The word dog is the bête noire of English etymology. Without obvious cognates anywhere (the languages that have dog are said to have borrowed it from English), it had a shadowy life in Old English but managed to hound from its respectable position the ancient name of man’s best friend, the name it has retained in the rest of Germanic.
Responses to my plea for suggestions concerning spelling reform were very few. I think we can expect a flood of letters of support and protest only if at least part of the much-hoped-for change reaches the stage of implementation. I received one letter telling me to stop bothering about nonsense and to begin doing something sensible.
To reconstruct an ancient root with a measure of verisimilitude is not too hard. However, it should be borne in mind that the roots are not the seeds from which words sprout, for we compare such words as are possibly related and deduce, or abstract their common part. Later we call this part “root,” tend to put the etymological cart before the horse, and get the false impression that that common part generates or produces words.
In the recent post on bosom, I wrote that one day I would perhaps also deal with breast. There is nothing new I can say about it, but perhaps not all of our readers know the details of the word’s history and the controversy about its origin.
The proverb in the title of this post rarely, if ever, occurs in modern literature and may even have been forgotten but for the title of Dorothy Sayers’ novel. However, at one time it was well-known, and extensive literature is devoted to it. The publications appeared not only in the indispensable Notes and Queries, American Notes and Queries, and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine but also in such great newspapers and periodicals as The British Apollo and Churchman’s Shilling Magazine, to say nothing of Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom.
Preparation for the Spelling Congress is underway. The more people will send in their proposals, the better. On the other hand (or so it seems to me), the fewer people participate in this event and the less it costs in terms of labor/labour and money, the more successful it will turn out to be. The fate of English spelling has been discussed in passionate terms since at least the 1840s.
Last week, I discussed the role of taboo in naming animals, a phenomenon that often makes a search for origins difficult or even impossible. Still another factor of the same type is the presence of migratory words. The people of one locality may have feared, hunted, or coexisted in peace with a certain animal for centuries. They, naturally, call it something.
The idea of today’s post was inspired by a question from a correspondent. She is the author of a book on foxes and wanted more information on the etymology of fox. I answered her but thought that our readers might also profit by a short exploration of this theme. Some time later I may even risk an essay on the fully opaque dog. But before coming to the point, I will follow my hero’s habits and spend some time beating about the bush and covering my tracks.
Last week I mentioned my “strong suspicion” that bosom has the same root (“to inflate”) as the verb boast. As a matter of fact, it was a conviction, not a suspicion, but I did not want to show my cards too early. Before plunging into matters etymological, perhaps something should be said about the word’s bizarre spelling.
Not too long ago I discussed the origin of the verb brag, and already then knew that the turn of boast would soon come round. The etymology of boast is not transparent, but, in my opinion, it is not beyond recovery. Rather than following the immortal royal advice (“begin at the beginning, go on to the end and then stop”), I’ll reverse my route and begin at the end.
It is the origin of idioms that holds out the greatest attraction to those who care about etymology. I have read with interest the comments on all the phrases but cannot add anything of substance to what I wrote in the posts. My purpose was to inspire an exchange of opinions rather than offer a solution. While researching by Jingo, I thought of the word jinn/ jinnee but left the evil spirit in the bottle.
Last week, in discussing the antiquated idiom hang out the broom, I mentioned kick the bucket and will now return to it. In the entry bucket2, the OED, usually reticent about the origin of such phrases, mentioned what Murray considered might be the most plausible idea. I am writing this essay for two reasons.
We know even less about the origin of idioms than about the origin of individual words. This is natural: words have tangible components: roots, suffixes, consonants, vowels, and so forth, while idioms spring from customs, rites, and general experience. Yet both are apt to travel from land to land and be borrowed. Who was the first to suggest that beating (or flogging) a willing horse is a silly occupation, and who countered it with the idea that beating a dead horse is equally stupid?
The lines above look (and sound) like identical oaths, but that happens only because of the ambiguity inherent in the preposition by. No one swears by my name, while Mr. Jingo has not written or published anything. Nowadays, jingoism “extreme and aggressive patriotism” and jingoist do not seem to be used too often, though most English speakers still understand them, but in Victorian England, in the late nineteen-seventies and some time later, the words were on everybody’s lips.
Some of the most enjoyable comments and questions are those that combine scholarship and play. One of our correspondents pointed out that Engl. strawberry, if pronounced as a Slavic word, means (literally) “from grass take.” Indeed it does! In the Russian s travy beri, only one ending does not quite match Engl. s-traw-berry.
Those who read word columns in newspapers and popular journals know that columnists usually try to remain on the proverbial cutting edge of politics and be “topical.” For instance, I can discuss any word I like, and in the course of more than ten years I have written essays about words as different as dude and god (though my most popular stories deal with smut; I have no idea why).