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Monthly Gleanings: January 2007

By Anatoly Liberman

Reference. Where can one find the origin of words like lung and liver? In any “thick” dictionary of English. Such words are treated on a par with all the other words. But for more specific medical terminology consult Henry Alan Skinner, The Origin of Medical Terms. The third edition, published in 1970 (New York: Hefner Pub. Co.), has the same format as the previous two (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins), but contains more words. Where can one find Canadian slang? Both The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (now also available online) and A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (Toronto: W.J. Gage, 1967) include slang. For entertainment one can look through Weird Canadian Words: How to Speak Canadian by Edrich Thay (Edmonton: Folklore Pub., 2004).

Folk Etymology. One of our correspondents has been told that boy and buoy (homophones in his dialect) have the same root as bovine, the sense emerging as “someone or something kept in place by strips of cowhide.” One cannot stop admiring the resourcefulness of folk etymology. I have studied the origin of both words and thought that I had not missed a single conjecture, however fanciful, but the bovine theory did not turn up in my reading. The origin of boy and buoy has given rise to a good deal of guesswork, but neither word has anything to do with bovine. Who has ever kept even the most recalcitrant boys in captivity by means of bovine straps, and what evidence is there that such straps were used for attaching buoys to their foundation? And finally, how does the syllable bov– match boy and buoy? “I heard somewhere that pothole came from potters who would harvest clay from the old (unpaved) roads, leaving holes and ruts that were hazardous to horses and wagons.” Pot in pothole is a northern variant of pit. Pothole appears to be one of so-called tautological compounds to which I at one time devoted a special blog, a word like courtyard or Engl. dialectal lass-quean (both elements have a nearly identical meaning). Pothole is “hole-hole.” “Some maintain that the original meaning of merry in the Christmas carol ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen’ was “mighty.” Why should people maintain things instead of consulting good dictionaries? Walter W. Skeat, a great English etymologist, who died almost a century ago, kept asking his countryman this question for years. The old meaning of merry was “happy” (so in merry England, merry wives of Windsor, and the like: see my blog “The Oddest English Spellings, Part 2,” end). The same meaning should be assumed for merry in the carol.

Slang. A reference to the canting term Mr. Cheeks turned up in a 19th-century German book about dialects. What does it mean? No dictionary, old or recent, I have consulted mentions it, so that I can offer only “a mere guess,” as Skeat might say. Cheeks is a well-known slang term for “buttocks.” I suspect that the gentleman in question had a moniker close to Mr. Asshole. In this case, the plural needs no additional explanation, but note how common the ending -s is nicknames of all sorts is: Pips (from Phillip, the protagonist of Great Expectations), Withers (Mrs. Skewton’s servant in Dombey and Son), Boots, a servant at a hotel, Pops “dad,” and many others, including Cuttles and Sniffers, the names of two guinea pigs I had the honor of knowing. And Mr. Snuffles, a domestic dog, is everybody’s friend. Mr. Cheeks thrived in good company.

In a recent blog, while discussing the verb troll, as it is now used in Internet slang, I offered a parody of a possible etymology (I suggested that the verb was derived from a famous man’s soubriquet), but my parody must have fallen flat, because another of our correspondents did not realize that it was a joke. Such misunderstandings are common. In Jules Renard’s autobiographical novel (and a play) Poil de carotte, translated into English as Carrot Top or Carrots, the red-haired hero writes from school to his father, who, in his response, wonders why the boy begins every line with a capital letter. His son explains: “Dear father, you did not notice that this was a poem.” On a more serious note, the correspondent contends that troll, the computer verb, is an extended use of troll, an angling term. This is quite probable, but a few doubts remain. The metaphorical use of troll “fish by trailing a baited line” seems to have died out several centuries ago (and even then it was rare) and came to a semblance of life again in the sixties of the 20th century (the OED cites troll for information). Dictionaries disregarded a few inconspicuous occurrences of this type and took notice of it only when the computer verb troll came up. The vexing question is: Who launched this verb? (The perpetrator must be alive and well). Was this person aware of the angling term? Some evidence of the change from angling to surfing would make the case stronger. The same correspondent states that rap “informal discussion” is short for rapport, while rapt in I am rapt goes back to rapture. Again I must say that both derivations are plausible, but is there any evidence? Hundreds of reasonable etymologies have been offered for the words we use. Only a few of them are right.

