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Monthly Gleanings: December 2006

By Anatoly Liberman

What is the history of the word fairy? Edmund Spenser’s famous poem is called The Faerie Queene (1590-1596). Faerie in it means “fairy land” or “fairy folk,” as at the beginning of Wife of Bath’s Tale, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “In olde dayes of the king Arthour/ Of which that Britons speken gret honour,/ Al was this lond fulfild of fayrie.” Middle English fairye (with many spelling variants) “enchantment; fairy folk; fairy land” and rarely “a fay” or “fairy” was a borrowing of Old French faerie “enchantment; fairy land.” The source of fay “fairy,” also from French, is Latin fata, the plural of fatum “fate,” taken for a feminine singular (this is a common development); cf. Fata Morgana. Thus from “fates” to “a single mistress of destiny,” “enchantment, magic,” “fairy folks,” and “frolicsome, mischievous, spiteful, or kindly spirit.” That fairy at one time was a collective noun can be guessed from its suffix, familiar from chivalry, peasantry, and cavalry, among many others. The word has no connection with either Engl. fare or French faire. It has the root of Latin fari “speak” (fate denoted the verdict of the gods). Fame and fable have the same root.

On wayfarer. At one time, the word wayfare “traveling” existed. Both elements of this compound are English (fare as in pay one’s fare and farewell). Here again, -fare is not related to the French verb faire “do, make,” as our correspondent suggests. Wayfarer has the familiar suffix of an agent noun. It is true that wayfarer would make good sense if interpreted as “way maker,” but this folk etymology would be no more convincing than the alleged French-English hybrid bonfire “good fire” (in reality, “bone fire).

Doom and Doomsday. In books on history, domesday (the archaic form) and doomsday occur. Both should be pronounced alike. Twenty years after the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror ordered a survey of the lands of England. This 1086 survey (census), the final authority on the matters contained in it, was called the Domesday Book and later Domesday. The simplification resulted in that the name of the book merged with Doomsday “the Day of Judgment.” Doom, which makes us think of inexorable fate (doom and gloom), is related to the verb deem and in the past meant “statute, ordinance; decision.” In the 13th century, the senses “trial, judgment” turned up in written sources. The modern meaning goes back to the 14th century.

Does ale in the context of the Spanish flamenco have the same origin as olé? Yes, it does. Here is part of the entry on this word from The Language of Spanish Dance by Matteo (Matteo Marcellus Vittucci) with Carola Goya (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, 139): “OLE (OH-leh) (Bravo, hurray). An expression of approval, the one most often heard almost anywhere in the world where exciting Spanish dance (especially flamenco) is being performed. It is variously pronounced olé (oh-leh), ale (ah-leh), ala (ah-lah), and, at the bullfight (corrida), oh-o-o-o-o-lé (o-o-o-o-o-leh).

The phrase: “Well, I’ll swan.” This phrase, current in the north of England and in many regions of the United States, means “I’ll swear.” It has been noticed by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, who suggested the origin from Is’ wan, with s’ and wan being forms of shall and warrant respectively. According to this etymology, the whole (“I’ll warrant”) was understood (or misunderstood) as: “I’ll swear.” Other authorities, in the rare cases when they mention I’ll swan, stop short of suggesting any derivation. The hypothesis in the OED is not particularly inspiring, for among the many recorded forms of warrant, wan does not occur. Harold Wentworth (American Dialect Dictionary) lists the following synonyms or doublets of swan “swear”: swamp, swad, swawn, swow, snum, and even vum. Some are spelling variants of swan, others look like alterations of it; swow is s + vow (reinforcing initial s- is common in dialects), but swad is unexpected. The last volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, in which swan will appear, has not yet been published. I am aware of one vulgar word (“copulate”), an infinitive (in Old Icelandic, not in English) that was derived from a past participle, and I wonder, whether swan cannot be a secondary formation, that is, sworn in an r-less dialect turned into an infinitive (perhaps under the influence of the phrase to be sworn), an attempt to avoid a profanity: cf. I’ll swan to man, a euphemism for I’ll swear to God, cited in the OED (our correspondent also thought of taboo). Between a vowel and n, r would probably not be “rolled” even in the regions in which it is otherwise preserved. Although this is a mere guess, the multiple forms, attested in American English, indicate a tendency to substitute some exotic verb for the obvious one. No citations of swan and the rest predate the first decades of the 19th century; consequently, this verb need not be old.

The phrase a whole nother (as, for example in: “that’s a whole nother ballgame”). The origin of nother is not in dispute: it is a so-called aphetic variant of another, that is, ‘nother (another with an initial unstressed vowel lost), just as lone is an aphetic variant of alone. With time, nother became a colloquial synonym of other, so that a whole nother ballgame is simply “a wholly different ballgame.” Our correspondent asked whether nother in that phrase could be considered as an infix. Probably not.

Hullabaloo again. A correspondent calls my attention to Irish fulliliu, which is reminiscent of British Engl. regional pillelew “ruckus” I cited in the post on hullabaloo. This example shows again that words of such phonetic structure emerge easily. As far as I can judge, the similarity between hullabaloo and fulliliu/ pillelew is accidental.

Sic transit blogus per anno 2006.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    You remark that taking neuter plurals to be feminine singulars is a common development. I am sure that I have read somewhere a theory that, for PIE at least, the whole feminine gender was a development of inanimate plurals, and that the categorization of nouns developed from (animate/inanimate) to (masculine/feminine/neuter). Is this just a marginal hypothesis or is it widely accepted? At school I remember being taken aback that in Greek neuter plurals took singular verbs. Is that part of the evidence for the hypothesis?

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