Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly Gleanings: (July 2007)


By Anatoly Liberman

Thanks to the correspondents who commented on the earlier posts. Some time ago, in discussing the origin of Georgia cracker, I could only refer to some inconclusive derivations of this slang phrase. Craig Apple writes: “My understanding (and I absolutely can not document this) was that a ‘cracker’ was a turpentine distiller, the process of rendering turpentine from pine tar being analogous to the cracking of crude oil to produce, say, gasoline. Crackers… went off alone into the woods for months to boil pine tar—they came out with a wagon full of casks…. So, like ‘redneck’ it became a general term of opprobrium for poor rural whites.” I am happy to add this piece of information to the folklore surrounding the phrase. Perhaps some readers of this blog know more about turpentine distillers of old. Mr. Michael Gilleland returned to the cake—kaka dilemma and supplied an amusing quotation form H. L. Mencken’s book Happy Days: 1880-1892. New York: Knopf, 1936/1968, 135-136): “Even in the city a popular ginger-and-cocoanut cake was called a cow flop, and little girls were supposed to avoid it, at least in the presence of boys.” Those pseudo-Victorian girls who were made of sugar and spice!

Below, I will address, among others, some of the questions asked by MPR listeners, as is my wont. (Does everybody realize that wont is a homonym of won’t in British English, while speakers of American English are dived between the pronunciations want and won’t, with the first group predominating?) Most people are interested in slang. Unfortunately, it is just expressive and colloquial words that are usually obscure. Specialists spend years investigating them, often with slender success. By contrast, the Internet is abuzz with suggestions not supported by any evidence. The etymology of lollygag has not escaped this fate either. The OED gives lallygag “fool around; ‘neck’; dawdle” as the main variant (“origin unknown”) and cites examples going back to the middle of the 19th century. They stem from American books, but this is no proof that lallygag ~ lollygag did not exist in regional British English. The first thing that catches the eye or the ear in lollygag is that both its parts begin and end with the same consonants: lol– and gag. Words of this structure tend to designate insignificant objects: consider poop, pip, boob, bib, gig, dud, dude, and tit/tat. Suffixes do not add them status, as the verbs doodle, dodder, and goggle show. Even those who have never heard lollygag can make an “intelligent guess” about its meaning (“cheat; gallivant, play hooky; disrupt order”?) and won’t be surprised at encountering British dialectal lollpoop “lazy lounging fellow” and his brother lollypot “idiot.” The noun lolly “tongue” is indistinguishable from lolly– in lollypop. (Does the tongue go pop while sucking a lollipop? This is a grave etymological problem.) The verb loll “lean idly” occurred as early as the 14th century. Shakespeare used it with the sense “hang out (the tongue),” and also its synonym lill was current for some time. Lollop “lounge, bob up and down awkwardly” is a derivative of loll with the suffix –op, common in dialects. Two more British regional words are lall “lounge, loiter” and lalldabber “blow.” Lull (as a separate word and as part of lullaby) is a sound imitative (onomatopoeic) word, alternating with lall. Similar forms occur in languages from Sanskrit to Russian. The line between sound symbolism and onomatopoeia is blurry. We can assume that loll– in lollygag is identical with loll. Likewise, quite a few g-g words are sound imitative or sound symbolic. Such are Norwegian gugga “scold, stutter,” alongside Engl. gurgle (with “twins” in Germanic and Romance), gaggle, and giggle. Giggle coexists with dialectal guggle. Gag has at least four meanings “choke,” “impose upon,” “hoax,” and “interpolated lines in a play.” They may have descended from the same etymon (source), or developed independently of one another. In the history of gig, the meanings “flighty girl; whipping top; fancy, whim; fun, glee; fool; actor’s assignment; demerit assigned as a punishment,” and so forth. Again it is anybody’s guess whether we deal with one word or several. Agog seems to be of French origin; –gog, apparently, meant “merriment.” Dictionary of American Regional English cites antigogle (spelled with one g) ~ antigoddle “stagger” and their participles antigoglin ~ antigod(d)lin “lopsided, askew, cater-cornered.” In the gig-gag-gog-gug heap, speakers can find almost anything they want. Lolling is not a respectable occupation; neither is gagging. Their sum combines the frivolous meanings of both and sounds funny. This is probably how lollygag came about.

