August 30, 2018

Vol. 3: Windows in English

Yasunari Ueda

Linguist Yasunari Ueda looks into the origins of words that mean “window” from around the world to explore the process through which the concepts of the word have expanded over the ages. In Volume 3, he examines the English word “window”, which has now become a familiar word even among native Japanese speakers.

1. Introduction

In this entry, I will consider the English word “window”. Its origins lie in the Old Norse word “vindauga”, and its original literal meaning is “wind eye”. Although it is a basic word of the modern English vocabulary, when considered within the context of the history of the English language, it offers a glimpse into the complex linguistic and global circumstances in which English has developed.

There was once a time when “fenestre”, which means “a hole in a house”, was used alongside “window” as an alternative word for describing windows. The French word, which itself originated from the Latin word “fenestra”, was used as a loanword from after the Norman Conquest of 1066 that resulted in a great influx of French words in the English linguistic area, and it remained in use until around 1600. To put this in terms of etymological classification (see Vol. 0 of this series), there was a period of time when two types of words for “window” with distinct origins coexisted simultaneously. The word “fenestre” vanished somewhere along the line, however, and only the word “window” remains in use today. In this piece, I will be examining the circumstances surrounding this occurrence from the perspective of linguistics.

2. The Word “Window” from the Perspective of Linguistics

I will begin by linguistically analyzing compound words, idiomatic expressions, and proverbs that contain the word “window”.

2.1. Compounds Containing the Word “Window”

There are “x window”-type compounds, in which the word “window” is preceded by another word, and “window y“-type compounds, in which the word “window” is followed by another word. The former type includes words that describe a kind of window, such as “car window” and “dormer window”; words that describe the configuration of a window, such as “bow window” and “double-hang window”; and words that describe the purpose of a window, such as “show window”. The latter type includes words such as “window shade”, where the second word is a verb (or derivative of a verb) that affects the window. In words such as “window garden”, “window box”, “window shopping”, and “window dresser”, the second word describes something that is installed to or conducted at a window.

The Oxford English Dictionary (Simpson 1989) lists 59 words as special compounds that are used metaphorically today. In other words, in these compounds, the word “window” no longer describes a component of a house, and it is instead used idiomatically in a way that emphasizes certain functions or aspects of windows. For instance, “window dressing” has the meaning “appearance put on for show”. A window, in its original sense of “a hole in a house”, provides views from the inside, but it also creates the possibility of being looked in on from the outside. This has led people to actively decorate their windows and to exhibit the interiors of their houses towards the outside. From this, the compound “window dressing” has come to describe the act of applying outward decoration to things not limited to houses.

2.2. Idiomatic Expressions and Proverbs Containing the Word “Window”

2.2.1. Idiomatic Expressions Containing the Word “Window”

Idiomatic expressions containing the word “window” include “come in by the window” (to sneak inside), “window on the world” (a means of learning about people of other nations), and “window of vulnerability” (a weakness). The expression “come in by the window” describes instances when one enters from a place that is not the proper entrance, so it directly brings to mind actual windows. However, the meanings of the expressions “window on the world” and “window of vulnerability” are based on the functions of windows. The former draws on the windowʼs function of providing views to the outside, and the latter suggests that a window, regardless of whether it is glazed or not, is basically a hole in a wall that presents a point of weakness from where an intruder can easily enter. While the word “window” is a type of word that originally meant “wind eye”, in these expressions it also incorporates the meanings of the other two types of words that originally meant “hole” and “eye”.

2.2.2. Proverbs Containing the Word “Window”

The following are proverbs listed in The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (Smith 1952): “A woman that loves to be at the window, is like a bunch of grapes on the highway”; “Love comes in at the windows and goes out at the door”; “To a fair day, open the window, but make you ready as to a foul”; “To throw (fling) the house out of the windows”; and “When the wares be gone, shut up the shop windows”.

The following are proverbs listed in A Dictionary of American Proverbs (Mieder 1992): “He whose windows are of glass should never throw stones”; “A home without books is like a house without windows”; and “When you are washing windows, do the corners first and the center will take care of itself”.

It is interesting how the British and American dictionaries list completely different proverbs. They no doubt reflect differences in their respective histories and cultures. In any case, one thing that can be said about all of the proverbs is that they impart life lessons and wisdom while making direct mention of actual architectural windows.

3. The History of the English Word “Window”

One indirect conclusion that can be drawn from looking at linguistic expressions containing the word “window”, particularly those used idiomatically, is that they show no trace of the ancient Germanic word “vindauga”, or “wind eye”, in their meanings. Instead, they can be tied to the word “fenestra”, or “hole”, and other types of words that pertain to the windowʼs function of admitting views. What could be the meaning behind this?

For several centuries after the Norman Conquest of England, French was the official language in England. French was spoken mainly by the gentry while commoners remained in the world of Old English, so there was a situation in which two languages were being used in a single society at the same time. After the Hundred Yearsʼ War, the French language lost status in English society, and English became the official language once again. This led to the disappearance of the foreign words, while Germanic words tied particularly to fundamental aspects of everyday life were maintained among the commoners who formed the bulk of society. However, the concept and usage of the word “fenestra” have survived to this day through being integrated into the linguistic form “window”.

English is, in the first place, a mixed language that has developed by incorporating many foreign linguistic elements. The circumstances behind the word “window” also speak about the history behind the English language. For instance, “windowed”, the past participle of “window” that means “has holes”, originated from “fenestra”. This stands as proof that the word “window” has been in use and evolving since the Germanic era.

4. Conclusion

Today, the English language is on its way to establishing itself as the universal language of the world. When we imagine the future based on this fact, it seems probable that the word “window” will eventually assimilate the various meanings and concepts of “window” that exist in the different languages. In other words, while the word “window” will retain its core meaning of “window” in the sense of a component of a house, the images and concepts attached to it will no doubt continue to be influenced by the mother tongue of each speaker. In this way, the word “window” allows us to see into the dynamic historical development of the English language.


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Yasunari Ueda 
Born 1948 on the island of Tokunoshima in the Oshima District of Kagoshima, Japan. Graduated from the Department of Philosophy in the Faculty of Letters of Kobe University and received a masterʼs degree from the Hiroshima University Graduate School of Letters. Taught as a teaching assistant and lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities of Chiba University, an assistant professor at the College of General Education of Kyushu University, and an assistant professor at the School of Letters of Hiroshima University before becoming a professor at the Graduate School of Letters of Hiroshima University in 2001 (retired in 2013). Doctor of Letters. Specialist of modern German studies. Known particularly for his research on Japanese and German idioms, the linguistic theories of Karl Bühler (1879–1963), German sociolinguistics, and applied linguistics (foreign language education). Currently working on making proposals for vocabulary learning based on the findings of his comparative research on Japanese and German idioms.