Bag, a chameleon word

Words about words

bag

Photo: Jill Wellington / Pixabay
With the holiday season approaching, bags are abundant, as we begin our Christmas shopping. These days, they come in all sizes and colors, somehow fitting for a word that has acquired so many meanings over time. Explore the history of the word “bag” with M. Michael Brady.

M. MICHAEL BRADY
Asker, Norway

The word bag comes from the Old Norse baggi, meaning bag, bundle, or pack. In modern Norwegian, the word bag in bokmål and bagg in nynorsk share that heritage. Though the similarity of spellings suggests a direct connection, the linguistic journey of the word into the English and Norwegian of today is equivocal.

It’s not found elsewhere in the Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages. There may have been a French connection, via the Old French word bague, but there’s no verifiable connection via the Romance languages. Other derivations are equally unclear; the Gaelic word bag comes from English, as, apparently, do the modern Norwegian words bag and bagg.

In English, bag, then spelled bagge, first appeared in print in 1230, in Ancren Riwle, a Middle English prose treatise written for a community of three noblewomen and their servants at Tarrant Crawford, a small village at the end of the Tarrant River Valley in Dorset County, England. In that treatise and thereafter in medieval England, bag as a noun was the general term for a flexible container with an opening at its top, and as a verb describing the action of putting something in a bag. Other meanings followed, and the word became a versatile component of compound nouns and verbs.

By the early 18th century, the word had acquired transferred meanings. An English lawyer might use briefcases in two colors, a green one, called a green bag, to carry client papers, and a blue one, called a blue bag, to carry a wig and gown when appearing in court.

In 1857, a meaning of bag entered the mainstream lingo in a big way. The Spirit of the Times, a weekly newspaper published from 1837 to 1861 in New York City, reported in its Feb. 28 issue that in baseball, the “first, second, and third bases shall be canvas bags, painted white, and filled with sand or saw-dust.” That led to a base being called a bag, an essential term in the lingo of baseball, which, in turn, was designated the American National Game by The New Yorker on the cover of its June 10, 1933, issue.

 

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.

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