Finding “freckles”

Words about words

freckle

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If you’ve got freckles, you’ve got one of the oldest English words right on your skin.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The word freckle is a descriptive term for a small, brownish spot on the skin caused by a deposition of pigment. It’s among the oldest recorded words in English, apparently because it applies to people. The first recorded mention of the word was in 1386 in “The Knight’s Tale,” one of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffry Chaucer (1343-1400): “A fewe freknes in his face y-spreynd.”

The first medical mention of the word was in 1621 in the first edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy by Oxford University scholar Robert Burton (1577-1640): “Redde streeks, frechons, hairs, warts.”

The languages that originated around the North Sea reflect the shared history of the modern words fregne in Danish and Norwegian, and fräkne in Swedish, as well as freckle in English via frekne in Middle English, all of which are descendants of the Old Norse freknóttr, meaning “speckled.”

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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