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By Anatoly Liberman

Many thanks to those who commented on my recently published dictionary and to the listeners of MPR (“Midmorning News with Kerri Miller”). Some of the words about whose origin I was asked (copasetic and quiz among them) have been covered in my earlier posts, and I will not dwell on them again. But I hasten to undeceive our correspondent whose family believes that it invented the noun quiz: it did not. Quiz emerged in the 19th century as university slang.

SPELLING REFORM. English is indeed a global language, but I fail to see a connection (suggested by our correspondent) between this fact and the conservative character of English spelling. If knock loses its k-, it will lose it globally, much to the world’s gratification. Consistent phonetic English spelling is a utopia. Vowels are realized differently in English dialects. This is the reason it would be better not to meddle with Mike, make, and so forth. But spelling till with one l, quake as kwake, dependent and redundant with -ent, etc. (the main thing is to define the scope of the etc.) won’t hurt anyone. Hence my suggestion to reform English spelling slowly and gingerly, rather than introducing revolutionary measures. The same hold for the etymological criterion. Words of Modern English cannot and should not reflect their past (we no longer speak Old English, do we?), but some morphological ties should probably be retained. This explains my proposal to drop k- in knock but not in know, for knock is isolated, whereas know is related to acknowledge (which I would prefer to spell aknowlege).

Fare fico ~ fare fiasco again. Words that sound alike and have a similar structure (so-called paronyms) are often confused and regularly affect one another’s meaning. My suspicion remains that, whatever the modern understanding of fare fico, it has nothing to do with the origin of fiasco. Is there an equivalent word to phallic to imply something that looks like female genitals? My experience tells me that there is a word for everything, but I am not aware of the female counterpart of phallic, and the reason it does not occur in dictionaries and thesauruses is easy to explain. Phallic was coined to be used in combinations like phallic figure and phallic cult. It is mostly an ethnographic term. Statues and figurines of fertility goddesses and of patronesses of sexual intercourse abound. They usually have many breasts or a conspicuously enlarged vulva. Apparently, a generic term like phallic for describing them is not needed, but I won’t be surprised if such an adjective lurks somewhere in the depths of the OED. Let us wait for the comments on this post.

The origin of jankety “in poor shape.” No slang or regional dictionary of Americanisms I have consulted features it, though the Internet produces the impression that the word is known to many. Perhaps it originated in Black English, but I have only anecdotal evidence to support this claim and can at best offer an intelligent guess about its sources. Janky “lousy, phony” exists too and shows that -et- in jankety is a suffix (jank-et-y, not janket-y), unless janky as a back formation of jankety. Almost all slang words with initial j- (jog, jerk, jig, and so forth) are expressive; many of them designate quick or abrupt movement. Equally expressive (sound symbolic rather than sound imitative) are some native words ending in -ank, for instance, crank, prank, and especially yank. Jank, which, like jerk and yank, may, as I have been told, mean “to pull violently,” aligns itself easily with them. Verbs meaning “to pull” often have gross sexual connotations, and jank “male groin area” confirms my conjecture that neither janky nor jankety was coined as an elegant word. Whether adjectives like rickety and junky have influenced the meaning of jankety cannot be decided, but such influences are not improbable. I should add that practically all the words mentioned above in connection with jankety are also of unknown or uncertain origin.

The phrase to go haywire. Sometimes we stumble across a word that seems to be yesterday’s slang, but it turns out to have been around for several centuries. In other cases a word that looks as though it has been in the language forever can be shown to have sprung up in recent times. To go haywire is such a familiar idiom that the date of its first occurrence in printed sources (1917) comes as a surprise. Haywire is indeed the wire used in hay bailing; hence its association with makeshift and insecure arrangements and its figurative meaning. Apparently, haywire is of American provenance. Push the envelope goes back to aviation slang. The original reference was to graphs of aerodynamic performance. How offensive is the British slang word pikey?In recent time this word has been used so loosely (not only for vagabonds but also for all kinds of outsiders) that it has nearly lost its negative connotations.But, obviously, if used about an Irishman or a Gypsy, it is an ethnic slur.

Drat “damn, darn it” is sometimes explained as od-rat, in which od is a euphemism for god (God without the initial consonant) plus rat, a dialectal variant of rot—not a particularly convincing etymology. Conversely, drot may be (G)od rot it! Drat has the doublet (d)rabbit (for example, rabbit the child! drabbit the girl!). This enigmatic drabbit was first traced to French rabattre “to beat down.” Its variant rat it! drat it! may have been due to rat substituted for rabbit. We do not know whether drat is a contraction of drabbit or drabbit is an extension of drat.Curses often contain disfigured words, for taboo and euphemisms play a significant role in them.As a result, their origin becomes hopelessly obscure.

