Sheep and the dimensions of the iPad

The Church of the Holy Trinity in Long Melford, Suffolk, is one of the most celebrated ecclesiastical buildings in the country, dominating its host village and its 3,675 residents. It is a perfect example of the gothic perpendicular style and, in proportions, would be better suited to a cathedral or minster. Its establishment, size and splendour is a surviving testament to a single product – wool.

For centuries, wool was England’s most valuable export and vast wealth was built from the back of the simple sheep. Holy Trinity Church is just one example of a ‘wool church’, grand and ornate manifestations of local prosperity and pride that can be found across England. Money from the medieval wool trade was concentrated on two areas, the Cotswolds and East Anglia and in each towns and villages are studded with monumental churches, trade halls and market places.

It didn’t take long for sheep and wool to take a central place in the English language, and a surprising range of words and phrases have ovine origins. To this date, the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords sits on the woolsack, a wool-stuffed large cushion that for centuries was occupied by the Lord Chancellor. Today, the woolsack is stuffed with wool from each of the constituent countries of the UK and from across the Commonwealth.

But the real etymological importance of wool was revealed when reading Mark Forsyth’s excellent Etymologicon. Just start with the text of this article – text derives from a nice metaphor used by a Roman orator named Quintilian in the Institutio Oratorico. He wrote about the importance of choosing words, weaving them into a fabric and refining them until you have a delicate texture.

This mental picture soon shifted from the abstract to the literal, as text came to describe the wording of anything written or printed. And so we have a direct link between a first century Roman and the message you tap into your twenty-first century mobile.

Two other fascinating sheep-related gifts to English are recounted by Mr Forsyth:

1)     Heckling – heckling was originally the process of removing knots from wool by combing the raw fleeces. Dundee was a centre for textile processing in the nineteenth century, and its workers were renowned for their radical and combative trade unionism. Thus, the process by which they ‘teased’ and ‘combed’ political speeches by shouting out objection and observations became known as heckling.

2)     Book sizes – if you are reading this on an ipad or e-reader, the size of the screen is linked to the dimensions of a sheep. Or, more correctly, the dimensions of a killed, skinned and stretched sheep. Sheepskin was commonly used to make books (vellum, from the skin of calfs, was premium stuff reserved for the classiest of publications). Take one sheepskin, trim it down to the size of a rectangle and fold it in half three times and you get the rough size of a modern hardback book. Or ipad.

And, just for completeness, the word ‘sheep’ is one of the oldest words in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the Vespasian Psalter (825 CE) as the first written source when the old English variation ‘scepa’ was used.

The word itself is of Germanic origin (sheep is ‘schaf’ in German and ‘schapen’ in Dutch) and has clearly identifiable antecedents in Old English (‘scǽp’), West Saxon, Old Frisian, Middle German and Middle Dutch. Etymologists have not been able to trace back a pre-Germanic origin for the word.

Like several other words for livestock in English, the word for the animal is Germanic (sheep) and the word for the meat is derived from Norman French (mutton).