By Anatoly Liberman
Responses to this blog come from our correspondents (in the form of questions and comments) and from other blogs. On the whole, my suggestions have been treated gently, and disagreements have been rare. Like most people, I prefer praise to censure. Etymology is an absorbing area of study, but it is no less interesting to learn something about the climate in which etymologists of the past worked. An exchange that took place in 1887 may therefore be worth mentioning. Walter W. Skeat, the most distinguished English etymologist of all times, sent countless notes to popular magazines, and the reading public knew him well. Despite his fame, he was often attacked and once wrote the following: “I sometimes doubt whether my opinions receive quite fair treatment. It would seem as if there is a desire to contradict me wherever there is a chance of doing it, successfully or otherwise.” This is followed by a lengthy disquisition and a final blow: “I beg leave that I am very weary of giving opinion. The desire to correct me continually increases, and I do not think this is generous treatment in return for years of unselfish and almost ceaseless toil, under which I must one day succumb. My only remedy is silence in the future.” Skeat, who was usually head and shoulders above his opponents, allowed his petulance to run away with him, as the idiom goes. The editor added a note: “It is to be trusted that Prof. Skeat will think better of the resolution declared in the last sentence. In N. & Q. [Notes and Queries], at least, the value of his services is fully and gratefully recognized.” Professor Skeat did indeed relent almost on the next day, and I am happy to report that he did not “succumb” until 1911. His attacker responded, and after saying a few friendly words about “the pecking comments of self-constituted critics,” he continued: “But in the present instance, as the learned professor complains, a ‘desire to correct him continually increases,’ is it not, perhaps, provoked by the tone in which he is fond of correcting others?” There is a good deal of truth in that statement. The tone of polemic was at that time unbelievably abrasive. James A.H. Murray, the OED’s first great editor, was the king of abuse, who never concealed his disdain for the populace. At one time, he asked for the clarification of a specific meaning of the word caddee and warned the readers that he did not “ask for easy-chair conjectures, smart guesses, or obiter dicta… only for facts…”; he had no doubt that people would hasten to offer easy-chair conjectures, smart guesses, and so forth. (He received no responses.) Some other instances of Murray’s style can be found in my book Word Origins…. I am so happy that we have left that style behind and that even our cellular phones implore us: “Be safe, be courteous.”
Two correspondents disagreed with my parsing of the sentence: “One in four adults say that they read no books at all in the past year.” According to the first opponent, are would be wrong here, while say is correct. Why so? Both are and say are plurals following the subject one. This defense of the sentence proves my point: speakers of American English consider such constructions grammatical, and since such is the majority opinion, all resistance is doomed to failure. I have a fat folder of similar sentences, for example, “Each of the four statements contain the idea that…,” “New vocabulary involving the sea and sailing were introduced…, “The cost of fringe benefits are calculated by taking…,” and so forth. This usage is not recent. Here is an 1885 example from a respectable periodical: “One of the main facts that have induced philologists to declare…” It can be argued that this sentence is fine, for the subordinate clause connects facts with have. Even if so, the sentence sounds a bit strained. Compare the following: “A survey…found that only one in 15 cases of child abuse were reported” (2005). Another correspondent suggests that they in one of four adults say… is an “ungendered singular pronoun,” apparently (the examples are mine), as in “I miss my best friend.” “What has happened to your friend?” “They left the country.” In the United States, such monsters are promulgated by school, and we see them everywhere. (“If a tenant is unruly, they are evicted,” “”If a student comes, I never make them wait,” and so on ad nauseam). Perhaps they does have this origin here, but I doubt it.
Now to words. It was inevitable that someone should ask a question about the true origin of posh “luxuriant; elegant, fashionable; upper-class,” considering that reference to the acronym for Port (side) Out(ward), Starboard Home should be rejected. The acronym theory, which goes back to a one-paragraph letter in The Times Literary Supplement (1935, October 17, 652), has indeed been compromised beyond redemption. As usual, I will dispense with references, but it should be taken for granted that my information is based on the findings and conjectures of many people who have investigated the history of this word. I owe my familiarity with their ideas to my etymological database, an object of my inordinate pride. In 1892, in George and Weedon Grossmith’s novel Diary of a Nobody a certain Mr. Posh appears (Chapter 15), who, we are told, “was quite a swell.” The name is evocative (like the 18th-century fictional names Fag and Slang, the first one of them devoid of sexual overtones; Fielding’s Allworthy, and Dickens’s Murdstone and Deadlock). Presumably, the readers got the joke. Posh has been recorded with several more meanings: “money, specifically a halfpenny or other small coin” (possibly, thieves’ cant, from Romany), “dandy” (this would explain Mr. Posh), “balderdash, rubbish,” and “the fragments produced by a smash” (dialectal). The original version of the OED took cognizance of only the last one (”fragments”).
