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Monthly Gleanings


By Anatoly Liberman

A correspondent found the sentence (I am quoting only part of it) …stole a march on the old folks and made a flying trip to the home of… in a newspaper published in north Texas in 1913 and wonders what the phrase given above in boldface means. She notes that it occurs with some regularity in the clippings at her disposal. This idiom is well-known, and I have more than once seen it in older British and American books, so I was not surprised to find it in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). To steal (gain, get) a march on means “get ahead of to the extent of a march; gain a march by stealth,” hence figuratively “outsmart, outwit, bypass; avoid.” The earliest citation in the OED is dated to 1707. As far as I can judge, only the variant with steal has continued into the present, mainly or even only in its figurative meaning.

In the previous set of “gleanings,” I offered my hypothesis on the origin of Latin elementum in connection with the runic alphabet futhark (called this after its first six letters: f, u, th, a, r, k). In a nutshell, the idea resolves itself into the following. Elementa (plural) seems to have been an individual coinage prompted by alo ~ olo “nourish,” a pun on something “growing” (progressing), as the sequence of letters does in an alphabet. Elementum “letter” (singular) was a back formation on elementa. The word surfaced in the days of Lucretius and Julius Caesar (close to the beginning of the Common Era), that is, approximately at the time the runic alphabet made its appearance in Scandinavia, more precisely, Denmark. The first three letters of futhark mean “vulva” (th is a transliteration of one rune), and this circumstance cannot be ascribed to chance, especially because the Phoenician, Greek, and Roman alphabets begin with the letter a. Nor could any speaker of Old Scandinavian familiar with futhark miss such a striking beginning. Perhaps, I suggested, the word futh, without any opprobrious connotations, was placed at the head of the alphabet to match the sense of elementa (“an organ generating the sequence of letters”). To this I can now add that the word runa “rune” must have designated precisely “sequence” rather than “individual letter”; in Modern Swedish, the meaning “message,” as in gravestone inscriptions, is extant). Runa is a feminine noun, but in the Indo-European languages the form of the feminine singular coincides with that of the neuter plural, and I suspect that runa was initially a neuter plural noun, like elementa. Only later was it taken for a feminine singular. The oldest futhark consisted of 24 letters, divided into three groups (three by eight). The Scandinavian word for those groups (in the plural) is aettir, which, on the face of it, means “families” but can be understood as “eights.” Opinions are divided as to which of those meanings was original. In a “generated” sequence, “family,” not “eight,” would have been the most natural sense of aett (three families of letters).

Mr. Lars Larsen informs me that I am not the first to comment on futh in futhark. He writes that the Norwegian scholar Terje Sprukland found an inscription with the letters futhorg, which should possibly be read futh org “c…t-crazy” (org can be the feminine of argr “obsessed, mad, etc.”). Obscene runic graffiti is common, for people do not change, and the whole may have been a pun on the first letters of the futhark. Characteristically, the oldest runic alphabet underwent many changes over the centuries, but the first runes remained stable. Scandinavian inscriptions have been studied for a long time, and only the prudery of our learned predecessors prevented them from discussing in public the amazing meaning of futh at the head of the alphabet. I know Sprukland’s book I begynneslen var FUTHARK (“In the beginning was the FUTHARK”). On pp. 15-16 he only says that no explanation “acceptable to linguistics” has been offered why the futhark has such a strange order of letters. If he has a theory similar to mine, acceptable or unacceptable to chaste linguists, I will be grateful for the reference.

Another correspondent comments on snuck (the subject matter of an earlier post). He points out that dig and stick, with their plurals dug and stuck, were originally weak verbs. The history of stick is less clear than that of dig, but his remark is right, and the distinguished scholar to whom I referred without naming him (it is Richard Hogg) dwells on the development of each of those verbs. The sound complexes uck and ug, pronounced with the vowel of either buck or bull, are often associated with quick, jerking movement. Such is, for instance, German ruck (ruck, zuck! “in a flash”). It has even been suggested that the English f-word ousted its synonyms because its sound shape corresponded ideally to the action it described. The problem with dug, stuck, and snuck is that the group is small. Among the rhyming verbs one can cite only the f-word, pluck, tuck, and duck, which also designate quick actions. Dug rhymes with plug and tug, but the pressure of similar-sounding and semantically related verbs was never too strong. However we may look at it, the emergence of dug, stuck, and snuck could hardly be predicted. Think of a similar case: “A ranking officer luck (= leaked) the information to the press, but in return the journalist he contacted twuck/twack (= tweaked) his nose.” Very sound symbolic, beautifully expressive, but a bit scary.