Teetotal. This word has been a stable item of word columns for decades, and I can add little to what has been said by others. Only a few things may be worth mentioning. The note in the OED is detailed and informative. It dwells on the anecdotes told about teetotal and mentions the entry in The Century Dictionary. Since few people consult this excellent but underappreciated work, I will quote the relevant part in full: “An emphatic reduplication of total. There are two accounts of the origin of this word. (a) The Rev. Joel Jewell (according to various accounts, confirmed by a letter from him to the editor of the dictionary), secretary of a temperance society formed at Hector, New York, in 1818, on the basis of a pledge to abstain from distilled spirits but not from fermented liquors, introduced in January, 1827, a pledge binding the signers to abstinence from all intoxicants. The two classes of signers were distinguished as those who took the ‘old pledge’, and had ‘O.P’ placed before their names, and those who took the ‘new’ or ‘total pledge’ (‘T.’); the frequent explanation given of these letters made ‘T—total’ familiar. (b) Richard Turner, an artisan of Preston, in Lancashire, England, is said, in advocating the principles of temperance, about 1833, to have maintained that “nothing but te-te-total will do”; while a variation of this account makes the artisan a stutterer. Both accounts appear to be correct, and the word may have originated independently in the two countries.” On the gravestone of Richard Turner (known as Dicky Turner or Cockle Dick “from his having hawked and cried that and other shellfish through the streets for a livelihood”), thus a peddler of sorts rather than an artisan, the following inscription is reported to appear: “Beneath this stone are deposited the remains of Richard Turner, author of the word Teetotal, as applied to abstinence from all liquors, who departed this life on the 27th day of October, 1846, aged 56 years.” The epitaph, quite properly, does not say that Turner coined the word. In the fifties of the 19th century, several people familiar with west-country speech remembered that tee-total was a common reinforcements of total “absolute, entire,” a t-word, so to speak. According to the recollections of those who heard Turner in 1833, “its sound was like magic upon the audience, who loudly cheered,” and the chairman exclaimed: “Well done, Dicky; that shall be the name of our new pledge.” The audience must have cheered because it recognized a familiar word cleverly applied to special circumstances. Could a street vendor who cried his wares through the streets for a livelihood be a stammerer? And would a speech defect have aroused such enthusiasm? A hidden allusion to tea-total never existed, for Turner, a man of rare dedication, disapproved of tea drinking (though he did not mind coffee or cocoa).

