Slang—mocking, sneering, casting a jaundiced eye on the world’s proprieties—is by its nature sour. It finds approval hard, congratulation challenging, and affection almost impossible. Yet even if slang’s oldest meaning of “sugar” is money, and the second oldest a euphemism for the most common term for defecation, slang, for all its skepticism, cannot resist the tempting possibilities of “sweet.”
Our earliest etymologists did not realize how much trouble the adjective bad would give later researchers. The first of them—John Minsheu (1617) and Stephen Skinner (1671)—cited Dutch quaad “bad, evil; ill.” (Before going on, I should note that today quad is spelled kwaad, which shows that a civilized nation using the Roman alphabet can do very well without the letter q.)
Early summer in London is heralded by the Chelsea Flower Show. This year, the winner of the Best Fresh Garden was the Dark Matter Garden, an extraordinary design by Howard Miller. Dark matter is invisible and thought to constitute much of the universe, but can only be observed through the distortion of light rays, an effect represented in the garden by a lattice of bent steel rods and lines of bamboo, swaying in the wind.
As a rule, I try not to deal with the words whose origin is supposedly known (that is, agreed upon). One can look them up in any dictionary or on the Internet, and no one needs a blog for disseminating trivialities. The etymology of bed has reached the stage of an uneasy consensus, but recently the accepted explanation has again been called into question.
Often described as ‘business in front, party in the back,’ most everyone is familiar with this infamous hairstyle, which is thought to have been popularized in the 1980s. How, then, could the term have originated as early as 1393, centuries before David Bowie ever rocked it? We embarked on an etymological journey, figuratively traveling back in time to answer what seemed like a simple question: What, exactly, is a mullet? And does it really mean what we think it means?
Most of what I had to say on bug can be found in my book Word Origins and in my introductory etymological dictionary. But such a mass of curious notes, newspaper clippings, and personal letters fester in my folders that it is a pity to leave them there unused until the crack of etymological doom. So I decided to offer the public a small plate of leftovers in the hope of providing a dessert after the stodgy essays on bars, barrels, barracks, and barricades, to say nothing about cry barley.
In the United States everything is planned very long in advance, while in Europe one can sometimes read about a conference that will be held a mere three months later. By that time all the travel money available to an American academic will have been spent a millennium ago. In the United States, we have visions rather than short-range plans.
Last week, I wrote about the idiom to cry barley, used by children in Scotland and in the northern counties of England, but I was interested in the word barley “peace, truce” rather than the phrase. Today I am returning to the north, and it is the saying the bishop has put (or set) his foot in it that will be at the center of our attention.
To finish the bar(r)-series, I deviated from my usual practice and chose a word about which there is at present relatively little controversy. However, all is not clear, and two theories about the origin of barricade still compete. According to one, the story begins with words like Italian barra and French barre “bar” (barricades bar access to certain places), while, according to the other, the first barricades were constructed of barrels filled with earth, stones, and the like, so that the starting point should be French barrique or Spanish barrica.
The post two weeks ago was devoted to the origin and history of bar. In English, all words with the root bar- ~ barr- are from French. They usually have related forms in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, but their source in the Romance-speaking world remains a matter of unending debate.
A priest can be defrocked, and a lawyer disbarred. I wonder what happens to a historical linguist who cannot find an answer in his books. Is such an individual outsourced? A listener from Quebec (Québec) asked me about the origin of the noun bar. He wrote: “…we still say in French barrer la porte as they still do (though less and less) on the Atlantic side of France.
I have always been interested in linguistic heavy metal. In the literature on English phrases, two “metal idioms” have attracted special attention: dead as a doornail and to get (come) down to brass tacks. The latter phrase has fared especially well; in recent years, several unexpected early examples of it have been unearthed.
Many thanks for comments, questions, and reprimands, even though sometimes I am accused of the sins I have not committed. If I were a journalist, I would say that my remarks tend to be taken out of context. Of course I know what precession of the equinoxes is and italicized e, to point out that it is indeed the right form (precession, not procession).
One should not be too enthusiastic about anything. Wholly overwhelmed by the thought that winter is behind, I forgot to consult the calendar and did not realize that 25 March was the last Wednesday of the month and celebrated the spring equinox instead of providing our readership with the traditional monthly gleanings.
Does the word cyber sound dated to you? Like the phrases Information Superhighway and surfing the Web, something about the word calls one back to the early era of the Internet, not unlike when you ask a person for a URL and they start to read off, ‘H-t-t-p, colon, forward slash…’
This is the week of the spring equinox, but I decided not to wait until June and write a post about the solstice. For a change, bonfire is “a word of (fairly well-)known origin,” so don’t expect revelations. However, it is always instructive to observe people beating about the bush long after it has burned up. The image of beating about the bush suggested the title of this post.