For a long time the etymology of the word bad has been at the center of my attention (four essays bear ample witness to this fact), and the latest post ended with a cautious reference to the idea that Middle Engl. bad ~ badde, a noun that occurred only once in 1350 and whose meaning seems to have been “cat,” is, from an etymological point of view, identical with the adjective bad.
The authority of the OED is so great that, once it has spoken, few people are eager to contest or even modify its verdict. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology adds perhaps (not probably!) to Murray’s etymology, cites both bæddel and bædling (it gives length to æ in both words) and adds that there have been other, more dubious conjectures.
Quite often the first solid etymology of an English word comes from Skeat, but this is not the case with the adjective bad. In the first edition of his dictionary (1882), he could offer, with much hesitation, two Celtic cognates of bad, one of them being Irish Gaelic baodh “vain, giddy, foolish, simple.” Much later, Charles Mackay, who believed that Irish Gaelic was the source of most English words, mentioned beud “mischief, hurt” as the etymon of bad.
Several years ago, I wrote a post on the origin of the word frigate. The reason I embarked on that venture was explained in the post: I had run into what seemed to me a promising conjecture by Vittorio Pisani. As far as I could judge, his note had attracted no attention, and I felt it my duty to rectify the injustice.
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.)
In the near future I’ll have more than enough to say about bad, an adjective whose history is dismally obscure, but once again, and for the umpteenth time, we have to ask ourselves why there are words of undiscovered and seemingly undiscoverable origin. Historical linguists try to reconstruct ancient roots.
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.
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.
Last month was a disaster: I confused the Wednesdays and then wrote 2014 for 2015. A student of the Middle Ages, I often forget in which millennium I live, so plus or minus one year does not really matter. We say: “The migration happened six or seven thousand years ago.” This is the degree of precision to which I am accustomed.
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).