Important discoveries at Stonehenge recently captured the attention of historians. Archaeologists announced that the structure was originally circular. As well, dozens of hitherto unknown shrines and chapels have been uncovered along with an unsuspected huge burial mound.
Stonehenge, an arrangement of massive stones on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, was built in three different stages from ca. 3000 BC to ca.1500 BC.
For many years it has been viewed as both a ritual and a scientific edifice. It has long been associated with Druids and their religious rites. But it was built to align with the midsummer solstice and may have been used to predict eclipses and other astronomical phenomena.
Although no date can be attached to the term, Stonehenge, a curious word, was in use before the 12th century. The word’s origin is unclear. The OED says it arises from “stone” and “henge.” Stone entered Old English as stán. It is from the Old Teutonic, stainus (a piece of rock).
The OED suggests the Middle English heng (to hang from) may be the origin of henge. If so, the word arose in the Old Norse, hanga. The Encylopaedia Brittanica offers a further explanation. This source believes the word, Stonehenge, was originally stan-hengen (gallows), a Saxon term.
Henge, as used today, is the archaeological term for a monument consisting of a circular bank and ditch, often accompanied by a circle of standing stones.
Henge is a back-formation from Stonehenge. Back-formation is a grammatical term coined by James Murray (1837-1915), the editor of the first Oxford English Dictionary.
English has many such words. For example, laze comes from lazy, to baby-sit comes from baby-sitter, happy comes from unhappy, and televise is from television.
Although many, like the above examples, become real words, many other never catch on. Burgle (from burglar), coined by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, was first heard in The Pirates of Penzance. It’s well-used in British English, but Americans eschew it using “burglarize” instead. Probably most Canadians also say “burglarize.”
Orate comes from orator, peddle from peddler, and sculpt from sculptor. Peeve is from peeved and reminisce is lifted out of reminiscence.
A back-formation is sometimes coined because people believe such a word already exists. Examples are gruntled is from disgruntled, couth is from uncouth, kempt is from unkempt, and sheveled is from disheveled.
Curiously, the original words, uncouth, etc., are all negatives. People assumed these negatives must have come from positives, that un and dis were simple prefixes. They were wrong. The negatives were the original words. No positives existed. In fact, it’s still unusual to hear couth, kempt, gruntled, or sheveled used. When one is used, it sounds discordant.
Back-formations often attract criticism when they first arise. This happened in the late 1980s when accreditate (from accreditation) was first used. Today, accreditate is considered acceptable English.
Some back-formations continue to offend careful speakers even though they have become acceptable. Liaise (liaison), first used in the 1920s, offends me. Intuit (intuition), originally used in the 1770s, is still looked on with suspicion and is seldom heard.
But henge is here to stay.