NEWSLETTER 588: SATURDAY 17 MAY 2008
1. Feedback, notes and comments
Break in publication An early warning: my wife and I are away at the end of May, drifting down the (hopefully) blue Danube, so the World Wide Words newsletter will not be published on Saturday 31 May. Normal service should be restored the following week, 7 June.
Struth! Roger Cooper pointed out that I’d missed an etymological trick in the piece about struthonian last week. As he noted, the word ostrich has the same source, since it derives from the low Latin avis struthio, in which the v was said as a vowel, and was further mangled in its passage through Old French (the same thing happened with French oiseau, bird, also from avis via the late Latin aucellus). The German word for ostrich, Strauß, is from the same Greek ancestor of all these words, strouthos, sparrow or other small bird.
Andrew Dostine tells me that the ancient Greeks may have been a bit shaky on their nature notes, but they weren’t stupid. “The first record of the ancient Greeks encountering ostriches may have been the one in Xenophon’s Anabasis, describing the Greek expedition to seize the Persian throne for the pretender Cyrus, written around 380BC. When they first saw an ostrich they referred to it as ‘ho megas strouthos’ — the great sparrow. Without a word to describe it they did the best with the words they had.”
Cock and bull story Many readers asked if the shift from coq-à-l’âne into Scots as cockalane might also have been responsible for “cockamamie”, for something ridiculous, incredible or implausible. It wasn’t — see my piece on the word. Others queried if there’s a connection with cockaigne, the land of great luxury and ease. That’s also from French, but there’s no other link — again see my piece on that word.
A lady's maid.
By 1771, when Tobias Smollett wrote in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker about “An antiquated Abigail, dressed in her lady’s cast clothes”, the term had been around for about a century.
It had been borrowed from a character in a play by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, The Scornful Lady, dated 1616. This had been first performed by the Children of the Queen’s Revels, a troupe of child actors, which was a theatrical convention popular at the time. The play was a comedy of fantastic love and high life in London that became a favourite of audiences in following decades, especially after the Restoration in 1660 Samuel Pepys recorded in his Diary that he saw it no less than five times between 1660 and 1668. In the entry for 27 December 1666 he noted, “By coach to the King’s playhouse, and there saw ‘The Scornfull Lady’ well acted; Doll Common doing Abigail most excellently, and Knipp the widow very well.”
In the play, Abigail was an alternative name of the maidservant, described as “a waiting gentlewoman” whose real name was Younglove. This implies that the word was even then a generic term applied to a maid. The suggestion is that it was a Biblical allusion, to the first book of Samuel, “And when Abigail saw David, she fell at his feet, and said ‘hear the words of thine handmaid’.” On the other hand, Biblical names were common at the time and it may just have been plucked out of the air.
The rather rare male equivalent was Andrew. In 1698, Congreve refers in his play The Way of the World to “Abigails and Andrews”, a collective term for servants. This mustn’t be confused with merry-andrew, slang for a clown or a mountebank’s assistant at a fair, which also comes from the male forename, though nobody quite knows why. The same name has also been applied to the Royal Navy, a nineteenth-century term that seems to be a shortened form of Andrew Millar, whoever he was.
3. Recently noted
Spelling reform Generations of experts have put forward ways to improve the notoriously chaotic and inconsistent spelling of English. This isn’t the place to rehash the arguments on both sides but to note that the Spelling Society — founded as the Simplified Spelling Society in 1908, the British sister society of a US organisation generously funded by Andrew Carnegie — is celebrating its centenary in June by hosting a conference at Coventry University called The Cost of English Spelling. A first-year student there has worked out that some £18m a year is wasted teaching traditional spelling; the Society’s secretary, John Gledhill, says that this is compounded by what he calls the “psychological pain” caused to poor spellers. The Society is not the force it once was, with membership having fallen from a high of 35,000 in the early days to 500 now, because the subject does not attract the interest it once did. The Society no longer advocates a specific system of respelling, though its members often use simplifications such as Cut Spelling, which removes redundant letters from words and makes other substitutions to improve correspondence with the spoken word, leading to forms like frend, alfabet and scool. The result is text like “Th perenial complaint of oldr jenrations that ther desendnts fal short of ther eldrs has ofn been aplyd to languaj, and, within languaj, to yung peples spelng in particulr.”
Titillation It feels as though almost every reader told me about a headline on the science and technology page of the BBC Web site on 8 May: “Great tits cope well with warming”. Settle down everyone, the great tit is a British song bird, a relative of the American chickadees or titmice, which the story explains is coping well with climate change. Tit here means small; it’s a Scandinavian word related to Icelandic titlingur, sparrow. That tit could once mean a girl is just an accidental association; in the sense you’re all thinking of it’s an unrelated recent creation from teat.
4. Questions & Answers: Acid test
[Q] From Will Thomas: “Where did the expression acid test come from? In the back of my mind — way back — it originally had something to do with testing diamonds to see if they were real. It’s an expression I don’t often hear anymore. Clearly it means the definitive test.”
[A] That’s right. As you may guess, the phrase started its life in science but was popularised. Chemists have been making acid tests for centuries and, in particular, the newspapers and books of the later nineteenth century are full of references, mainly in connection with tests to identify suspected adulteration of foods such as bread, butter or milk or to prove to customers that they are pure. One American advertiser around 1900 made great play of the acid tests that had supposedly been done on his woollen goods to prove that they didn’t contain any cotton or other inferior materials.
