Idioticon Peter Judge reminds us that idiom is another word that traces its ancestry back to classical Greek idios for something private (its equivalent in French, idiotisme, shows the historical link with our idiot).
Homophones Following up my mention of these in the piece last week about punt, Gerry Foley pointed out that other languages have it worse: “The incidence of these words in English pales in comparison with Mandarin. I just looked up the word he which sounds like English her with a rising tone. There are at least 25 words with this sound, most represented by distinct ideograms, having meanings as diverse as: river, small box, Holland, what, lotus. There are many further meanings for the word he that carry one of the other three tones of the language. Many words in Mandarin carry similar numbers of homophones; yet, as with English speakers, this doesn’t lead to a lot of confusion. Interestingly, one of the arguments made against changing written Chinese to a phonetic system based on Roman letters is that the traditional ideograms (of which there are many thousands) help to distinguish all these homophones in writing.”
Most dictionaries mark this verb — to deny or contradict — as formal or literary; some go further and suggest it’s archaic; the Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry written over a century ago, stops partway, describing it as “slightly archaic” (is that like being a little bit pregnant?).
The number of times the verb turns up in books and the better sort of newspapers might make you doubt that verdict, but inspection shows that it’s formulaic and almost always used in the negative, in forms such as no one can gainsay or it is impossible to gainsay. Positive cases are rare and remarkable and do feel archaic:
One can gainsay de Gaulle’s conclusion, or at least his overall description of the profession of arms, without contradicting his general — and even obvious — point that history can be interpreted at one level as the history of ‘force’.
The Warrior Queens, by Antonia Fraser, 1988.
The word is a compound of the verb say with the most definitely archaic prefix gain-, against. This came from an Old English word that’s related, for example, to modern German gegen, against; it is a close relative of again, and turns up also in against itself. So gainsay literally means to speak against something.
The verb has largely lost its mental associations with say. Though its forms conform to those of the root in writing — gainsaying, gainsays, gainsaid — they don’t in speech, because they’re so rare that people say them as they’re spelled. Gainsays rhymes with days and gainsaid with shade (which is why it also appears as gainsayed).
Publicans and sinners A delightful collection of alcoholic epithets appears in Leslie Hotson’s 1949 work, Shakespeare’s Sonnets Dated: “London beer made of filthy Thames water was so celebrated and sought after that despite the diligent bezzling and beer-bathing of English tosspots, bench-whistlers, and lick-wimbles the hard-working brewers of England made enough not only to satisfy the home market, but to supply a large export trade as well.” A tosspot was a habitual drinker, one who tossed back the contents of his pot to make ready for the next. A bench-whistler in Shakespeare’s day was an idler who spent his days sitting on the alehouse bench, supping beer (and no doubt whistling between sips). I can find scant evidence for lick-wimble, though it turns up in a satirical print of about 1632 in the collection of the British Library as one member of a list of “downright drunkards”. A wimble was a gimlet or auger and a wimbler was a maker of holes of various sorts; by analogy with lickspittle, a toady or sycophant, we may guess that a lick-wimbler insinuated himself into convivial company to cadge drinks, though presumably not by boring them. bezzling was drunken revelry or dissipation, from Old French besiler, to plunder or ravage; a bezzler figuratively plundered an alehouse’s stock by consuming it on the spot. These are relatives of embezzle, whose first sense in English was to carry off anything that was owned by somebody else, but which later narrowed its focus to fraudulently appropriating money.
Q From Neill D Hicks: A newspaper account in 1877 of the murder of my great-great-grandfather (the first police officer to be killed in the line of duty in my Texas home town), contains an odd phrase that puzzles me and may be of interest to your detective work: “Perry Davis, the burden of his song, was indicted by the Grand Jury.” What can you tell me about the peculiar expression, burden of his song?
A The literal meaning of the burden of a song is its refrain or chorus. Its most famous appearance is probably this:
There was a jolly miller once
Liv’d on the river Dee;
He worked and sung from morn till night,
No lark more blithe than he;
And this the burden of his song
For ever us’d to be,
I care for nobody, not I,
If no one cares for me.
The Miller of the Dee, from Love in a Village, a comic opera by Isaac Bickerstaffe (1762), now a popular folk song in several extended versions. You might get extra points in a pub quiz for knowing that the character in the play who sang it was Master Hawthorn, a farmer.
Burden in this sense is first recorded in the seventeenth century. It’s the result of a mistake. The original is the French bourdon, among other things the drone of bagpipes and the bass string of a violin. In late medieval times it was brought into English for a singer’s bass accompaniment to a song. By Shakespeare’s day, it had become permanently confused with burden, perhaps because the bass part was figuratively thought to be “heavier” than the melody. As the bass often contributed to the refrain, the part that may be repeated many times and which often sums up the sense of the piece, the idea grew up that the burden “carried” the meaning of the song.
Burden later extended to mean the chief theme or main idea of any written work or utterance. It forms part of several phrases — the most common is yours, but variants are known such as the burden of his confession and the burden of his story. (Burden of proof is unconnected, as burden here refers to an obligation, which is figuratively perceived as a heavy weight.)
The idiom burden of his song is now extremely rare but was better known a century or more ago, as these two examples show:
The meal was of the most substantial kind, and while both the showman and his wife did ample justice, they were unceasing in their attentions to me, the burden of their song being, “Make yourself at home, sir,” an entreaty with which their evident sincerity made it easy to comply.
The Great Army of London Poor, by Thomas Wright, 1882.
“ ‘Was ever a woman so pampered? And that young man — he might have been my own son. He had the run of my house. And yet see how they have treated me! Oh, Dr. Watson, it is a dreadful, dreadful world!’ That was the burden of his song for an hour or more.”
The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1926.
In the newspaper item that you quote the phrase is used intriguingly differently. You supplied a number of verbatim extracts from the Waco Daily Examiner, which make clear that Perry Davis murdered your great-great-grandfather. The sentence you quote, “Perry Davis, the burden of his song ...” is the beginning of a news report on 28 August 1877; his here can only be Perry Davis himself. I read this to mean that Davis was the author of his own misfortunes, perhaps through a misunderstanding of burden by the writer.
It’s rare to find the expression referring to a person, rather than an idea, but it’s not utterly unknown. On rare occasions it was used for the focus of an individual’s attention or his primary concern, as here:
He seemed to have intense affection for that boy: for him Danny was the burden of his song; he was very affectionate towards his children, but particularly towards Danny.
The New York Herald, 13 Apr. 1870.
• Department of double time. Karen Courtenay found this in the Boston Globe of 8 October: “Jeff Lane, an environmental specialist for Boston public schools, [added] that the state now requires annual tests twice a year.”
• Liz Broomfield initially misread a report on the BBC’s website on 8 October: “David Cameron wants initial findings of a Ministry of Defence inquiry into Defence Secretary Liam Fox’s work relationship with a friend on his desk on Monday.” It was later reworded.
• “We were in Maine recently,” wrote Larry Nordell, “and found a neatly printed but disconcerting sign in a motel bathroom that said ‘Please put only toilet paper in the toilet. All other wastes go in the waste basket.’”