By Anatoly Liberman
Generic they. The storm caused by my irreverent attitude toward sentences like they are a good tenant and when a student comes, I never make them wait has subsided, but one old comment and three recent ones call for a response. I pointed out that the habit of saying they in reference to any antecedent (a habit beaten in the present generation) occasionally brings ridiculous results and quoted a sentence about a table and their properties. An astounded correspondent remarked that table is an inanimate object and needs its. I also think so! It is the inertia of the habit I have mentioned above that made the writer produce such a monster. Yet that example is not isolated. I have the privilege of grading many undergraduate papers. This is blooming wilderness indeed, but anyone who wants to study the language of the street will learn a good deal from those papers. Otto Jespersen (a famous Danish scholar) noted that a phonetician is never bored: however inane a presentation may be, he (Jespersen said he) can study the speaker’s accent. (I have quoted this statement in the past.) Likewise, students’ papers are an inexhaustible source of inspiration to a linguistically-minded instructor. So here is the latest gem in my collection: “Just because a language is in the same family or group does not mean that they first occurred at the same time.” The entire sentence is nonsense, but why they?
In the previous set of gleanings, I challenged those who insist on the great antiquity of generic (unisex) they to send me early examples of this usage. Three people did so. The first added nothing to what had always been known, for the antecedents of their are person and anyone. But the others are interesting: the patient and their friends (1889), a patient and their physician (1904-1905), and name of the ship, name of the owner and their place of residence (1798). In the last instance, their could have been a slip of the pen after a string of nouns, or perhaps owner was sometimes used with a collective meaning (= “company”), or it can be a case similar to the patient and their friends. This is the beginning of what constitutes research, as opposed to demagoguery. Books, journals, and newspapers should be searched for similar usage. Once we have enough data, it will be possible to answer the following questions: “What is the date of the earliest examples of this type?”, “In what style(s) did they originate?” (it seems that business documents favored them rather than “our best writers”), “Were they ever in the majority?”, “Were there periods in which they enjoyed some popularity and then disappeared, to be reintroduced a decade or two later?”, “Are there parallels in other European languages?”, and finally: “Are all such examples limited to the possessive pronoun?” Serious students of the history of English and of sociolinguistics will welcome a comprehensive study of this phenomenon. At present (careful writers prefer to say at this moment of time) we have the following: “If some president thinks that these problems can be solved in a short time, they are mistaken” (from a recent letter to the editor).
Old languages and missionaries. What is the role of missionaries in the vocabulary of English, German, etc.? Have I examined archives in the Vatican? No, I have not, but the influence of conversion on the history of West European languages has been studied in minute detail. One of the epoch making events that happened when Christianity came to Ireland, Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, and the rest was the introduction of literacy to the former “barbarians.” The Church needed books. To be sure, many words from the religious sphere appeared in the languages, and some old words modified their meaning. In exceptional cases even grammar was affected (for example, the Germanic languages had only the neuter plural form gods; the masculine form God was abstracted from it, necessitated by references to Jesus). But other than that, people continued to speak as they had always done. Those investigating the history of words for “god,” “sin,” “repentance,” “fasting,” “soul,” “preach,” “blaspheme,” and “temple,” let alone “church,” “priest,” and “bishop,” find themselves immersed in the history of religion, but in dealing with secular vocabulary missionary work is of tangential interest.
Hobo. It was interesting to see an 1888 citation of hobo in a Kansas newspaper, but unless an avalanche of examples makes us change the traditional opinion, the idea that hobo arose in the West will hardly be toppled. Forte. The origin and the pronunciation of this word (one syllable or two?) is an evergreen question. Forte “strong point,” from French fort, substantivized (that is, used as a noun), was erroneously spelled with the feminine ending –e, on the analogy of words like locale and morale, and acquired what is called spelling pronunciation. Perhaps its homonym forte “loud” (a musical term), from Italian, indeed a dissyllable, contributed to the pronunciation of the French word. Many people pronounce forte “strong point” like fort (which is correct from a historical point of view), while others say for-te or are confused. Gallivanting. All conjectures about the origin of this word resolve themselves into uninspiring guesswork. The suggestion that gallivant is a blend of gallant and levant (“decamp, steal away, bolt”) is not supported by any evidence. The OED has no citations of gallivanting that antedate the early twenties of the 19th century. A humorous (slangy) blend coined so late would probably have been documented better in the popular press and the culture of the music hall. The alternate spellings were gallavant and galavant. The Century Dictionary points to the dialectal synonym galligant. The origin of gallivanting will more likely be discovered in regional English. At this stage it is totally obscure. Fixer-upper “handyman; a newly-purchased house in need of repairs” (but the main meaning, which is widely known, is only the second one). The structure of the word is clear, though the repetition of –er is unusual. Fix-upper would have joined words like comeuppance, buttinsky, and standoffish, from verb adverb collocations (here come up, stand off, and butt in) used as the stems of derivatives; compare also do-gooder and well-wisher, with –er added to whole phrases. Yet doubling a certain element, be it even a suffix, reinforces a word’s message; hence beriberi, gaga, pooh-pooh, and so forth, and now that we have upper “amphetamine” fixer-upper looks perfect: give the house a stimulating drug and you will be able to resell it. Doohickey “a small gadget; a thingy, a thingamajig.” English is irritatingly resourceful when it comes to the forgotten names of things. One of them is doodad, which is believed to be the etymon of doo in doohickey, while hickey is hickey “gadget.” Everything would be fine, but the origin of neither doodad nor hickey is known. Doodad is a fanciful near reduplication, but hickey looks more respectable, for hick (from Richard) “hayseed, rube, hillbilly” exists; besides, hick also means “pimple.” One can see that when it comes to the etymology of slang, we are usually in big doo-doo.
Anatoly 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 email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”