Susie Dent: How the power of mothers runs through our language
It’s taken me a while to get used to talking about the King. We forget how much we give a nod to our monarch in the language we use. No more “Queen and country”, or “the Queen’s English”. No “QCs” in court, only “KCs”. And no sending “her victorious” in our national anthem.
It seemed strange even hearing about “the King’s Speech” at Christmas, given it didn’t involve Colin Firth. Plus, we have a newly resurrected adjective with which to refer to our times, for we have now entered the Carolean age, the reign of King Charles III.
As the coronation beckons, I’ve found myself pondering the language of royalty. This includes, of course, the English spoken by the royals themselves, because however steeped in tradition it might be, even this has shifted with the times. The language that King Charles now represents sounds significantly different to the one his mother spoke on her own coronation day, 70 years ago.
A few years ago, researchers made a detailed acoustic analysis of royal Christmas broadcasts, charting changes in vocabulary and accent. The results suggest the Queen’s way of speaking changed very noticeably in the intervening years. Above all, it became less distinctively upper class. If in 1953 the royal complaint was: “I’ve lorst thet bleck het,” by the end of her reign, the Queen’s “o’s” and “a’s” were more rounded. In the same way, “orf” was left behind and “off” ushered in, “veddy” became “very”, and a “y” sound no longer followed the “s” in such words as “super”. This was the Queen’s English that even the Queen no longer spoke. English always has been a democracy, even for the monarch.
It seemed strange even hearing about “The King’s Speech” at Christmas, given it didn’t involve Colin Firth
But however it’s delivered, the English the new King will preside over will be as gloriously rich as it has always been. The regalia of the coronation has a lexicon dating back to ancient times, from the golden orb (from the Latin orbis, meaning ring), to the throne (from the Greek for an “elevated seat”).
And for all their history, even these words have moved with the times. While the word coronation itself began with the Latin corona or “crown”, for the ancient Romans and Greeks this was something rather different. For them, instead of the embellished, bejewelled crown that King Charles will wear, this was a garland or wreath of flowers, draped around the head of a victor or official. Corona is from a Greek word meaning “something bent”.
Royal “accolades” were far from formal, too. This word for a ceremonial honour is a relative of “collar”, because it was once all about necks. Nothing to do with beheading, everything to do with a royal hug, given to those receiving a knighthood. Far more cuddly than a tap on the shoulder with a blade.
Even “kings” occupied a far less lofty position than they do today. In fact, they were once our “kin” – the heads of small family tribes among the Angles and the Saxons, who went on to establish their own small states. There’s something levelling about learning that “king” and “kindred” are brothers in arms.
There’s something levelling about learning that “king” and “kindred” are brothers in arms.
Charles III will be fully enrobed for his investiture. That word “investiture”, and indeed “invest” itself, has always made me smile, for it once meant “putting on a vest” (albeit the official kind). In fact, clothing is a useful metaphor for the language we use. We each have a unique wordrobe that includes fashions from years ago, as well as others that are far more on trend.
This Coronation is equally designed to include both tradition and innovation, and its language will reflect both. The King’s English, like that of his mother before him, will belong to all of us. And, excitingly, we will be witnesses to its changes.