What’s the origin of the word ‘belfry’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: belfry….

Of course, I know that a belfry is the part of a bell tower or steeple in which bells are housed. But when I encountered the term in the very fine novel A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, I started to wonder about the origins of the word.

Here is how Towles used it:

The ill-lit ascent turned a sharp corner every five steps in the manner of a belfry.

You’d have thought that the origin of the word would related to “bell,” which comes from the Old English belle, which is also associated with the Middle Dutch belle. But, in fact, the word — which dates back to 1400 — comes from the Old North French berfroi (Modern French beffroi), meaning “movable siege tower.”

The origin of this word, in turn, comes frm Middle High German bercfrit meaning “protecting shelter,” from Proto-Germanic compound berg-frithu, which literally means “high place of security,” or that which watches over peace.”

Over many years, the etymological meaning was forgotten, which led to folk-etymologies and a diversity of spellings. By the mid-15th century, it came to be used for bell towers. And the spelling of the first syllable was altered by the word’s association with a bell.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Sept. 26/18.

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