An author writing in 1935 stated that he had “first heard posh in the army and asked the soldier using it what he meant. He replied that it was an abbreviation of polish…” Recently an American historical linguist has advanced a similar idea. In his opinion, posh is polish pronounced by a Cockney, that is, pawsh. I do not see how the verb polish could become the adjective posh and think that this derivation is a product of folk etymology. The acronym theory connects posh with luxury liners of the Peninsular & Oriental (P&O) Steam Navigating Company. The destination was India, and it has been suggested that posh is an Urdu word meaning “clothes.” The development from “clothes” to “fine clothes” and “typical of the life of the upper class” allegedly took place some time after 1860. The first stage (from “clothes” to “fine clothes”) can be demonstrated, but for the theory to be viable, proof is needed that the crucial change (to “swell, smart”) occurred in India or among the English-speakers closely connected with India. Yet this does not seem to be the case. Nothing testifies to the word’s Indian provenance, and Henry Yule, the author of the deservedly famous book Hobson Jobson (on Anglo-Indian words) does not mention posh. Not long ago, a conjecture was put forward that posh is identical with the widespread European family name Posh. This is a long shot indeed.
The earliest citation of the now current meaning of posh goes back to 1918. The OED mentions the word’s obscure origin and compares it with posh “dandy.” I have said more than once that regular invitations by etymologists to “compare” certain words lead nowhere because it remains unclear how we are supposed to compare the forms and what conclusions we are allowed to draw. However, in this case, the similarity is too obvious to be missed, and I think that rather than referring to an acronym, the London accent, borrowing from Urdu, and eponyms, it would be natural not simply to compare “dandy” and “stylish” but to admit that we are dealing with the same word. Some later dictionaries hold this opinion, but their statements are cautious. The main problem is that posh “dandy” must have been an extremely rare word (it occurred in print as early as 1867, but the editors of the OED never heard it, and it did not turn up in the dictionary’s materials), whereas posh “upper-class” surfaced in literature only half a century later and even then no one knew anything about its origin (surprisingly, it was held that posh is an Americanism). But slang is hard to record, and the dates at our disposal are at best approximate signposts. Slang words may enjoy some popularity for a long time in the underworld and remain hidden from the outside world. An extreme example of this phenomenon is the history of punk “prostitute,” for which the OED could find no citations after 1789 (the earliest one is dated 1596). Then in the 20th century punk reemerged as a broad term of abuse. Its history between 1789 and 1904 is unknown. Posh “dandy” also seems to have been used by a limited group of speakers. It remained dormant for decades and then broke through with a slightly different meaning.
The origin of posh “dandy” is a matter of speculation, but, along with posh “nonsense, rubbish!” and such sound imitative and sound symbolic words as bash, smash, splash, lash, crash, and gosh, it may have arisen among highly emotional exclamations. This is, naturally, guesswork.
Hunky-dory “in excellent condition, tip-top.” Barring a few fanciful suggestions, including Eric Partridge’s (“from A[merican] E[nglish] hunk, a goal in children’s games+ –dory, a very approx[imate] rhyming redup[lication]), only the theory tracing hunky–dory to Japanese deserves some credence. The story goes as follows. Soon after Admiral Perry succeeded in opening Japanese ports to the West, American sailors became regular visitors in Yokohama (this happened after June 2, 1859). Honcho dori (ch designates a sound nearly identical with Engl. ch, and dori rhymes with Engl. gory), we are told, was the name of the main street in that city. In addition to being a collector’s paradise, it attracted Westerners because it had typical Japanese bathhouses, with nude bathing. Those who went to the street and partook of its unheard-of pleasures felt, it is assumed, “hunky-dory.” (Other versions of why people felt hunky-dory on that street exist too.) The word hunky-dory did indeed turn up only in the fifties of the 19th century, but the proposed etymology, which may be right after all (as I understand, many people in Japan also believes it), has at least two holes. First, Honcho dori is not exactly the name of a street; it can mean “leader-way (street)” or “the street where the ‘head hanchoo’ lives,” so that it does not quite correspond to American Main Street (honcho, from Japanese han-choo “group/squad head/leader,” is now a familiar loanword meaning “leader”). Second, English has hunky, not honcho, and Dutch honk “children’s playground, safe haven” has been pressed into service. This hybrid does not look particularly convincing. Other suggestions are still worse.
