OUPblog > Language > Oxford Etymologist > Etymological gleanings for October 2013

Etymological gleanings for October 2013

By Anatoly Liberman

Touch and go.
I asked our correspondents whether anyone could confirm or disprove the nautical origin of the idiom touch and go. This is the answer I received from Mr. Jonathan H. Saunders: “As a Merchant Mariner I have used and heard this term for over thirty years. We use this term… to describe a quick port call, whether to take or discharge cargo or personal provisions, fuel, etc.” This comment sounds very much like the much earlier one I quoted in my post. However, we still do not know whether the idiom was coined by sailors or appropriated by them.

Capsize again.
Our correspondent (he will remain anonymous because he has given only his first name) wonders whether, considering the popularity of Dutch nautical terms, capuzar could have come to Spain by way of Dutch, which has kapseizen. Is it Dutch into English or English into Dutch? Nothing is known about the history of this verb, which suddenly became popular in the eighteenth century, but Dutch etymologists are certain that its source is English, though in English it may be of Romance origin.

Italian aregna and Engl. ring (in boxing, etc.).
Is this meaning of the English word of Italian origin? I don’t think so. In Italian, gn signifies palatalized n, so that the real comparison is between Latin arena (from harena) and Engl. ring (from hrengaz). But the question was about Dante’s phrase entrare nell’ aringo rimaso, which (I am quoting the letter of our correspondent) “can be translated as ‘re-enter the ring.’ I am guessing that aringo rimaso is from Latin harena remensa, i.e. newly laid out sand. That suggests to me that the ring in boxing ring, circus ring, etc. has its origins in Italian and not the Germanic hringr.” This derivation seems unlikely for two reasons. First, the earliest citation in the OED of ring with reference to boxing does not antedate the beginning of the nineteenth century. Second, despite Dante’s spelling aringo, this word could never be pronounced with the g-sound, while the Germanic word always had g in ring. Also, it is hard to imagine why such a word should have been borrowed by English boxers from Italian. The coincidence is curious, but this is as far as it goes.

Scots bra, Engl. brave, and Latin pravus “ferocious.”
Scots bra is certainly related to Engl. brave. It is even believed to represent a local pronunciation of brave. The closest analog would then be Swedish bra “good.” The Romance etymon was bravus. The rest is less clear. All the authoritative dictionaries trace bravus to Latin barbarus (“foreign, barbarous,” hence “wild,” with more or less predictable shifts of meaning). Pravus “ferocious” has been mentioned more than once in discussion of brave. However, no one could explain away the change from b to p, so that the comparison has been abandoned. The existing etymology is far from perfect (it presupposes the reduction from barbarus to brabrus, brabus, and finally to bravus) but may be more realistic than the shorter leap from pravus to bravus.

Why is not unihorn? Because its etymon is Latin unicornis. The Latin for horn is cornu (as in cornucopia), with cornu being not only a gloss for but a cognate of horn.

Why dragon, if the Latin form is draco? Old English borrowed the Latin word with the predictable consonant in the middle, and drake (not related to drake “the male of the duck”) had a long history in English. Dutch draak and German Drache are easily recognizable cognates. In several Romance languages, k in this word became g, and Middle English took over this later form from Old French. Dragon supplanted drake, so that a rift appeared between it and the Latin (and Greek) etymon, but, by way of compensation, it aligned itself with its Romance siblings. Those interested in further ramifications are welcome to trace the history of Engl. dragoon. (I have also been asked about the origin of centaur. The word is from Latin, but its distant origin remains a matter of dispute.)

Ludic in English.
This word, borrowed from Modern French and meaning “of undirected or spontaneous playful activity,” was, according to the OED, coined by or at least had its earlier currency among psychologists, and in English it does not predate the late thirties. Unlike rare ludicrous, it is still rare (the root is the same; Latin ludus means “play, game, joke”). Specialists in the humanities know the term thanks to Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga’s much-read and often-quoted 1938 book on the play element of culture.

