Here at Oxford, we love words. We love when they have ancient histories, we love when they have double-meanings, we love when they appear in alphabet soup, and we love when they are made up.
The word libel has perfectly innocent antecedents. Its etymon is Latin libellus, the diminutive of liber “book,” whose root we can see in library. When libel (later also libelle) appeared in English toward the end of the 14th century—a borrowing from Old French—it meant exactly what one expects, that is, “a little book, pamphlet.” The rest is a classic example of a process called in works on historical semantics the deterioration of meaning. The OED traces every step of the downfall. “Little book” → “a formal document, a written declaration or statement” → “the document of the plaintiff containing his allegations and instituting a suit” → “a leaflet assailing or defaming someone’s character” → “any published statement damaging to the character of a person” → “any false or defamatory statement” (the last stage had been reached by the beginning of the 17th century).
Two circumstances have induced me to turn to bamboozle. First, I am constantly asked about its origin and have to confess my ignorance (with the disclaimer: “No one knows where it came from”; my acquaintances seldom understand this statement, for I have a reputation to live up to and am expected to provide final answers about the derivation of all words). Second, the Internet recycles the same meager information at our disposal again and again (I am not the only recipient of the fateful question). Since the etymology of bamboozle is guesswork from beginning to end, it matters little how often the uninspiring truth is repeated. Below I will say what little I can about the verb.
Around 500 years ago the Spanish brought horses to the Americas and in the ensuing mêlée enough of those horses escaped captivity that they reestablished themselves as wild animals in the new world. Evidently more than 50 million years ago they evolved here but had become extinct. Although the name for wild horses in North America only emerged into English as mustang in 1808 this name was actually in the works by those same Spanish speakers before they ever shipped the horses across from Europe.
I often mention the fact that the questions I get tend to recur, and I do not feel obliged to answer them again and again. Among the favorites is the pronunciation of forte “loudly” and forte “a strong point.” Those who realize that the first word is from Italian and the second from French will have no difficulty keeping them apart, though I wonder why anyone would want to say forte instead of strong point or strong feature: in today’s intellectual climate, elegant foreignisms are paste rather than diamonds. Very common is the query about the difference between “I could care less” and “I could not care less.” The “classic” variant is with the negation. Perhaps someone decided that “I could not care less” means “I do care for it” and removed not.
Given how many words that refer to breaking begin with br-, to what extent is classifying break with sound imitative words justified?
Are break and brake related? Yes, they are, but the nature of their relationship deserves a detailed explanation. Break is an ancient word. It has cognates in all the Germanic languages, and Latin frango, whose root shows up in the borrowed words fragile, fragment, and refract, is believed to be allied to it (the infix n may be disregarded for reconstructing the protoform). The principal parts of break in Old English were brecan (infinitive), bræc (preterit singular; æ, as in Modern Engl. man), and brocen (past participle). At that time, verbs like break (so-called strong verbs, which displayed such alternations) had four principal parts.
In today’s English, the letters u and o have the same value in mutter and mother, and we have long since resigned ourselves to the fact that lover, clover, and mover are spelled alike but do not rhyme. (Therefore, every less familiar word, like plover, is a problem even to native speakers.) Those who want to know more about the causes of this madness will find an answer in any introduction to the history of English. I will state only a few essentials. For example, the vowel of mother was once long, as in school, but, unlike what happened in school, it became short and later acquired its modern pronunciation, as happened, for example, in but.
This is a weekly blog, and ever since it began I have been meaning to write a post about the word week. Now that we are in the middle of the first week of the first summer month, the time appears to be ripe for my overdue project.
Dickens and non-standard speech. In connection with wash-up for worship in Pickwick, it has been noted that, according to some, Dickens’s phonetic spelling cannot be trusted. I am aware of this verdict (compare, among others, his enigmatic kyebosk for kibosh). His rendering of the Yorkshire dialect (in Nicholas Nickleby) and even of Cockney has been challenged more than once.
The young Dickens was the first to record the word kibosh. We don’t know for sure how it sounded in the 1830’s, but, judging by the spelling ky(e)-, it must always have been pronounced with long i. The main 19th-century English etymologists (Eduard Mueller, Hensleigh Wedgwood, and Walter W. Skeat) did not include kibosh in their dictionaries. They probably had nothing to say about it, though Mueller, a German, hardly ever saw such a rare and insignificant word.
As much as 700 years ago English got the word varnish from French. The French word had come from a Latin source which in turn seems to have come from a Greek word that is said to have arisen because there was a city on the Mediterranean famed for its varnishes; or perhaps the first place that varnishes were sourced.
Slang words are so hard to etymologize because they are usually isolated, while language historians prefer to work with sound correspondences, cognates, and protoforms. Most modern “thick” dictionaries tell us that rogue, the subject of this post, is of unknown origin. This conclusion could be expected, for rogue, a 16th-century creation, meant “a wandering mendicant.” (Skeat attributes the original sense “a surly fellow” to it but does not adduce sufficient evidence in support of his statement.)
Charles Hodgson presents his weekly podcast. This week he looks at the word “client”.
The title is from The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (wash-up is the way one of the characters pronounces worship), but I owe the idea of this post to two questions. I decided not to wait for the next set of “gleanings,” because my summer schedule will prevent me from answering questions and responding to comments with the regularity one could wish for. Both questions concern Engl. r.