Ye Olde Blogge PosttePrint
An ironic phrase with an ironic past
By Jessica Love
February 14, 2013
Consider the phrase ye olde. (And yes, it is most definitely a phrase. One does not encounter ye perpetual or ye longstanding; always ye sticks to olde like a barnacle to a whale.)
In conversation, ye olde is nearly always used facetiously, to hyperbolize (“Why don’t you just pick up ye olde musket?”) or to gently mock (“The whole family’s coming over for ye olde Christmas this year”). But the phrase also holds appeal for business owners. There are apparently few limits to the sorts of goods and services that can be modified with ye olde.
On one end of the spectrum fall stores like Ye Olde Computer Shoppe and Ye Olde UFO Shoppe, which achieve a degree of irony to which only Alanis Morissette could aspire.
Then come the likes of Ye Olde Tavern, Ye Olde Ice Cream Shoppe, Ye Ole Clean’ry, and Ye Olde Candle Cubbard, where the wares have little to do with antiquity, but ye olde functions as a theme, conjuring up the aesthetic of, say, the English pub of our imagination. (Period props included.)
Then there are the lovers of puns, the businesses plying in old-fashioned products, styles, or ideas. Searching desperately for a name catchier than Antiques Store or Place to Go for Family Portraits If You Want Them to Look Older Than They Are, these establishments turn to ye olde with gratitude.
Finally come the Ye Olde Mills and Farms and Manor Houses of the world, the places that actually do have claims to historical significance. Here ye olde seems devoid of irony; indeed, such institutions would probably not mind if the public believed their ye olde designation had come about organically, seven centuries ago, over a cauldron of pottage. (Note that not all businesses fit neatly along this spectrum. I am still flummoxed by what to make of Ye Olde Records.)
Alas, what makes this all so interesting is that ye olde could never have come about organically. Oh, the silent e in olde is authentic enough—pre-dictionary times were rife with idiosyncratic spellings. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), ald, alde, auld, eald, eld, oold, oolde, and yold would also have been reasonable contenders. And I suppose we could come up with a plausible reason why medieval shopkeepers would have wanted to advertise the advanced ages of their wares.
But ye is where it all falls apart. I’d always assumed ye to be the now-defunct second-person pronoun. Ye Olde shops, then, were charming throwbacks to small village life, where a smithy or cobbler could confidently say that his shop was your shop because it was the only shop in town. I’d thought wrong. (And as a pronoun scholar, I really ought to have known better: the pronoun ye had a nominative case, and as such wouldn’t denote possession as an adjective. In other words, ye may have shopped there, but it wasn’t ye shop.)
During Chaucerian times, the OED explains, there were two ways of representing the sounds we now write as th: th and þ. The latter—called “thorn”—was often restricted to pronouns, or to determiners like the. But over time, perhaps due in part to difficulty printing the form, it morphed into something approximating a y. It’s this ye—historically pronounced as and used interchangeably with the—whose vestiges still appear in ye olde.
Clearly, there’s a joke here, but what is it? Is it a joke on historic manors with ahistoric names? On ironic names, out-ironicized by a fallacy? On all of us who unknowingly mispronounce ye olde when knowingly poking fun? Or perhaps it’s the fact that the phrase, in all its faux-historic glory, actually has a century and a half of history itself. From an online comment thread in 2002: Franky, ye olde fogie, I guess it’s time to wheel you right into that retirement center. And from article published in 1852: We shall … show … the character of ‘the old fogy’, or ‘ye olde fogie’, as he at present exists.
Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.