Hijack is another common object of public curiosity. The history of this word has been researched insufficiently. However, it is known that hijack belonged to hobos’ cant and meant “rob a sleeping hobo,” a punishable crime, according to the code ethics of that group. Attempts to trace the verb to hi, Jack! inspire little confidence. More probably, the etymon is highjack, even though its sense is unclear. Jack, the noun and the verb, can mean so many things, that “rob” or “abduct” could have been among them (compare jack up). How old is the obscenity freaking? Freak is one of a sizable group of verbs, the main f-word being one of them, that denote movement, usually back and forth (unlike them, freak refers to hectic and violent movement; hence freak out). From an etymological point of view, the similarity between frig “masturbate” and freak is not accidental, but we cannot judge how long ago the thinly disguised euphemism freaking, a suggestive word, but less offensive than frigging, let alone fucking, became current. The form freaking “behaving erratically” occurred most rarely in old books and not all in later sources, so that the OED marked it as obsolete. The post WWII Supplement to the OED, which contains countless additions to the original dictionary, did not give a single new example. In the sixties, when all verbal taboos were abolished, freaking broke through with a vengeance and has been around ever since. No doubt, it existed before the sixties, but, in the absence of documentation, its age cannot be determined. What is the origin of mealy-mouthed? In the extant texts, the word turned up in the middle of the 16th century, and as early as 1617, John Minsheu, the author of the first etymological dictionary of English, explained that the reference is to a person who speaks as though he has farina “flour” in his mouth (the dictionary is written in Latin). The implication seems to be that a mealy-mouthed person does not make his message clear. We would say that he has cotton in his mouth. In other languages, this meaning is conveyed by idioms suggesting that the speaker has some food (porridge, for instance) in his mouth. However, it is not the poor delivery of mealy-mouthed people but their hypocrisy and the art of cajolement that gave them their name. For this reason, Ernest Weekley, one of the “greats” of English etymology, proposed that mealy– is the continuation of the ancient Indo-European word for “honey,” which occurs in many languages, including Latin (compare mellifluous, a loan from Romance) and may be preserved in the first part of the compound mildew. But the simplex mel– “honey” has not been found in English, and this circumstance makes the hypothesis vulnerable. Weekley’s one-paragraph note on mealymouthed “honey-tongued” elicited a reply from Henry Bradley, who was second-in-command among the OED editors (he defended the traditional etymology), Weekley’s rejoinder, another letter from Bradley, and a final response from Weekley, and what a no-nonsense but courteous exchange it was! (Professor Weekley (unintentionally, of course) has misrepresented my first argument,” and so it goes). Weekley’s unchanged opinion, which can be found in his dictionary; yet his case is weak (the pun, like the misrepresentation, is also unintentional). Finally, windfall. In its direct meaning the word has existed in English texts since the 15th century, and in the middle of the 16th century, it began to occur with a figurative sense “an unexpected piece of good luck.” Even though the set phrase windfall profit goes back to the 1930’, windfall and “sudden financial gain” were connected at least a hundred years earlier. In old sources, one can read the following: “Some of the nobility of England, by the tenure of their estates, were forbidden felling any trees in the forests upon them, the timber being reserved for the use of the royal navy. Such trees as fell without cutting were the property of the occupant. A tornado was therefore a perfect godsend in every sense of the word to those who had occupancy of extensive forests; and the windfall was sometimes of very good value.” Windfall did first surface with the meaning “fallen tree” (“fruit fallen from a tree” appeared later); however, its origin is unconnected with the rights of the nobility. Lexicographers have suspected for a long time that windfall was coined on analogy with some foreign word. Both German and French (Anglo-French) have been named as possible lending languages.

I have more questions than I can answer in one set of gleanings. To be continued next month.

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.”

Recent Comments

  1. Sheilhaoigh

    “(Does everybody realize that wont is a homonym of won’t in British English, while speakers of American English are dived between the pronunciations want and won’t, with the first group predominating?)”

    I just thought I’d note that I (as a native British speaker) rhyme “wont” with “want” (roughly /wɒnʔ/ (if that doesn’t render, that’s SAMPA /wQn?/)) and I can recall having conversations about confusing the two as a child, so I’m fairly sure it’s not a purely idiolectal thing. Whether it’s an Americanism or not is another matter and I can’t guess.

    Many thanks for maintaining such an interesting column,

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Yes, early spellings have high-jack rather than hijack. Though we now think of hijacking as taking an airplane or boat or vehicle, early uses applied to taking cargo and to abducting people. I suggest that the word came from an O. Henry story (“He Also Serves”) published in 1909. So far the word isn’t known before 1909; a confirmed citation would falsify this proposal.
    The story is available online at several sites. The narrator relates a story told to
    him in New York about an adventure with High Jack Snakefeeder. The latter was smitten with one Florence Blue Feather, who “suddenly disappeared from her home and envirionments”; “vanished.” Then follows much drinking and a visit to ruins in Mexico where they see the possible reincarnation of this lady. Though the
    mechanism of this person-abducting or shanghaiing isn’t clear, here’s the O.
    Henry-type ending:

    “Say,” said Hunky, with a grin, “that little lady that stole High Jack
    certainly did give me a jar when I first took a look at her, but it
    was only for a minute. You remember I told you High Jack said that
    Miss Florence Blue Feather disappeared from home about a year ago?
    Well, where she landed four days later was in as neat a five-room flat
    on East Twenty-third Street as you ever walked sideways through–and
    she’s been Mrs. Magee ever since.”

    Mr. Magee was the New York storyteller.

    Perhaps the robbing of High Jack’s lady in this story gave rise to “high-jack” and “hijack” in years soon after.

  3. […] In July 2007 I already wrote what I thought about this word. Although most people, at least in America, say lollygag, its doublet lallygag is well-known. The […]

Comments are closed.