Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Wyrd of Words

Reading Julian Burnside's Word Watching: field notes from an amateur philologist has just re-kindled my juvenile passion (I did not know then one could call it amateur philology!), so this Sunday afternoon I choose to spend recalling some interesting snippets, and compiling them here.

  • Pedal was once an adjective, deriving from the pedal pipes of an organ, i.e. those played by the foot.
  • Admiral, despite its form, does not derive from admire, although for a short time in the 17thC it did mean admirable. In fact it derives from the Arabic amir al bahr: commander of the sea.
  • Bridegroom also gives a false idea of its origins. A groom is a person who attends to animals, especially horses, by currying and feeding them. The original bridegroom was the Anglo-Saxon brydguma: bride man. It gradually shifted to brydgome, becoming conflated with groom (attendant).
  • To curry favour <> (French), meaning to curry a horse of brownish or reddish yellow. In a 12thC story, this represented fraud or deceit, so the moral of the story was not to curry favour, i.e. waste care and effort on a deceiver. In English, fauvel become misunderstood as favour...
  • The very Spanish word flamenco in fact was once a disparaging term for natives of Flanders.
  • The Spanish word batador (one who administers a beating, or the instrument used for that purpose) came into English and became battledore (a paddle-shaped instrument used for beating clothes in washing, and also the flat-ended instrument used for placing loaves in the oven; the game we now call shuttlecock was called battledore and shuttlecock until the end of the 19thC.
  • Venison originally meant any animal hunted for meat.
  • Leveret = a young hare; grice = a young hog, if still sucking; a young weaned hog = a shoat. Pups = also baby rats or dragons. Eyas = a young hawk. Poult = young turkey or domestic chicken. Young cod = codling or sprag, or scrod. Elver = a baby eel. Young salmon = sprag or parr, then smolt, then grisle, and alevin. Spat = the spawn of oysters and other bivalves.
  • Dasypodid = pertaining to armadillos. Vespertilian = pertaining to bats. Vituline = pertaining to calves. Pithecoid and simian => monkeys; pongid => gorillas and orang utans.
  • Coleridge's albatross was more likely a pelican, deriving from the Portuguese alcatras; the notorious US prison derives its name from the large pelican colony there.
  • Abaciscus = a square compartment enclosing part or whole of the design of a Mosaic pavement.
  • Denariate = a piece of land worth a penny a year.
  • Holluschickie = young males of the northern or Alaska fur seal.
  • Turdiform = having the form or appearance of a thrush.
  • We need an equivalent of the Italian magari ('Ah but that it were so').
  • Bail up comes originally from dairy farming and was adopted ad hoc by Australian bushrangers. The bail was the frame used for holding the cow's head during milking; the farmer would tell her to "bail up" when he pushed her into the bail. By the time of Ned Kelly, it came to mean a demand for submission to another's will.
  • For some reason, Australians also have a lot of slang terms for cicadas: cad, baker, floury baker, floury miller, green Monday, yellow Monday, miller, mealyback, red eye and double drummer.
  • In 1791, "sparrow-grass" was so common a term, that its more correct version, asparagus, sounded stiff and pedantic.
  • Miniature does not primarily refer small size, but rather "the action or process of rubricating letters or of illuminating a manuscript".
  • Quantum leap has come to mean a very large change in amount, position or attitude; in fact, according to Max Planck who coined it, it refers to the smallest change in position possible in the known universe!
  • Cyber derives originally from the Greek kubernetos, meaning steersman, which also gives us our English words gubernatorial, and related cognates.
  • A parting shot was originally a Parthian shot. In 55 BC, ineffectual Roman general Crassus was defeated by the Parthians with the following tactic: they let fly a volley of arrows, then turned in retreat. Thinking their resources exhausted, the Romans followed, only to meet yet another volley unexpectedly.
  • Bandicoot derives from the Telugu pandi-kokku, meaning pig-rat.
  • The Australian plonk, meaning cheap wine, derives from the French vin blanc, although plonk can just as easily, and more usually, be red!
  • Seersucker <>shir o shakkar, literally 'milk and sugar'.
  • Do-si-do, as in square dancing, <>dos-a-dos, back to back.