Gallivanting. This seems to be a playful word, as Ernest Weekley put it: perhaps a blend of gallant and levant “to decamp, steal away, bolt.” But for some reason, it usually occurs in its participial form (gallivanting), a peculiarity that has never been explained. Some connection with gallant is probable.

Heebie-jeebies: “Coined by W.B. DeBeck (1890-1942), American cartoonist, in his comic strip Barney Google” (The New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition). Vet is a clipped form of veterinary (surgeon) (compare doc, prof, math, lab, etc. from doctor, professor, mathematics, and laboratory); hence the verb to vet “to subject to professional examination.”

Silly continues the phonetically regular form seely, with cognates in all the Old Germanic languages. Its original meaning was “blessed, happy.” It is amazing how many paths lead to the idea of stupidity. Someone who is happy is stupid (for what is there to be happy about?), and so is someone who thinks too much of himself (the Romance root of fool means “inflated”). The root of daft means “fitting” (consequently, too docile); by way of compensation, its doublet deft exists. The semantic base of words for “stupid” may be “stunned,” “pitiful,” “lacking support,” “unsociable,” “blissfully unaware of the surrounding world,” “too trustful,” “too accommodating.” You are damned if you are too friendly, and you are damned if you are a social moron. Language reflects this attitude most faithfully. In a tale well-known in the East, a boy, an old man, and a donkey go on their way. Whether the old man rides the donkey, with the boy following him on foot, or the boy rides, with the old man walking, or both ride or walk, or whether the old man carries the donkey on his back, those around mock them: every combination is wrong. Lief means “beloved, dear” (compare German lieb). The archaic phrase I would as lief can be glossed as “I would rather.”

I cannot say anything new on the word regionalism. It appears to have been coined some time around the eighties of the 19th century by journalists, for the earliest citations are from newspapers. At that time regionalism meant only “localism” in politics. It gained popularity after World War I. As a linguistic term (“a local word or feature”) it does not antedate the fifties. Today regionalism is used widely, but the numerous spheres of application have not changed its original meaning.

Two phonetic questions. 1) Education pronounced as ejucation. The sound we hear at the beginning of the letter name u (it is called yod), when it follows t and d, tends to merge with them and produces ch and j. This is why we say picture and verdure the way we do. The same assimilation can be observed in living speech: did you and what you become diju and watchyou and even student sometimes sounds as s-chudent. A similar process can be observed when s, z and yod meet: note how most people pronounce bless you and as you like it. In very careful speech t, d, s, and z retain their individuality before the yod, so much so that snobs rhyme literature with pure. It follows that ejucation is admissible and does not betray the speakers’ lack of education. 2) Dwarfs versus dwarves. From Old English we inherited alternations of the shelf ~ shelves, wolf ~ wolves type. When r, rather that l, preceded f, as in scarf and dwarf, the alternation was the same, but its modern reflexes are inconsistent. It is due to chance that the British norm chose dwarfs, while Americans usually say dwarves. In British English, scarfs seems to be more common, while in America scarves predominates. Wharf and wharves have a similar distribution.

A RETROSPECT. 1) At some time, I cited an amazing number of verbs meaning “to beat, thrash.” A similar, but shorter, list from British dialects was offered in Notes and Queries for 1876. Here are five most colorful ones: mump, beneil, welt, twilt, and skelp. 2) I have a gnawing suspicion that some people do not read this blog or, if they do, refuse to profit by it. One of my posts was devoted, among other things, to the ugly fillers actually and you know. Could those in the highest echelons of society have missed that post? In any case, this is the exchange quoted in newspapers a few days ago. “In an interview last week with ABC, Ms. Bush [Laura Bush] said: ‘I think she probably meant ‘I’m more proud,’ you know, is what she really meant’… ‘…I was touched by it,’ Ms. Obama [Michelle Obama] said. ‘And that’s what I like about Laura Bush. You know, just calm, rational approach to these issues. And you know, I am taking some cues.’’’

Read the next gleanings on August 27.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. 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. John Cowan

    1) Using haywire for repairs is a slipshod, if common, thing to do: the mild steel from which it is made rusts easily and is subject to fracture. That is, I believe, the reason that go haywire implies, as you say, makeshift and insecure arrangements.