So far as I know, nobody tests diamonds with acid. The most famous acid test — and almost certainly the oldest — is the one for gold. This relies on the fact that gold is insoluble in virtually every acid (except the famous aqua regia) and that it takes only a moment to check a sample with a strong acid to learn if it’s genuine. As an example, The Merchants’ Magazine of New York commented in 1849 on items made from a new alloy resembling gold, “It would be difficult for the most practised eye to discover they were not gold, without having recourse to the acid test.”
The first recorded examples of the figurative expression come from the US in the middle of the nineteenth century, though it’s more than likely substantially older. The earliest I’ve found is in an advertisement supplement in the issue of the Columbia Reporter of Wisconsin for 18 November 1845: “Twenty-four years of service demonstrates his ability to stand the acid test, as Gibson’s Soap Polish has done for over thirty years.”
5. Reviews: An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology
The academic-sounding title of this work is a fair warning of its contents. If terms like Neogrammarian linguistics, phonosemantics, secondary ablaut or cognate cause you to blench, or if you’re unfamiliar with the fundamentals of etymology and the history of English and related European languages, you should give it a miss. Furthermore, it isn’t a full dictionary but a sampler of things to come.
Professor Anatoly Liberman has been working on his dictionary of etymology since 1988. A vast bibliography has been assembled from the literature of linguistics and each entry is the result of detailed analysis. He wrote a general introduction to the subject in 2005, Word Origins and How We Know Them. This volume is a showcase sample of fifty-five entries that will form part of the final work, to test his chosen approach and to get feedback.
The entries are all words that are found intractable by current dictionaries. These aren’t obscure or rare but among the most basic words in the language, including boy (and girl), bird, Cockney, dwarf, fiddle, ivy, kick, lad (and lass), man, rabbit, understand, witch and yet. Do not expect firm conclusions in every instance: these words are poorly understood for good reasons.
Many of his discussions here are extremely detailed. Take Cockney as an example, best known as the name of a Londoner traditionally born within the sound of Bow Bells. Where it comes from has long been disputed. Professor Liberman writes more than six pages on it, about 5000 words, detailing the evidence and the various theories that have been put forward (that’s far from the longest entry: the one on dwarf is more than 16 pages). Many dictionaries argue that it comes from the old expression cock’s egg, for a misshapen or small egg, and that this was later applied to an urban dweller. He concludes this is incorrect and that in Middle English there were two words spelled cokeney, one meaning a cock’s egg, the other a pet child, simpleton, later a pampered, effeminate, or squeamish person, hence the inhabitant of a town. This is now accepted as correct in some recent dictionaries, such as the single-volume Oxford Dictionary of English.
A second example is the entry on girl, long a puzzle, not least because it could at first refer to a child of either sex (in some English dialects the reverse is true, with child meaning a girl). One view is that girl derives from Old English gyrela, garment, with the sense then shifting from “clothes” to “wearer of clothes” (the modern slang skirt for a woman is a parallel case). Others argue for a link with Low German Gör(e), a small child, though problems exist with dating (girl is recorded first by a couple of centuries) and how the vowel sound could shift. Professor Liberman notes instead the sound correspondences in a loosely related group of continental Germanic languages — starting with g or k and ending in r(l) (the l being a diminutive form) — that relate to children, young animals and creatures considered to be immature, worthless or past their prime (such as kerl, an Old Irish term for an old woman and gorre, Norwegian dialect for a little boy or lazy person, as well as Gör(e)). He suggests that an unrecorded word from this group was borrowed into Middle English. Some experts regard sound analogies as inadequate evidence, in part because of the difficulty of being sure that the symbolic meanings ascribed to them actually existed in the various languages of the period.
Professor Liberman’s main aim is to make the literature on English etymology available and to sweep away the anonymity that surrounds the conclusions presented in etymological works. In this he is not alone; the recently revised entry for girl in the online Oxford English Dictionary, for example, gives a good account of the main competing theories and provides detailed references for further research, including links to his own work.
It may transpire that the greatest service he has provided to the history of English language is the extensive, indeed unparalleled, bibliography he has brought together.
[Anatoly Liberman, An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction; University of Minnesota Press, March 2008; hardback, pp359; ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-5272-3, ISBN-10: 0-8166-5272-4; list price US$50.00.]
• The old ones are the best, number 645564. Chips MacKinolty reports that an editorial in Darwin, Australia’s Northern Territory News on 8 May discussed the need for cuts to staffing in the public service. It was headed, “Pubic sector needs surgery”. Or should it have been “Disgruntled subeditor strikes again”?
• In a transcript on the ABC Web site of an audio background briefing of 27 April about allergies, Fiona Pitt discovered this comment: “I think the tide is turning, and it may not be quite ready to bury the corpse that food avoidance is wrong, but it might be ready to start tilling the earth just in case we need the hole.” To call it a mangled metaphor doesn’t quite do it justice.
• “One of the best headlines I saw recently,” John Day asserted, “was in the Adelaide Independent in South Australia dated 8 May.” The story concerned a thief stealing underpants from clothes lines. It read Knicker nicker nicked. By one of those coincidences that make you wonder if journalists everywhere are linked by telepathy (or trained in the same school), the same headline appeared in the Sunderland Echo two days later. It also featured on 14 March 2007 in the London free paper Metro. And a month earlier in The Spoof (note the title): “Nick Nicholas, known as the ‘nighttime knicker nicker’, has been ‘nicked’ near his home in north Nantwich.” That ought to have done for the alliterative headline, but no such luck.