NEWSLETTER 505: SATURDAY 16 SEPTEMBER 2006
1. Feedback, notes and comments
My friend and pitcher Many helpful comments came in following my puzzled piece about the origin of this expression. Based on the stanza of the song that I quoted, many ingeniously suggested that the line “With my sweet girl, my friend and pitcher” didn’t consist of two phrases in apposition (with friend and pitcher referring to my sweet girl) but a serial list of three items. This would make it a close parallel to Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of a line in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread—and thou”, with pitcher standing in for jug. However, the complete lyric shows it’s directed solely at the singer’s one true love.
Another intriguing suggestion was that it might be linked with the expression to pitch woo, meaning to court, pay one’s addresses to, or utter affectionate pleasantries to, a member of the opposite sex. This was new to me and sounded possible, but fell foul of the evidence, since it only appeared in the 1930s—in the USA and Australia—about 150 years too late to have been an influence.
2. Weird Words: Gormagon
A mythical beast.
This monster is known to have been described in print just twice, in each case in an improper riddle. Its sole appearance in this spelling is in the 1785 first edition of Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: “A monster with six eyes, three mouths, four arms, eight legs, five on one side and three on the other, three arses, two tarses, and a *** upon its back”.
Tarse is worthy of attention in its own right, since it is an old Germanic term for the penis. You will not be surprised therefore to learn that the “***” should be expanded to cunt and that the monster is a distant cousin of the beast with two backs.
A sighting in North America twenty years earlier suggests the fame of the riddle and this beast in the oral tongue was both widespread and ancient. A notice in the New York Mercury of 16 February 1761 announced that an example had been caught in Canada and had been brought to James Elliot’s tavern at Corlear’s Hook, where “it will be exhibited at said House till the Curious are satisfied”:
This MONSTER is larger than an Elephant, of a very uncommon shape, having three Heads, eight Legs, three Fundaments, two Male Members, and one Female Pudendum on the Rump. It is of various Colours, very beautiful, and makes a Noise like the conjunction of two or three Voices. It is held unlawful to kill it, and is said to live to a great Age. The Canadians could not give it a Name, ‘till a very old Indian Sachem said, He remembered to have seen one when he was a boy, and his Father called it a GORMAGUNT.”
Captain Grose gave the game away in his entry by explaining that it was “a man on horseback, with a woman behind him.” (His “five legs on one side” description is easily explained—the woman was riding side-saddle.) Jonathon Green suggests in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang that, in the form gormagon, the word is a blend of gorgon and dragon.
In the interests of completeness, it should be noted that a word of the same spelling was applied to a member of a society imitating the Freemasons that had been founded in London in the eighteenth century. There is no suggestion that the two senses are linked. The Oxford English Dictionary proposes that in this sense gormagon is meaningless and probably pseudo-Chinese, since the first reference to it says “The Venerable Order of Gormogons” had been brought into England by a Mandarin.
3. Recently noted
M-ticket This has recently joined a small group of words beginning in m- (for mobile, as in mobile phone), including m-commerce, m-payment and m-voting. M-tickets, say to a pop concert or for a bus journey, are bought by mobile phone with the purchaser later identified either by a confirmation number or by a text message on his phone which he can show the checker. Since Americans generally call the devices cellphones, the term seems likely not to catch on in the USA.
4. Questions & Answers: Barbarian
[Q] From Jared Martin: “Could you investigate the origins of barbarian, please? I’ve been informed that the Greek bar-bar chestnut is a folk etymology and that the true lineage of the word goes back to a historical group of people. I was taken to task for repeating this bar-bar trivia by a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, who was in full battle armour at the time.”
[A] I can understand your not wanting to argue the point under these circumstances. However, unless your informant possesses a working time machine and is able to do some original research denied to the rest of us, he’s wrong. But I think it may be possible to work out where he got this idea. At least he didn’t produce the hoary old story that foreigners were called barbarians because they were forced to wear beards, having no barbers ...
It’s generally accepted that the original Greek bárbaros for a foreigner came from an earlier sense of the word that meant someone who stammered. That’s thought to be older than the Greek language, since Sanskrit has the root barbara-s that also means stammering; it was probably in the Proto-Indo-European language predating both. With the repeated bar-bar, it is probably imitative. The Greeks presumably thought that foreigners talked as though they were stammering.