  • Nickname <> (or supplementary name).
  • Penthouse < Old French pentis, a lean-to or covered walkway.
  • Collective nouns: a skein of geese, when in flight (a gaggle on the ground); a skulk of foxes; a hover of trout; a drift of hogs; an exaltation of larks; a bouquet of pheasants (when they break cover in front of hunters); a murder of crows; a rafter of turkeys; a fall of woodcocks; a murmuration of starlings; a dule of doves; a cast of hawks; a deceit of lapwings; an ostentation of peacocks; an unkindness of ravens; a host of sparrows; a congregation of plovers; a mustering of storks; a flight of swallows; a watch of nightingales; a parliament of owls. A pod of seals; a gam of whales; a sloth of bears; a gang of elk; a crash of rhinoceroses; a barren of mules; a shrewdness of apes; a rout of wolves. And among humankind: a school of clerks, a sentence of judges, an eloquence of lawyers, a subtlety of sergeants (at law), a prudence of vicars, an obeisance of servants, a cutting of cobblers, a bleach of suitors (same as cobblers), a misbelieving of painters, a worship of writers, a superfluity of nuns, a herd of harlots, a scolding of seamstresses.
  • Vietnam doublespeak: collateral damage = killing innocent civilians; removal with extreme prejudice = assassination; energetic disassembly = nuclear explosion; limited duration protective reaction air strikes = bombing villages in Vietnam; incontinent ordnance = bombs that hit schools and hospitals by mistake; active defence = invasion.
  • Bushisms: "more and more of our imports come from overseas"; and my personal favorite: "French is a silly language: it has no word for entrepreneur"! lol
  • Fart was more or less polite language until the 18thC. A fizzle = a close fart (1598). Interestingly enough, the French petard, which survives in our phrase 'hoist with his own petard', also means a fart!
  • Originally naughty meant having nothing, needy, from naught/nought. Then it came to mean wicked, i.e. morally bankrupt, in the King James Bible. Shakespeare also used it to convey real wickedness. I.e. at least until the end of the 16thC, it was probably safer to call someone a fart or a turd, than suggest they were naughty!
  • English has no single word for the act of sexual intercourse, other than fuck (think about it: for such a popular pastime, this makes it really difficult to talk about!) lol
  • Poppycock <>(Dutch).
  • Nice originally meant stupid, from the Latin nescius, ignorant. Shakespeare did not use it much, because it had acquired such a weight of ambiguous meanings by his time!
  • Pedigree < foot of the crane (French), referring to the shape of old diagrams of pedigrees.
  • Philtrum = the vertical groove from the nose to the upper lip, in case you wondered (and haven't we all?).
  • Strait-laced = literally, someone with the tendency to tie their stay-laces too tightly.
  • Halcyon days = literally the 14 days of calm around the midwinter solstice, interestingly, associated in mythology with the kingfisher, who gets its biological name from this.
  • A clew or clue = first and foremost, a ball of string or twine, as in the thread Ariadne gave to Theseus to guide him through the labyrinth.
  • Tawdry lace <> once a sign of real finery (she attributed her death by throat cancer to the vanity of wearing a silken lace around her neck). Tinsel also derives from the old French etincelle, a spark, which we also get in scintillate.
  • They and their have a long and respectable history as a third-person singular, non-gender-specific pronoun, so advocates of political correctness, take heart: you may use it as a substitute for his or her, no matter what the grammatical purists say!
  • Being baffled was originally a very dishonorable punishment meted out to dishonorable knights; I will spare you the sordid details: look it for yourself, if you must!
  • Some obsolete Aussie slang: kangaroo feathers = a furphy, an impossible thing; Anzac button = a nail used in place of a button; camel dung = an Egyptian cigarette; throw a seven = to die; throw a six and a half = to almost die; Anzac stew = an urn of hot water and bacon rind; Anzac wafer = a very hard biscuit; Anzac soup = water in a shell-hole polluted by a corpse (ew! this has to be the foulest and most grisly I have encountered yet!) ;-P
  • Tabloid was originally copyrighted by Burroughs, Wellcome & co of London to refer to
    the handy size of their pharmaceutical products


Blogger Gregg said...

President Bush didn't say either of your "Bushisms".

11:29 am  

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