Culottes, sans culottes, and related matters.
See the comment by J. Peter Maher on the first October post in this blog. You will learn that being “sans culottes” did not mean being without trousers. The picture accompanying the present post will dispel all doubts on this score.

Painting of a typical sans-culotte by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Painting of a typical sans-culotte by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Ratten Cloughs.
I once wrote a post on Rotten Row. In the middle of August, I received a letter dealing with place names beginning with Rotten, Ratten, Rooten, and Rowton. They occur in locations where vaccaries (cattle farms) occupied the hillside and where the presence of great quantities of rats was unlikely. In my post, I cited the opinion that Rotten ~ Ratten Row was originally a place infested with rats. Our correspondent, Mr. John Davis, suggested that the place names had something to do with raising cattle or oxen (the business of the vaccaries). He also wrote: “…there are three places in Fife with Routine Rows. I don’t know if there were vacccaries in Fife, but cattle were big business for the Scots from medieval times onwards.”

My attempts to shed light on this question were of no avail (and I suspected this result from the start, but at least I tried). Those who will take the trouble to read or reread the post on Rotten Row will see that I knew about the existence of many Rotten Rows (and not only of the famous one in Hyde Park) but refrained from any conclusions. The origin of place names is a branch of etymology in which I am not a specialist. The easily available dictionaries supply no information. I can only say that quite often similar, almost identical place names go back to different etymons. There is no absolute certainty that all the names mentioned in Mr. Davis’s letter have the same origin. Rotten can of course be the product of folk etymology. The same holds for Ratten, with its reference to rats. If someone among our readers has hypotheses on this score, they will be most welcome.

Herring and sieve in the Scandinavian languages.
This is another echo of an old post. Norwegian has sil “sieve,” sil “lesser sand eel,” or “sand lance” (this is the fish the Germans call Tobiasfisch), and sild “herring.” In sil, the vowel is long and l is short. By contrast, in sild, in which d is mute, the vowel is short but l is long. In Old Icelandic, “herring” was sild (with both consonants pronounced), while the “sand lance” was síl (long i, short l). Even the relationship between the two fish names is disputable (though one of the best dictionaries says that they are undoubtedly akin, but the adverb undoubtedly occurs in etymological works only when there is serious doubt). Although the origin of sild “herring” poses problems, it cannot be a congener of sil “sieve,” which is related to German Seihe (the same meaning) and goes back to some form like sihila-. The verb related to it meant “to sift, strain.” And since I keep referring to my old posts (not a big surprise: there have been more than four hundred of them), I can mention my discussion of the idiom it is raining cats and dogs. The first component of Norwegian silregn (sil) “violent shower,” most probably, is cognate with sil “sieve” (and to the verb sile, one of whose senses is “to pour down with rain”; in Swedish and Danish, its cognates refer to straining and drizzling!).

Finally, I was very pleased to see both quotations from Oscar Wilde identified, and considering that the first one was from The Canterville Ghost and that the time is apt, I wish our readers a spooky and joyful Halloween.

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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only language articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.


View more about this product on the

UK Website
USA Website
11 Responses to “Etymological gleanings for October 2013”
  1. John Peter Maher says:

    Dante’s ARINGO RIMASO has no connection with the word ARENA ‘arena, amphitheater’ < Latin HARENA 'sand'. Dante was referring to a contest or match 'of little repute or value' — as in 'left overs'. RIMASO is the ancient form of the perfect participle of RIMANERE 'remain'. The modern form RIMASTO has had the T added on the analogy of AMATO' beloved, ADORATO 'adored' etc. Compare English SLEPT, replacing old strong preterite SLEP. Cf. German SCHLAF, past of SCHLAFEN. Only the German origin is tenable. Italian is loaded with Germanisms from the time of the Voelkerwanderungen. Reading NG as equal to GN is untenable.

