“to borrow”). The derivative French noun bargaing (“price offered” or “agreement”) disappeared in Middle French, but not before English had borrowed both bargaignier and bargaing in the 14th century, as the verb to bargain and the noun bargain.

This story of borrowing words related to borrow doesn’t end there, though. The loan-words bargain and to bargain were borrowed back by Québécois and Acadian French, after the English conquest of Canada, complete with English-inflected pronunciations.


In modern English, the word jeans denotes denim pants, but when English speakers first began using the word in the 16th century, it referred to denim itself. Because the heavy fabric (technically called a fustian) was imported from the Italian city of Genoa, denim was commonly referred to as Gene fustian, Jene fustyan, Geanes fustion, etc. Shortened forms like gene and jenes can be found in print as early as 1577, though, and by the 17th century the longer forms had died out.

In theory, almost anything imported from Genoa might be called a Geane or a Jeen well into the 17th century, but denim cloth was a very hot commodity at the time, so when people referred to jean or jeans, they most often meant denim. As it happens, the word denim is also derived from a place name. A serge is, like a fustian, a heavy fabric, and at the turn of the 17th century, the French town of Nîmes was famous for producing serge de Nim. Because the fabric in question was most often used by that point for making pants, the shortened form denim was used to describe pants made from the fabric and by the 19th century any pants made from comparable fabrics. In any case, the soaring popularity of denim pants in the 19th and 20th centuries forever connected the word jeans with denim pants in particular. The popularity of the product has since carried its French-derived nomenclature back into French. In modern French, denim is known as denim, and a pair of denim pants is un jean.


The word hockey was used in Europe to refer to a variety of stick-and-ball games, long before the invention of ice hockey. Our oldest clue is a lone reference in a sixteenth-century Irish text, describing a game played with hockie sticks. The name hockey itself appears later in a variety of British sources from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, always in connection with an organized game involving such sticks. While it is still not perfectly clear where the term hockey originally came from, etymologists often point to the Middle French hoquet (“shepherd’s stick”), which the oldest hockey sticks seem to have resembled. As the nineteenth and twentieth centuries unfolded, the word hockey spread to North America and the rest of Europe, and also found its way back into French as the name for the modern game that looks a bit like lacrosse played on ice.


The English word budget is derived from the French bougette (“little bag”), a diminutive of bouge. Bouge comes from Late Latin bulga, a borrowing from Gaulish bulga, both meaning “bag.” Bougette came into English in variants like boget (Lord Berners, Arthur of Brytayn, 1533), carrying the same meaning. Over time, though, the concrete image of the budget (in the sense of a wallet or a purse) gave rise to the abstract meaning of “an amount of money available” (Budget Opened, 1733). This new sense quickly become dominant, and in fact the word budget was soon borrowed back by French with its new financial connotation. Every modern French parliament therefore needs to weigh its decisions with one eye on le budget.

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