    2) Dwarves, unlike the other words in -lf and -rf you mention, is not OE at all! It is an analogical formation of fairly recent date: the OED turns up sporadic 19th-century uses, but the main creator of dwarves is of course Tolkien. He knew perfectly well that the inherited form, had it survived, would have been dwarrows or dwerrows, but as he says “we no longer speak of a dwarf as often as we do of a man, or even of a goose”.

    The use of dwarves amd dwarvish since Tolkien’s day has been widespread, and the same is true of the form dwarven, which Tolkien did not use in public print but which does appear in some of his now-published MSS. All of these are surely direct analogues of elves, elvish, elven, inherited forms all. But I do not know that there is anything particularly American about it: note that the Disney film (decidedly American but pre-Tolkien) is correctly Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

  2. anon

    Yonic was the word I learned that supposedly parallels phallic. The OED entry for Yoni:

    A figure or symbol of the female organ of generation as an object of veneration among the Hindus and others. Hence {sm}yonic a.

    1799 Asiatick Researches III. 363 The navel of Vishnu, by which they mean the os tincæ, is worshipped as one and the same with the sacred yóni. 1879 M. MACFIE Relig. Parall. 27 The yonic or moon-worshippers of Chaldea… The yonic symbolism professed by their remote ancestors in Turkestan, who were originally worshippers of the female principle. 1906 WHATHAM in Amer. Jrnl. Relig. & Psychol. II. 44 In nature-worship, all natural orifices were reverenced as representing the yoni of the mother-earth goddess.

  3. D. Wilson

    By far the most commonly used female counterpart of “phallic” is “yonic”, I believe. However, for those who would prefer a word taken from Greek (as “phallic” is), there exists also “ktenic”: I think it’s seldom used but some examples in respectable writing can be found (e.g., using Google Books or JSTOR).

  4. ze do rock

    In the SSS thare ar basicly 3 groops: 1) the „skeemers“, hoo hav usualy thare own fonetic/foneemic skeem and think that english shud be reformd compleetly, 2) the “inbetweeners”, hoo think we shud reform az much az possible, but without making the nu spelling unreedable, and 3) the minnimalists, hoo think we can only start with very fu chanjes, like spelling f for /f/. U, Anatoly, seem to be an inbetweener… Sum yeers ago we started voting on chanjes and came out with RITE – Redusing Iregularitys in Tradicional English. We didnt spel right, we speld RITE. But it was after all an inbetweener-skeem, so the skeemers didnt like it becauz it kept (and eeven expanded) the majic-e function (brite, bote), and it didnt solv all the problems, wile the minnimalists didnt like it becauz it was too much chanje… ennyway hooevver is intrested can hav a look at http://www.ritespel.org. This para was ritten in RITE.

    Mor reecently we had a membership vote for a house stile, and at the end we agreed on 4 basic rules: 1) cut redundant letters, 2) spel short vowels with the “rite” vowel (he ses, pritty, luv), dubbling the consonant ware necessary, 3) spel long vowels with the “rite” vowel and the magic-e sistem (lite, lode), 4) f for f (fone, enuf). Unfortunatly the resistance to using reformd spelling in our publications, especialy in the Comittee, is too strong, so it hasnt been put into practice yet. This para is ritten in HS (house stile).

    In RITE your examples wud be speld nok (knock), til, quake, dependent, redundent, to no. The rules for the /k/ sound in english ar rather complicated, but farely consistent, so all we did was making them compleetly consistent (keltic, not celtis), so /kw/ is speld ‘qu’ az in tradicional spelling. We redused ‘know’ to ‘no’ becauz it is consistent with the cutting rule, and making the spelling dependent on derivvativs of the rute werd wud meen that u hav to chek all derivated werds befor spelling a rute werd, wich wud make spelling extreemly complicated. We made a ballot in the genral public and found out that 1/3 of the voters wer for ‘no’, 1/3 for ‘kno’ and 1/3 for ‘know’, so desided to just follo the rule and avoid an exeption. Tradicional spelling spels ‘speak’ but ‘speech’, explANation but explAIN (not explANe) and nobody complanes either…

    In HS ‘redundant’ keeps its ‘a’, eeven if most reformers agree that it should hav the same final vowel as ‘dependent’. It was just a matter of reducing the number of rules to a minnimum.

    Just a question: if u aprove of sum spelling changes, wy dont u use them in your articles? I can hardly imagin that english wil be reformd by politicians, from the top to the bottom. If it happens, i guess it wil be from the bottom to the top, so we hav to start it…

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