Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Magazine article The Spectator

Mind Your Language

Article excerpt

I WAS trying to explain to my husband how the regular interlocking border, which I had always known as the Greek key-pattern, is sometimes arranged to form swastikas.

`But the Greeks didn't call 'em swastikas. What's the English for them?' he asked in Gotcha! voice.

He was right to ask. The Greeks called a cross with hooked ends a gammadion, after the letter gamma. In heraldry they call it a cross cramponnee, from the French for 'hooked'. But, before swastika was adopted from the Sanskrit in the 19th century by the anthropologists, what did the English call it?

People used to think that in the Middle Ages they ordinarily used the word fylfot. But it seems that this was hardly a word at all and, if it was, it meant something else. The sole source for fylfot is a manuscript dating from about the year 1500 which gives a man's instructions for making a stained-glass window. (It is Lansdowne MS 874.)

`Let me stand in the medyll pane,' it says, `the fylfot in the nedermast pane under there I knele.' With the words is a sketch, which shows a pattern of broad fillets, with tricking apparently intended to signify the heraldic fur ermine. …

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