Malarkey “nonsense.” Several conjectures about it are on record, some of which are not worthy of mention. Eric Partridge derived malarkey from Modern Greek malakia, defined as “masturbation” and “tricky.” In my opinion, his guess holds out no promise. Other people traced the word to an Irish family name. Irish names have fared badly in English etymology: hooligan, hoodlum, and larrikin (Australian slang for hoodlum) have been given Irish lineage, but no one will be convinced until it can be shown who the first infamous Hooligan, Hoodlum, and “little Larry” were. Peter Tamony, an unrivaled expert in the history of Californian slang and San Francisco street life, traced malarkey to a certain Mullarkey (of San Francisco), the son of Joe Mallorca, a Portuguese. “This son assumed the name Jerry Mullarkey under the delusion he was of Irish descent.” He left his mark as oyster shucker (opener) and great boaster. Malarkey became the pseudonym of Thomas Aloysius Dorgan (TAD), a celebrated cartoonist and sports writer, and indeed a man of Irish descent. According to Tamony, this is how the word malarkey “talk, bunkum, and baloney” came into being (Western Folklore 33, 1974, 158-162).

Funky. The origin of all the recorded meanings of funk is obscure. Its senses are “spark” (which is so close to German Funke “spark” that the similarity can hardly be accidental, but it has a synonym spunk “spark; touchwood; fungus growing on trees,” which cannot be related to Funke, and, to complicate matters, punk “touchwood” exists), “strong smell or stink” (a Romance word?), and funk “cowering fear, panic.” The last of them surfaced toward the middle of the 18th century as Oxford University slang and has been traced to a word of Flemish, to a French vernacular word (but did students at Oxford know Flemish or dialectal French?), and to funk “tobacco smoke.” Today everybody knows funk “style of popular dance music” and funky “related to this style; “unconventionally stylish.” Two candidates qualify as etymons (sources) of those funk and funky: “spark” (then “sparkling”) and “stink”(then “making one pay immediate attention the way a strong smell does” and, by extension, “dashing”). Considering how little funk “spark” is remembered (if at all), the smelly etymon appears to be more probable. Mollycoddle. No mystery here. The first citation in the OED is dated 1833, but the verb must have been coined earlier, for it is widespread in dialects. It is a compound, made up of molly (a “generic” female name) and coddle. In southern Lincolnshire, its humorous variant collymoddle has been attested.

Two serious questions. 1) “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 Proto-Indo-European at least, the whole feminine gender was a development of inanimate plurals, and the categorization of nouns developed for animate/inanimate to masculine/feminine/neuter. Is this 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?” It is believed that the original division of nouns in Proto-Indo-European was into inanimate (which later developed into neuter) and animate on which masculine/feminine was later superimposed. The emergence of gender and some details in its use (including the coincidence of the endings of the feminine singular and neuter plural) have been tentatively connected with the development of cattle breeding. This reconstruction is based on a good foundation, but, of necessity, it remains hypothetical. The same holds for the eternal question about the connection between natural sex and grammatical gender. The agreement of the neuter plural with a singular verb is a rule not only in Classical Greek but also in Sanskrit. Apparently, such words were treated as collective nouns. 2) “I hope this inquiry may settle a feud in the office. The feud involves two very similar words: meow and mew. We would like to know if one is derived from the other and which came first. Are they synonyms… or is there a relevant distinction to be made between the words as they pertain to the sound a cat makes? Which is more common (it seems meow would be based on commercial goods and pop culture), and are there relevant distinctions in the popularity of either word based on geography”? I wish you asked me about Proto-Indo-European cats, for here my expertise is insufficient. Human vowels and consonants cannot do justice to animal sounds, so that all the spellings encountered in books are conventional (compare woof-woof, yap-yap, and bow-wow—all about dogs). Also, the spelling of such words is often influenced by foreign models. The French (our main teachers) spell miaw, whereas the Dutch prefer mauw. One cannot establish the antiquity of meow versus mew beyond stating that mew is the oldest form recorded in English texts (1325). Meow is hardly derived from mew: it is one of numerous attempts to make cats speak English on paper.

In these gleanings I have also included some questions asked during my talk show at MPR(Minnesota Public Radio) on January 1. But there are some words and idioms I have not touched on. I will return to them in the next gleanings. February is a short month, so that the wait won’t be long.

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 [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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