What is the origin of bigot? The derivation of this word has been discussed so many times that I must of necessity be brief. 1) This word does not owe its origin to a proper name. The Internet and the popular press are full of fanciful statements like the following: “Nathaniel Bigot (1575-1660), an English Puritan preacher, was notorious for his intolerant zeal” (hence allegedly the word). The same sources introduce Leopold von Asphalt, Domenico da Comma, Frederick Doldrum, Jeremy Botch, and other characters related to Mr. Bigot. The family names Bigot and Bigod exist, but they are not the etymons of the word bigot. 2) There is an ancient story about how in 911 Rollo, a viking, received Normandy in fief from King Charles the Simple (an event that caused lasting enmity between the French and the Normans) but refused to kiss the king’s foot at the ceremony. He allegedly said: “Ne se bigod,” that is “Never, by God.” From that time, as the story goes, the mocking nickname begod, later bigot, stuck to the Normans. Although many eminent etymologists still think that such is the origin of bigot, they are probably wrong. If Rollo had been foolhardy enough to rebuff the king, he would have done so in either Old French or Old Norwegian. No Scandinavian language ever had the preposition bi; to make matters worse, got in bigot sounds German rather than Old Norse. The anecdote must have been invented to explain the otherwise incomprehensible word (folk etymology). French cagot “hypocrite” seems to offer a parallel: another Romance word with -got at the end. Although the origin of cagot is controversial, this adjective is not half-German. 3) Ethnic slurs often become popular terms of abuse. It has been suggested that bigot is an alternation of Visigoth(us). The Goths were Arians and thus “heretics” and “bigots.” This hypothesis is not improbable. For example, bugger goes back ultimately to Bulgarus “Bulgarian”; since the Bulgarians belonged to the Greek Church, they were also “heretics” and “buggers.” However, no linguistic or historical evidence connects bigot and Visigoth.

4) Several verbs and adjectives with the root big- or bic- have been cited as possible etymons of bigot. The conjectures along these lines are so strained that they can be passed over in the present survey. 5) Wedgwood identified the original bigot (at that time, allegedly, not yet understood in a bad sense) with Latin Bigutta ~ Begutta ~ Beghard ~ Beguin, and so forth (one can learn something about this religious order from etymological entries on Engl. beggar) and traced the word to Italian bigio “gray,” because the friars, as he thought, wore gray coats. This hypothesis has been rejected by everybody, though it is not as bad as it has been represented by its critics. 6) The greatest difficulty is that bigot resembles several words having nothing to do with bigotry. Such are Spanish bigote “moustache” (a sign of virility and determination, as follows from hombre de bigote “steadfast man” and tener bigotes “to be resolute”) and Italian sbigittire “to dismay” (s- is from ex-, so that the verb must have meant “make one lose courage”). Several ingenious etymologies trace bigot to a term of abuse directed at Spanish mercenaries whose moustache turned them into a laughingstock in the rest of Europe. Thus having a lot of hair on one’s upper lip made some people admire it as a sign of manliness (“strong-willed, unswerving individuals”) and others, mock it as stupid ostentation. However, this theory says nothing about the distant origin of bigot. The idea that this word is a shortening of barbigot from barba “beard” is far-fetched.

7) In French dialects, one can find numerous words derived from big- or bic- “goat.” Goats’ crooked legs occasionally give rise to words meaning “walk awkwardly,” so that the bigot turned out to be someone deviating from the straight line and, as a consequence, preaching fanatically the views he finds correct. Many other nouns and verbs with this root can, with some effort, be traced to the “goat metaphor.” Long ago, bigot was derived from Latin obliquottus “oblique.” This idea has nothing to recommend it, but the semantic tie (from “crookedness to bigotry”) is the same as in the goat theory. 8) Finally, Yiddish begotisch has been noticed. In the language of an observant Jew this word meant “pious,” whereas Jew haters could have used it in the pejorative sense. If this is so, bigot arose as a Germanic word, and indeed with Gott “god” as its root, and was adopted by the Romance speaking world.

