Should we be using the word Welsh to describe ourselves?
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
The origin of the word Welsh is not pretty.
Because of that there are those who don’t believe that the Welsh should refer to each other as, erm, well, Welsh.
They believe that everyone should use the word Cymry, which of course is the Welsh language word for the Welsh people. I bring this up because I was once accosted for using the term Welsh to describe my fellow countrymen and women.
The argument goes like this.
The etymology of the word Welsh is rooted in less than flattering connotations. It is derived from the old Germanic word walha. It is a variation on a common word used hundreds of years ago by Saxons to mean foreigners or outsiders. Germanic tribes invaded England in the fifth century, and this is how they referred to the native Celtic population, whom they displaced, murdered or enslaved.
It takes quite the brass neck to rock up to someone else’s land and then call them the foreigners. That combination of chutzpah and a lack of self-awareness can be seen to this day with ‘expats’ who move to the Costa del Sol, refuse to learn Spanish, and then complain about immigrants moving to the UK.
They used the word Wēalas to describe their lands; lands they went on to nick of course. That is where the word Wales comes from.
I cannot imagine that the Saxons who first called us walha or Welsh used the word in anything other than a pejorative manner.
Variations of the word can be found in other countries, such as Walloon part of Belgium.
The contrast with the far more benign etymology of the word Cymry is rather stark.
It is derived from the Old Welsh word combrogi, meaning fellow-countrymen or compatriot. Cymru is the land of the compatriots. I rather like the sound of that.
When the etymology of the two words are compared side by side it is clear that Cymry is preferable to Welsh.
It is certainly true that the historical roots of the word Welsh are ugly. But out of ugliness, beauty can sometimes emerge.
The meaning of the word Welsh has changed over the years. It no longer means what it did. It no longer means foreigner. I very much doubt that most Welsh people would even know the original meaning of the word – or care all that much even if they did.
I certainly do not regard myself as a foreigner in my own land.
People now call themselves Welsh with pride. That is because the word has been subsumed by a new paradigm. It is the paradigm of the Cymry; the paradigm of the compatriot. This is how it should be understood.
I still prefer the word Cymry, truth be told, and I delight in its etymology. But as a first language Welsh speaker that shouldn’t be a huge surprise. That however does not mean I believe we should be held captive by old meaning when it comes to the word Welsh. It is a perfectly good word and I will continue to use it.
The word has transcended its original meaning. Its meaning is now governed under our aegis.
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