If fair means “good,” why is it such a low grade? The original meaning of fair seems to have been “shining; resplendent”; hence fair “blond.” The earliest attested meaning of fair in English was “beautiful, good-looking.” After many centuries of use, it weakened into “favorable,” “not favoring any side” (as in fair weather and fair play; compare Skeat’s fair treatment, above), and “adequate, though not ample.” Fair “passable” in school reports does not antedate the middle of the 19th century. Why does execute mean “inflict capital punishment”? Execute has functioned as a legal term (“perform an act of justice”) for centuries. The OED reminds us that Latin exsequi meant “perform to the end” but admits that the meaning “inflict capital punishment” could develop in English without the influence from Romance. And indeed, people tend to give the ugliest things veiled names. Taken in isolation, execute is an innocuous word. The earliest examples of this use of execute in the OED go back to 1483, of execution to ca. 1360, and of executioner, to 1561. Why does sanction mean “penalty”? This is a case of what is called “narrowing of meaning.” Sanction “decree” has (for the reasons that, unfortunately, need no explanation to those who are familiar with the workings of the legal system) acquired the sense “decree that prohibits something.” However, the verb sanction can still mean “allow” (“sanctify,” as it were) and “punish.” What is the origin of freaking? Our beloved F-word belongs with numerous verbs in Germanic languages, all of which mean “move back and forth.” Their stressed vowels are usually short, but a few exceptions exist. Occasionally r or l follows f in them (as in frig and flip-flop). The group is loose, and the affinity among its members, although obvious, is of a sound symbolic nature. Thus, freak is akin to frig, but not quite in the sense in which, for example, numb is akin to nimble (both have the root of the old verb for “take,” so that nimble means “capable of grasping,” while numb means “taken, seized”).
Three exotic words. Why was the word oenophilia “love of wine” coined if Classical Greek already had the noun philoinia? Since I do not know the circumstances attending the coining of this word in recent times, I can offer only a few vague suggestions. The person who came up with oenophilia may not have been aware of the Greek word from Plato. Also, there had already been a certain number of English words with the first element oeno-. Finally, there existed an earlier noun oenophil(e) “wine lover, lover of wine,” and it was easy to expand it. Does the adjective hubric, along with hubristic, exist? All words exist if people use them. Every new edition of our “thick” dictionaries lures prospective buyers by promising to include more words than its predecessors. A really pointed question is whether all new words should be used. Hubris is a “snob word”; it adds a note of gentility to the speech of those who do not know Greek; hubristic is its ugly offspring. At one time, whimsic “existed.” It was a short-lived creation; now we say whimsical. The future of hubric is unpredictable. So far it has been a pariah of English lexicography, and, if my opinion matters, may it retain this status, but everything depends on speakers’ whimsies. S(c)hwa is a term designating a vowel of the type we hear at the beginning of the word about and at the end of sofa. This term, borrowed from Semitic linguistics, is widely used in works on phonetics and on the history of Indo-European. Our correspondent wants to know when it gained currency outside Semitic studies. Schwa does not seem to occur in the foundational works by August Schleicher, Franz Bopp, and Karl Brugmann. Johannes Schmidt and Ferdinand de Saussure do not use it either. I think schwa owes its popularity among linguists to Eduard Sievers. In the 4th edition of his influential manual of phonetics (Grundzuege der Phonetik, 1893), he devotes sec. 264 (p.103) to a sound called “schwa per se” (schlechthin). He appears to be introducing a term not generally recognized. In the 5th edition (1901, sec.279, p.110), schwa is mentioned without any disclaimers or hedging. At the end of the 19th century, German specialists in Indo-European linguists began to use this term, as though it had existed forever. The chronology makes my reconstruction plausible. The dictionary by the brothers Grimms does not list schwa.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”