The conclusion is not particularly inspiring. Let us look at the hard evidence. The French grandee called Robertus Bigot fell in battle in the year 1050. The name of the first earl of Norfolk, who died in 1177, was Hugh Bigod. Even if we disregard the difference between final -d and -t, both dates are too early for Bigod ~ Bigot to be understood as English phrases. The anecdote about Rollo and the king was told in a chronicle dated to 1137 and retold not later than 1187 in the Roman du Rou by the French poet Wace. There is no certainly that Robertus’s name and the mocking name given to the Normans by the French are the same word. After Wace, bigot disappears from texts until the 15th century, and it is possible that we are again dealing with a different word, a homonym of the older bigot. It reached England from France by the end of the next century. At that time, bigot had become part of Romance-Germanic slang. It sounded like the name of a certain religious order, but whether the two words influenced each other is unknown. Apparently, bigot had different meanings according to who used it: speakers could either emphasize a “bigot’s” courage and loyalty to his principles or condemn his fanaticism. Both the presence of moustache and the way the goat walks could have suggested the coining of bigot. Although the moustache hypothesis seems more realistic, it does not explain where bigot came from. For the time being, “ultimate origin unknown” should be our verdict, but it need not prevent us from winnowing away the least realistic guesses.

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 blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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  1. Wander Frota

    Dear Sir:

    I got eight questions…

    1) Which one of these two came first: the Greek-derived Roman alphabet or the Scandinavian Futhark?

    2) Could it be that the ABC sequence, as a notion, influenced the formation of the Futhark?

    3) Did PIE have something like an alphabet notion, or was that very notion a product of Greek experience?

    4) Isn’t PIE an abstract notion itself that serves well to somehow justify modern linguistics etimological cul-de-sacs?

    5) How about the role played by the Roman-Christian church, with its missionaries, in bringing literacy to the British Isles?

    6) How does the fact of bringing literacy to a then barbarous, non-literate place affect life there, considering it was the Roman missionaries who brought literacy to Britain?

    7) The so-called “original” British, were they of Celtic origin?

    8) Did those British Celts come from the European continent (where they would have had previous contact with Latin) or were they autochthonous?

  2. [...] this ignominious word that I ascribe the frequency with which I am asked about its origin.  Rather long ago I wrote about bigot in the “gleanings,” but answers in the “gleanings” tend to be lost, while a [...]

  3. Ron Huggins

    In terms of “bigot” coming into English, it does seem that in the earliest instance recorded by the OED2 (albeit now quite dated), namely Reght’s 1598 and 1602 editions of Chaucer, along with the interim reaction and influence of Francis Thynne’s critique it is already assumed that bigot was either a synonym (most likely) or male version of the women’s religious order, the Beguines (already with negative connotation): Thynne: “Begyn
    and Bigott yo{u} expounde sup{er}sticious hypocrites, whiche sence I knowe yt maye somewhat beare, because yt sauorethe of the disposit{i}one of those begins, or Beguines, for that ys the true wrytinge. But this woorde Begyn sholde in his owne nature rightlye haue ben expounded, sup{er}sticious or hipocriticall wemenne” Hence the addition of the specifically feminine reference added to by Reght to his 1602 edition (in deference to Thynne’s discussion). Even if the assumed etymology is wrong, the original sense of English words can be a based on mistaken derivations, can they not.

  4. Wordtree : Wordtrees: Bigot

    [...] sorry to report that it’s not entirely clear where the word bigot comes from. In the end, an Oxford University Press’s blog post written by professor Anatoly Liberman proved most [...]

  5. [...] I have occasionally deviated from the Germanic path. For example, I have ventured to deal with bigot, charlatan (both from French), and fiasco (from Italian, most likely via French). Naturally, I [...]

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