“He took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.”

I’m a nerd.

Today, I watched the season one finale of GleeAs you probably all know, Glee is a musical comedy television show about a fictional high school glee club in small-town Ohio. I’ll admit it — I’m a fan. It’s kitschy and the music is almost always top notch — especially when Mercedes is belting it out. Anyway, during the season finale, the glee club ended up choosing a medley of Journey songs for their number at the Midwest regional competition. Here’s how they opened their performance:

Not bad, huh?

They closed with “Don’t Stop Believin'” — of course. It was their anthem, after all. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good YouTube clip of that part of the performance.) Anyway …”What,” I’m sure you’re wondering, “besides being such a Glee fan that I’m paying homage to it on my blog, makes me such a nerd?”  Well, as soon as I saw Will Schuester write the word “JOURNEY” on his big flipchart in the rehearsal room at the beginning of that episode, two things immediately came to mind:

Will Schuester is such a great glee club advisor! © FOX

“Journey! Cool. Awesome music.”

“Journey! Cool. Awesome French-English word for my next blogpost.”

<shrug> What can I say?

So, yes, three days before my departure for a two-week vacation in South Carolina, I’m going to give you an etymology lesson on how the word “journey” came into the English language! We know what “journey” means in English, of course: as a noun, it’s “the act of traveling from one place to another.” If you know a little French, though, you probably immediately recognize the similarity between this English word and the French word “journée,” which roughly means “the duration of the day between sunrise and sunset.” So, what’s that all about?

How many “journeys” did that trip to Canterbury end up taking?

As it turns out, the English word “journey” first entered Middle English around the year 1200 from the Old Frenchjournee,” which meant “a day’s work.” In those days, I suppose, that was how most people spent the time between getting up and going to bed. By 1300, “journey” was also being used as a verb to mean “to travel from one place to another,” but it maintained the sense of “one day’s time” : when one traveled, a “journey” was “the distance traveled in one day.” This was the primary meaning of the word even as late as 1755.

On a related note, even the word “travel” comes indirectly from the French “travailler,” which means “to work.” The Middle English “travailen” appeared around 1300 and meant “to toil or labor.” By 1400, “to travel” had taken on the same meaning as the verb “to journey,” and the Old English verb “faren” had disappeared. Etymologists have posited that this semantic development may have related to the difficulty — the really hard work — involved in taking a trip in those days.

So there you have it : how two French words meaning “work” ended up becoming two English words meaning “to take a trip.” Of course, the modern French words “journée” and “travailler” don’t have that connotation at all. In modern French, if you take a trip, “tu voyages” … but that’s another story for another post.

Now that I think of it, it seems completely appropriate to call my upcoming trip home a “journey.” After all, I’ll be leaving for the airport at 7 a.m. CEST, flying over 4,000 miles, driving an hour and a half to my folks’ place, and hitting the sack around 9 p.m. EDT (20 hours later). That’s work! And it’s going to take all day!

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

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