The Deceptive Transparency of Compounds,
with a Note on the Charms of Etymology as a Science
By Anatoly Liberman
Most words do not reveal their origin to a modern speaker. Nor are they in a hurry to open up to an etymologist. But compounds pose fewer problems, especially those of the roommate or cornflakes type. Room, mate, corn, and flakes are conventional signs to us (that is, we don’t know why they mean what they do, whether they are native or borrowed, and how long they have existed in the language), but their sum is clear: room + mate, corn + flakes. However, compounds tend to deteriorate, and we are surprised to discover that long ago barn contained two syllables and meant “a place for storing grain, “barley”)” or that bridal was the ale drunk at the wedding ceremony in honor of the bride and bridegroom (for us -al is an adjectival suffix). All books on the history of English words discuss such disguised compounds, as they are called. The origin of barn “storehouse” is as opaque today as the origin of bairn “child.” But many compounds have not succumbed to wear and tear or have changed their phonetic shape in a minimal way, and yet we still have trouble understanding their history. For a long time I have been collecting such words and below will write a few lines about three of them beginning with black (the reason for my brevity is that each of them deserves a full-fledged essay).
What is blackguard? It has lost one sound, for we do not pronounce kg in the middle, but other than that, its elements are without doubt black and guard. In Modern English, a blackguard is a worthless, contemptible person, so where does guard come in? The earliest example of blackguard in the OED is dated to 1532. In this and in a few other citations the word refers to a group of people (“guard”) doing the same work. In some contexts scullions were meant, and those must have been sooty. Other members of the blackguard were link boys (torch bearers), youngsters of ill repute. Perhaps they too were covered with soot. According to an old suggestion, a blackguard may have consisted not only of link boys but also of mutes (mourners at a funeral), carrying torches and wearing black clothes. (It will be remembered that one of Oliver Twist’s first occupations was that of a mute. He was instructed by his master to look sad, though he did not need that advice, for despondency was his natural state.) With time the meaning blackguard was transferred to all kinds of servants making a living in great households and to menial riffraff in general, to use a cruel characterization of a late Victorian author. The collective meaning of the noun gradually disappeared; today a blackguard is an individual, not a body of people. Black may have contributed to the word’s negative meaning. The Devil is black, however He is painted, and compare Black Friday and the like. The OED mentions the possibility of a guard of soldiers at Westminster having been called the Black Guard, but if it existed, we do not owe the emergence of blackguard to it. Thus, not every aspect of the question has been clarified.
Needless to say, attempts to derive blackguard from some foreign language cannot be taken seriously, but I would like to mention a small detail. James Emerson Tennent (Notes and Queries 1853, Volume VII, pp. 78-79) made an improbable suggestion that blackguard goes back to French blagueur “joker, teller of tall tales.” He was rebuffed by other correspondents (first in Vol. VIII, pp. 414-415). This exchange does not amount to antedating blagueur in the OED (1883), but it may serve as an example of the occurrence of the word in the popular British press thirty years before it was used, still italicized, in a non-linguistic context.
Even more obscure than blackguard is blackleg “scab, non-unionist.” This meaning is an American creation, but blackleg “a turf swindler; also, a swindler in other species of gambling” occurred in England as early as 1774. The OED remarks dryly: “As in other slang expressions, the origin of the name is lost; of the various guesses current none seem worth notice.” Clearly, hypotheses like Brewer’s in the original edition of his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (“so called from gamecocks, whose legs are always black”) do not seem worth notice because the ways of the metaphor have not been explained, but blackleg is a compound of the same type as redcap (whether applied to a station master or Little Red Riding Hood), so that there may be some truth in the explanation given in Hotten’s Slang Dictionary: “The derivation of this term was solemnly argued before the full Court of Queen’s Bench upon a motion for a new trial for libel, but was not decided by the learned tribunal. Probably it is from the custom of sporting and turf men wearing black top boots.” The Century Dictionary does not find Hotten’s etymology totally fanciful.
Finally, a story with a happy end. What is the origin of blackmail? The answer is known. The hitch is that mail also meant “tribute.” Mail “post” and mail “armor” are not related to it. Skeat explains: “Mail is a Scottish term for rent. Blackmail or black rent is the cattle, as distinct from white money or silver.” So it arose as a term for a tribute exacted by freebooting chiefs and came to mean any payment extorted by intimidation or pressure.
My list of puzzling compounds includes browbeat and beetle-browed, pitfall (why not fallpit?) and deadpan, among dozens of others. Etymology deals with ancient roots and modern slang, with sounds and meanings, as well as with spelling and printing conventions. It also concerns itself with history, and that is why it is one of the most interesting areas in the humanities, even though so much in it depends on guesswork.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”