  2. Perhaps relevant to raining cats and dogs is a poem, Olor Iscarus, written by Henry Vaughan in Wales and published in 1651. It includes the lines:
    The Pedlars of our age have business yet,
    And gladly would against the Fayr-day fit
    Themselves with such a Roofe, that can secure
    Their Wares from Dogs and Cats rain’d in showre

  3. John Peter Maher says:

    Latin BARBARUS does not mean ‘barbarous’, but ‘foreign’. Cicero refers to a coast of Italy where Latin instead of Greek is spoken, as LITUS BARBARUM. So much for authoritative dictionaries.

  4. “When it rains Dogs and Cats in Hell
    The shelter’d Centaurs roar and yell”
    From Maronides, or Virgil Travesty (London, 1678)

  5. Nora Casey says:

    Irish has “brea” for “love” or “excellent”. This is pronounced approximately “braa” or “braw”, very much like the Scots. I don’t know how far back this goes, so I can’t say whether or not it could be borrowed from English.

  6. Pascal Tréguer says:

    Two years ago, Yannik Behme made an interesting suggestion about the origin of “raining cats and dogs”.

    He explained that the phrase might be linked with the idea of the Deluge.

    This idea can also be found in one the earliest uses of “raining cats and dogs”.

    In 1653, in his play The City Wit, Richard Brome used a variant form of the phrase, with “polecats” instead of “cats” (and there’s an explanation for this variation).

    Here is the extract, in Act 4.1:
    “540 Sarpego: I will now breathe a most strong and poetical execration
    Against the universe.
    541Bridget: Sir, I beseech you …
    542 Sarpego: From henceforth erit fluvius Deucalionis
    The world shall flow with dunces; regnabitque, and it shall rain
    Dogmata polla sophon, dogs and polecats, and so forth.”

    ♦ “Erit fluvius Deucalionis” means “it will be the flood of Deucalion”, that is, “let the world be destroyed as in Deucalion’s flood”.

    In Greek mythology, the virtuous Deucalion, somewhat like Noah in the Christian tradition, is saved, along with his wife Pyrrha, when the world is destroyed by a flood, by building a boat.

    The flood is sent by Zeus after he becomes outraged by the wickedness of human beings.

    The translation skills that Sarpego possesses begin to desert him in his fury. This is why “The world shall flow with dunces” does not translate Latin.

    ♦ “Dogmata polla sophon” means “many are the thoughts of the wise”.

    The transliterated Greek word for “many”, “polla”, is the reason that Sarpego has “it shall rain [...] dogs and polecats” rather than, as in the proverbial phrase, “cats and dogs”.

    The City Wit is one the earliest recorded usages of the notion of “raining cats and dogs”.

    However, the fact that Brome is playing with the phrase and offering a comic variation on it – “it is raining polecats” instead of just “cats” – suggests that it was not a new usage.

    Source:Richard Brome online http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/brome/

  7. Last August, I tried to explain why I don’t agree with the explanation given by Anatoly Liberman for “raining cats and dogs”.

    Mr Liberman referred to the note written by N. E. Toke in “Notes and Queries” (12th Series, vol. 4, 1918, pp. 328-329).

    Here is the entire text written by Toke:

    ♦ “Rain cats and dogs.
    Has a satisfactory explanation of this expression ever been given?
    It has been attributed to a mispronunciation of the Greek “kata doksa” or the French “catadoupe”, but both these derivations seem to me unlikely to have given rise to this popular phrase.
    According to Trench Johnson’s “Phrases and Names: their Origin and Meaning”, the expression is due to a combination of popular superstition and Scandinavian mythology, the “cats” being transformed witches, and the “dogs” the hounds of Odin, the god of storms. But is there any evidence to justify this far-fetched derivation of the phrase?
    The “New English Dictionary”, under the heading “cat”, 17, quotes G. Harvey, Pierce’s Super., 8 (1592), “Instead of thunderboltes shooteth nothing but dogboltes or catboltes”. This seems nearer the mark, but it is impossible to judge without the context, and this I do not know. By the way, “dogbolts” and “catbolts” are terms still employed in provincial dialect to denote, respectively, the iron bars for securing a door or gate, and the bolts for fastening together pieces of timber (see “English Dialect Dictionary”).
    A variety of the very popular game of trap and ball was called provincially “cat and dog” – the “dog” being the club with which the players propelled the “cat”, i.e. the piece of wood which, as in the game of tip-cat, did duty for the ball. If a number of players were engaged in this game and they grew excited, it might easily be said that “it rained cats and dogs” on the playing-field. Could the expression have arisen in this way?
    A “dog” also means a portion of a rainbow, and generally precedes or accompanies a squall at sea. In this connexion, the “English Dialect Dictionary” quotes “It’ll mebbe be fine i’ t’efternoon if t’ thunner keeps off, but there’s too many little dogs about” (West Yorkshire). The connexion of “dogs” with a downpour of rain is accounted for by this use of the word. Some humourist may have added “cats”, and the phrase, thus originated, may have caught the popular fancy.
    But this is merely a suggestion, and I should be glad of a less hypothetical explanation.
    N. E. Toke
    Prof. De Morgan … wrote in “Notes & Queries” for Nov. 9 1861, that the suggested derivation from the Greek “will not do for the whole phrase, which, when I was a boy, was cats and dogs, and pitchforks with their points downwards”.”

    ♦ So, Toke does say “it is impossible to judge without the context, and this I do not know”. I gave the context in my comment in August.

    And, since Toke mentions him, here is, in “Notes & Queries” (2d series, vol. 12, July-December 1861), what A. De Morgan wrote, under the title “Raining cats and dogs”:

    ♦ “The derivation “kata doksa” will not do for the whole phrase, which, when I was a boy, was “cats and dogs, and pitchforks with their points downwards”.
    The phrase seems to be a simple monster of comparison, like “blowing great guns”.”

    ♦ So, if De Morgan is right, if the phrase is “a simple monster of comparison”, there might be no rational explanation for “raining cats and dogs” after all.

    The phrase may very well, simply, have the same intensive and derogatory force as the equivalent French phrases “Quel temps de chien!” (“What a dog’s weather!”) and “C’est un temps à ne pas mettre un chien dehors!” (“It’s not fit to put a dog out!”).

    Also, the metaphor “raining cats and dogs” may correspond with the early use of “cats and dogs” to symbolise strife and fighting.

    Maybe this is how we should understand what Thackeray wrote, in an 1849 letter to Mrs Brookfield:
    “Pouring with rain at Park Lodge, and the most dismal, wretched, cat and dog day ever seen.”

    And, much earlier, in 1678, John Phillips wrote, in “Maronides or Virgil Travesty”:
    “When it rains Dogs and Cats in Hell,
    The shelter’d Centaurs roar and yell;
    Mounted on Monkeys, with their tayls
    As closely shav’d as bags of nayls.
    Of Dragons a most hideous Rout,
    Whose teeth like Lyons whelps hung out.”

  8. John Peter Maher says:

    BARBARUS does not collocate with words for animals and humans, PRAVUS does. Mare Barbarum: As the rivers flow from the Appenines down to the Ionian Sea, rich in harbors and Greek in language; so do scientists gravitate there. But politics and law (oratores) thrive on the rocky, stormy coast of the Tuscan [Tyrrhene, Etruscan] sea, which is Latin in language… (jpm: free translation: of Cicero, “De Oratore” XIX.
    … ex Appenino fluminum … philosophi tamquam in superum mare [Ionium] defluerent Graecum, quoddam et portuosum, oratores autem in inferum hoc, Tuscum et barbarum.

  9. John Peter Maher says:

    Kahane & Kahane l982 derive bravo BR, e.g. MEAE BROBRIAE, for classical Latin MEAE PROPRIAE ‘my own’. See Ramón Menéndez-Pidal. Orígenes del español (1962).

  10. Tommo says:

    Do you know how to pronounce Harluggmyra (there should be a small circle above the first a)? It is a place in Norway.

  11. [...] of the minor questions addressed in my latest “gleanings” concerned the origin of the adjective brave. My comment brought forward a counter-comment by Peter [...]

Leave a Reply