The word was taken from Greek into Latin barbaria, a foreigner, and from there into English in the fourteenth century. Its first sense was also that of a foreigner, particularly someone who was neither Greek nor Roman nor a Christian. It was only a little later that the idea of an uncouth or uncivilised person came to the fore in English, though that derogatory sense had been present in both Latin and Greek. However, neither the Greeks nor the Romans seem to have used the word to mean savagely cruel or inhuman people.
The Barbary Coast, the old name for the countries of North Africa, comes from the same source, as does its close relative Berber for the native peoples of North Africa and their language. Both terms come immediately from the Arabic barbar, but that has been shown to derive from the Greek word. I suspect your informant knew about the link between barbarian and Berber but not the background.
5. My New Book
Words vanish from our language for many reasons, not least that the thing it describes has gone out of daily use. Would anybody today wear fustian or a crestinette, allow a dog-leach to treat their illness, eat bukkenade, drink Peter-see-me by the nipperkin, play barley break, or be entertained by an engastromyth? Gallimaufry: A Hodgepodge of our Vanishing Vocabulary, describes these and more than a thousand others. It will be published in the UK by OUP on 28 September and worldwide soon after. Full details here.
For advance orders via Amazon, follow these links:
6. Questions & Answers: Different to
[Q] From Allan Paris; similar questions came from Martin Murray and David L Smith: “In issue 501 of World Wide Words, you say ‘the Sun was very different to the others’. In the United States, different usually takes from, not to. Is there a difference in usage between the US and the UK? Would you please give me guidelines how to select the appropriate preposition after different?”
[A] Yes, the UK is often different to the USA in this respect. That is the quick answer, but a rather longer one is needed to cover the topic in anything like completeness.
An astonishing amount of print has been devoted to these forms in various style guides and grammars in the past three centuries, with much argument devoted to supporting the from form through logical parallels with other formations. Some writers have argued that as differ must be followed by from, so should different; others have held that as both words begin with the Latin prefix dis-, meaning apart, and apart requires from, “different” must have it too. Attitudes have softened in the past century; authorities now agree that to and even the maligned than have their place.
The problem for conservative arbiters is that all three forms have been used for hundreds of years. Shakespeare is the first writer known to have used different from—before his time unto and to were usual.
Considering how much it has been denigrated, the than form has also been surprisingly common: the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary more than a century ago gave a long list of good writers who have used it, including Addison, Steele, Richardson, Defoe, Fanny Burney, Coleridge, Southey, De Quincey, Goldsmith, Thackeray, and Carlyle. Eighteenth-century grammarians held that than was always a conjunction and so could not be used as a preposition in a similar way to from and to; that view prevailed, though the opposing opinion was argued forcefully even at the time and is now accepted by all grammarians. Than is still deprecated by many stylists; however, its use with different has long been common in the USA, though almost unknown in the UK. It can be the only good choice when different is followed by a clause (“She had one day hoped for a different lot than to be wedded to a little gentleman who rapped his teeth”—Thackeray, 1848).
The usual advice these days is that from is irreproachable. To is unobjectionable in British English but may need thought if it is to appear in the US. Than is colloquially acceptable—in the USA only—but can be used in more formal prose anywhere if a difficult paraphrase would otherwise result.
• The rather splendid word implacabliopope turned up in a column in the Observer on 3 September. I might have noted it as an invented term for an obdurate head of the Catholic Church, if it had not been amended to implacable in the online version of the article. How the one could have been turned into the other is still a puzzle.
• John Craggs found this note about the author O Henry in a current newsletter from ArcaMax publishing: “William Sydney Porter was born in North Carolina, and began a long series of different jobs late in his youth. Shortly after his wife died, he was found guilty of embarrassment and sent to prison in 1898”. John Craggs trusts that the person who wrote that will be suitably embezzled.
• Continuing the theme of incongruous word substitutions, Don Wilkes and Peter Weinrich both noted one in their local paper, The Saanich News, for 13 September 2006. It turned up in a piece about melting permafrost leaking methane: “It means that if the permafrost front continues to recede, the amount of greenhouse gas pumped into the atmosphere will be greatly exasperated.”
• Sometimes homonymic errors lead to incongruous images. Susan Klee found one in a letter to the Wall Street Journal of 8 September, concerning historical dust-ups at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire: “Once, rowdy students discharged the college canon into the walls of Dartmouth Hall.”
• A letter in this week’s New Scientist shows what can happen when an association of ideas bubbles on to the page from the unconscious mind. The writer says about the controlled use of drugs in sport, “It is naive to suppose that athletes will be content with a level playing field.”