Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

An Etymologist’s Junket to the Countryside

By Anatoly Liberman

Etymologists remain true to themselves wherever they are. In the countryside, between berry picking and feeding mosquitoes, they listen to regional turns of speech. Some sensitive linguists avoid every mention of dialect, as though it is demeaning to know, let alone use, non-Standard English. In fact, not being able to speak the more or less leveled out language of the wide world is an inconvenience rather than a disgrace, for outsiders have trouble understanding broad accents and odd words. We are tolerant people and no longer insist on good delivery, perfect grammar, and vocabulary comparable with that of a retiring college professor. Descriptive, not prescriptive, is the war cry of modern linguistics. Dialects have survived the contempt of the educated class all over Europe and the United States. Even Cockney is fine, and today, Eliza Doolittle, initially an “incarnate insult to the English language,” would not have needed a visit to Professor ‘Iggins, “to be a lady” and our fair lady “in the flower shop stead of sellin at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.” Snuck is fine, and so is sellin. Yet our great collection of local words and expressions is called Dictionary of American Regional English, whereas a hundred years ago, in England, English Dialect Dictionary was published. Regional is respectful; dialect(al) is patronizing. Whatever the name, for a language historian words restricted to small areas are of great interest, because they may be archaic and because even today inhabitants of small villages and secluded areas tend to speak in a more creative way than those who constantly mow their lawns and fear to err against the norm. Highbrows will swear freely and happily in front of their children, but you won’t catch them coining a neologism: one must draw the line somewhere.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a glorious philological school flourished at the University of Chicago. One of its stalwarts was Francis A. Wood, the author of over a hundred excellent articles and books. His favorite occupation (and he shared it with the younger scholars who worked on their dissertations at Chicago) was reading, or I should perhaps say perusing, dictionaries: English and foreign. Thanks to their activity, we have detailed lists of the names people gave to about everything from body parts to kin terms. The crowning achievement of the school was A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages by Carl Darling Buck (a manly, endearing name), a thriller for the initiated. However, the book I today have before me is not that great dictionary but a slim volume by Wood, titled Some Parallel Formations in English (1913). It contains several long lists of dialectal words with tentative etymologies. I love it because of the innumerable words Francis Wood found I do not know even one percent. Of course, I do not try to learn them (for where can they be used?), but they give me ideas, some of which are already known to the readers of this blog.

Last week I wrote about trolls and trollops. Historical linguists feel uneasy at the sight of vowels alternating in the root of a word too freely. Yet I am sure that trollop is trull “slut, whore” with a suffix appended, despite the o ~ u hindrance. Dialect speakers (and nearly all of Wood’s examples are from British English rural speech) use both trallock “a slovenly woman” and trollock “an old garment, especially an old coat” (both going back to troll “walk idly, stroll, etc.”) and, not having to teach a course in language change, do not worry about the vowels. On another page of Wood’s book, I find tarloch “a contemptible fellow, a dirty tatterdemalion” (-ch probably stands for -ck), which I take for trallock with the vowel and r transposed—a most common case in the history of the Germanic languages (for example, the Old English for bird was bridd, and the German for burn is brennen). The noun tarle “work lazily, labor under disease; a small weak person or animal” is, according to Wood, a dialectal form of trail “loiter,” but here I think he is mistaken; it looks more like troll (verb), with ar for or. (In Scotland and in the north of England, trollie is the name of any long, unshapely thing that trails on the ground; also of a slovenly dressed female, especially with the tails trailing behind her, so that the connection between t-r-l words and trail may be due to their sounding alike.) Tarle can also be a back formation from tarloch (like sculpt from sculptor, televise from television, and beg from beggar). Whether I am right is of no consequence; it is the existence of such verbal creations that matters, for they make etymologists enjoy the countryside and think.

Little is known about the origin of shill “accomplice to a gambler or a hawker; to act like one.” Perhaps it is indeed a shortened form of the equally obscure shillaber, as the OED suggests, but should we ignore dialectal shallap “rogue,” in which -ap, another spelling of -op, is a suffix? Shallock “idle about; dirty ill-looking person” is a variant of shallap. Given the word shilly-shally (though of different origin), the alternation shill ~ shall seems natural.

Several conjectures have been offered about the derivation of the Australian slang word larrikin “hoodlum.” Wood registers Engl. dialectal larrick “careless,” lurry “hurry, especially hurry over work in a slovenly manner,” lerrick “beat, flog; flap about,” and larrup “flog, thrash.” He derives those words from Norwegian and compares them with larrikin. His conjecture is worthy of note, but, buried in an unindexed book, it has so far had no chance of attracting anyone’s attention. For the much-belabored nerd (allegedly Dr. Seuss’s invention, like grinch) I find nurdy “the smallest pig of the litter; weakling,” a variant of nurk “the worst pig of the litter,” and nir “anything small or stunted in growth.” I have always suspected that -d in nerd is a suffix, but is it possible that our nerds should trace their lineage to the runts of British farms, the more so as runt is another word of questionable origin? Words tend to remain dormant for centuries and then come back with a vengeance. One of them is punk, whose first attested meaning is “prostitute,” but the original punk must have been a vague term of abuse, like so many others that can be applied to any contemptible thing or person (a kind of schnook). Dorick “trick, practical joke, frolic” and dor(r) “humbug, hoax” made me think of dork, but this was a dirty thought and I chased it away. The time has come to return to the countryside with its clean air and unspoiled denizens producing such weird (and wonderful) nouns and verbs in their unbuttoned moments. James Murray once said that the origin of many obscure English words would probably be found when we learned more about provincial French patois. If I may add something to the statement of the great man, I will suggest that even English dialects are still largely an untapped resource in our etymological investigations.

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

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *