Small triumphs of etymology: “oof”
By Anatoly Liberman
There is an almost incomprehensible number of English words for money and various coins. Some of them, like shilling, are very old. We know (or we think that we know) where they came from. Other words (the majority) surfaced as slang, and our record of them seldom goes beyond the early modern period. They belonged to thieves and counterfeiters’ vocabulary; outsiders were not supposed to make sense of all those boodles, crocards, firks, prindles ~ pringles, and wengs. Words are like people, and it is no wonder that some upstarts make their way into high society and become respectable. Among them are, for instance, buck “dollar,” quid “sovereign; guinea” (such a strange Latinism!), and stiver “a small coin.” Coins have always circulated far outside their countries of origin (Dutch stiver is one of them). Cant words, along with money in general, discovered the joys of globalization long before our time. The international community of criminals accepted them, and that is why so much “monetary slang” is “foreign-born” and why its etymology puzzles historical linguists.
A word lover can enjoy names without knowing their origin: they are like pets (mongrels are often much friendlier than purebreds). Who can resist the charm of scittick ~ scuttick ~ scuddick ~ scurrick and their cousins (or perhaps look-alikes) scat and squiddish? Boar, grunter, hog, and the afore-mentioned buck—aren’t they impressive-looking beasts? Money, as Mowgli said, are things that change hands and don’t become warmer in the process. Very true, but we are word hunters, not merchants, and today’s story is about the word oof, British slang for “money.” Its origin has been guessed, and there is every reason to be proud of the result.
I have once touched on the word oof, but, unfortunately, coupled oof with another word, whose provenance, although undiscovered, is quite different. Also, that post appeared on September 9, 2009, and hardly anyone remembers it. However, I do, because for my erroneous hypothesis I was hauled over the coals in a not very courteous manner, as Skeat would have put it (see the previous post), and the burns still smart. Below I will repeat part of what I said five years ago, for the context of the present essay is quite different from the one written in 2009.
The guessing game was played by amateurs. They were inspired by the famous Osborne trial (1892; of course, its fame faded long ago), at which the word oof was used more than once; this circumstance explains the date of the first letters on this subject sent to Notes and Queries (1893). By that time oof had been around for several decades but needed a push from outside to become public property. Some people fell into a trap. They knew the phrase oof bird “an imaginary provider of wealth.” Most likely, the phrase emerged as a joke and was coined under the influence of French œuf “egg,” with reference to the bird that lays golden eggs. Quite naturally (journalists like to say unsurprisingly in such cases), they concluded that oof is the English pronunciation of œuf. It did not bother them that no English speaker however atrocious his or her accent might be, would turn œuf (even if it is a solid golden œuf) into oof.
On the other hand, there was a man called William Hoof, a “wealthy railway contractor, who died in 1855, leaving upward of half a million sterling.” Hoof with its h dropped would have easily yielded oof. In the middle of the nineteenth century and much later, such wild conjectures filled the pages of many popular journals. But there were others, whose ideas were not only sensible but also correct. A correspondent to Notes and Queries, who identified himself by his four initials (S. J. A. F.; I am sure many readers knew who hid under those letters), remarked that in Low German there was the slang word ofti[s]ch “money.” “It has descended to its present low estate from certain semi-Bohemian circles.” He also cited the word oofless” penniless.” Soon after him Willoughby Maycock pointed out that the word in question was of Jewish origin and had its roots in London. Its etymon, he repeated, was the phrase ooftisch “on the table”: the stakes had to be put on the table before the game began. The word “was introduced… by the facetious columns of the Sporting Times, but not invented by that organ.” Money on the table would be an approximate analog of Engl. cash on the nail and especially of Russian den’gi na bochku “money on the barrel” (money on the barrel has some currency in English, especially, as it seems, in American English).
The great Walter Skeat found the noun spinuffen “money” (plural) in a Westphalian dictionary and derived oof from uffen (1899). Strange as it may seem, he disregarded (more probably, missed) the explanation offered six years earlier. His note made James Platt, Jun., a most remarkable student of word origins, to write in his rejoinder that it was as certainly courting failure to explain oof without reference to its full form ooftisch as it would be to attempt the derivation of bus and cab without taking into account omnibus and cabriolet. Skeat rarely conceded defeat gracefully and wrote to Notes and Queries again. No, he was not at all sure that spinuffen and ooftisch are unrelated, “for the latter, whether it represents ooft-isch or ooft-ich, may be suspected to be formed upon the base ooft.” He was wrong and never tried to defend his etymology again. The first edition of the OED recognized the Jewish ooftisch derivation, though, as is the case with pedigree (see again the previous post), without absolute certainty. All the later dictionaries followed the OED (in lexicographical work, followed means “copied”). Be that as it may, oof does seem to go back to ooftisch.
A small triumph! One insignificant “slangism” has emerged from its obscurity, but this is how the science of etymology progresses nowadays: by infinitesimal steps. Unlike “regular” words, slang comes from popular culture and the underworld; it is a product of the ludic spirit. In that area, researchers can seldom base their conclusions on precedent. Phonetic correspondences play little or no role in the development of slang. Words of allegedly Jewish origin are particularly dangerous, for time and again Hebrew and Yiddish are conjured up to account for the coinages (particularly, when it comes to crime and swindling) that have nothing to do with the life and language of the Jews. English slang depends on Yiddish to a much smaller extent than does German. But ooftisch lost its second element in England; so oof can be called English, especially because it rhymes with hoof (the oo in its source sounded like Engl. awe). Dictionaries mark oof as British slang. However, the word was not unknown in the United States, and The Century Dictionary has a good American citation.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.