Friday, December 30, 2011

Word of the Week: Gun

Big Bertha.
In the interest of sending 2011 out with a bang, the word of the week is gun, a weapon that fires projectiles at high velocity with a relatively flat trajectory. The modern word derives from the Middle English gonne or gunne, first used in the fourteenth century. The Middle English word is possibly a shortened form of the feminine name Gunilda. Middle English sources use gonnilde to reference cannon and a Latin document from 1330, giving an inventory of Windsor Castle munitions, references a specific gun as "...una magna balista de cornu quae Domina Gunilda ...". Gunilda derives from the Old Norse feminine name Gunnhildr, which is a combination of gunnr and hildr, meaning battle-maid. Both parts of the name mean battle or fight. The name was often shortened to Gunna. A couple well-known Gunhilds from tenth-century Viking history include Gunnhild--the wife of Eric Bloodaxe, King of Norway from 930-34--and Gunhild of Wenden--a Slavic princess who married Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark from 986-1014. Both women appear in Icelandic and Norse sagas. Gunhild of Wenden was the mother of Cnut the Great, who ruled England from 1016-1035.

It's not known why a woman's name would be associated with a weapon, but the practice is not uncommon. Big Bertha refers to a super-heavy howitzer used by the Germans during World War I. Mons Meg is a medieval bombard which fired twenty inch caliber cannon balls.

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