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Etymology and Scandal

In the course of this month two journalists have approached me with questions related to political scandals. My answers, neither of which has been printed in full, may perhaps interest the readers of our blog.

Question 1: “How typical are phrases like Ponzi scheme?” As far as I can judge, three ways exist of attaching a proper name to a noun that follows it. A suffix can be added to a proper name: cf. Byronic or Shakespearean. Such adjectives usually mean “in the style of.” Thus, we can speak of a Byronic poem and Shakespearean passions. If the idea of possession has to be expressed, s does the work, as in Ohm’s law. But sometimes the phrase consists of two bare stems: so in place names (Panama Canal, Washington Street) and in Ponzi scheme. (A succession of two nouns is most common in English. They may remain independent or produce a compound, but in both cases the first noun plays the role of an attribute. Even s in the middle does not always prevent the components from merging into a compound; that is why cat food, catfish, cat’s-paw, and cat’s cradle are spelled differently.) We have no trouble choosing between Carnegie Hall (a place named after Carnegie) and Carnegie’s Hall (a residence belonging to him); yet the line between the second and the third variant is often blurred. Parkinson’s Law is unambiguous (the law has been formulated by Parkinson), whereas Parkinson’s disease is not (Parkinson did not suffer from it), and a search in the Internet reveals the variant Parkinson disease. Compare Lou Gehrig’s disease (it was indeed the disease that killed Lou Gehrig). Here too I find the variant Lou Gehrig disease, as though the term commemorates the victim of a disease that at his time was a mystery. Monroe Doctrine and Marshall Plan would have been equally, if not more, natural with s. Chess players know the Philidor defense (you may remember the title of Nabokov’s novel The Luzhin Defense, usually cited with its British spelling defence). However, Philidor developed it, and one could have expected the phrase to be treated like Ohm’s Law. On the other hand, London’s streets and Chicago’s skyscrapers strike me as an affectation, an attempt of a prosaic mind to sound poetic. The difference between word groups like Lou Gehrig disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease does not seem to have attracted the attention it deserves, and if some of our readers are aware of works dealing with it or have ideas on this score, their comments will be welcome. A clearly formulated rule may not bring them the Nobel Prize in literature (linguists are not expected to get it), but it may become a valuable addition to our grammar books.

Question 2
: “A recent commentator used the name Blagojevich as a verb. Is it usual for a proper name to be treated like this?” Probably not. We speak of Pasteurized milk and bowdlerized books. The verbs to pasteur and to bowdler do not exist. Nor have Caesar, Attila, Luther, Napoleon, and the names of other celebrities been turned into verbs. Exceptions are rare. Boycott is one of them. In a recent post, I mentioned Oscar Wilde’s Mr. Bunbury, the fictitious peripatetic gentleman appearing in The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde also coined the verb to Bunbury. The only productive model seems to be the one with out, as in to out-Herod Herod. One can substitute any proper name for Herod in this formula. Thus I have moderate enthusiasm for constructions like to be Blagojeviched.

Our French correspondent wonders why we say President-elect rather than elected. He asked his American friends, but they only said that correct usage required it. Turning to native speakers with such questions is usually a waste of time. Only trained linguists are in a position to explain grammatical niceties, and in some cases it takes a language historian to offer a convincing answer. For the same reason, native speakers should be allowed to teach their language only if they have been trained to do so. They have the coveted gut feeling for what is right and what is wrong, but not all linguistics can be produced from the guts. I am especially pleased to satisfy our correspondent’s curiosity because the usage that puzzled him is French. A few English legal phrases retain the French word order. Like oyez, they are relics of the Anglo-French jurisprudence. Compare letter patent, heir apparent, Attorney General, and Inspector General. In the phrase President-elect we no longer realize that elect is an adjective, but it is, as follows, for example, from the substantivized plural the elect and a few other forms recorded in the OED. The formulas bride elect and bridegroom elect (with reference to the betrothed) also exist.

In connection with my post on Dutch words in English, a correspondent wondered whether pug-ugly is not the etymon of plug-ugly. The form pug-ugly is known quite well, and Mencken (among others) mentions it in his book The American Language. If pug-ugly and plug-ugly are related, it is more natural to assume that the former is a modification of the latter, for folk etymology turns obscure words into deceptively transparent ones, rather than the other way around. Plug-ugly is opaque, while pug-ugly is silly (why should a pug be called ugly and why should its name become a synonym for a rowdy?), but it consists of two seemingly clear elements, and this is all folk etymology needs. The “French” word order (a noun preceding an adjective it modifies) must be due to chance. The rest is guesswork. Yet the Dutch provenance of plug in plug-ugly is a possibility.

Stephen Goranson sent us several valuable comments, as always. He suggested that the Italian word conundra (it occurs in a medical manuscript) that Leo Spitzer took for the etymon of conundrum is a misspelling for coriandra, the name of a simple (medicinal herb) once used against headaches. His conjecture is so good that I think the question can be considered as settled. I never trusted Spitzer’s etymology, and now even the form he cited has been compromised. In my survey of opinions, I also gave an admiring account of C.S.P.’s etymology of conundrum. Goranson suggested that the initials C.S.P. belong to Charles Sanders Peirce. This is another excellent guess. I am surprised that after decades of reading Peirce’s semiotics it did not occur to me. Incidentally, “Peirce Sc.B., A.M., lately Lecturer on logic at Johns Hopkins University, and of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey” was a consultant of The Century Dictionary for “logic, metaphysics, mathematics, mechanics, astronomy, weights and measures.”

My database contains hundreds of notes signed by initials. Occasionally they can be deciphered, for in subsequent publications someone may refer to the authors’ full names, but I make no attempt to go beyond what I see in the text, except when I know the name, (then I expand it). In a way, I am glad rather than sorry that I did not see through C.S.P. If I had realized who the author of the etymology of conundrum is, I would have been inordinately impressed, but I extolled it on its merit, which shows that I can choose a good hypothesis when I see one. Here I would only like to repeat what I said in my initial post on conundrum. It is a tragedy that English etymologists are sometimes ignorant of the literature on their subject. A scholar of Peirce’s grandeur (I assume that C.S.P. is Peirce) offered a brilliant etymology of conundrum and no one in the whole world was aware of it!

Finally, the information from Wedgwood’s Pembrokeshire friend deserves another brief mention. The following local forms have been recorded: condrim, quadrim, and coodrim “perplexity, confusion of mind, trouble”; they, as Wedgwood said, were “unnoticed in the provincial glossaries.” He derived conundrum from condrim and connected it with the rare Middle English word wandrethe. Now that we know almost for certain where conundrum came from, wandrethe can be dismissed, but I think all the Pembrokeshire forms are variants of conundrum, which also occurred in multiple variants. Coodrim and condrim show the loss of w, a change that regularly occurs in the history of so-called labio-velars (that is, groups of sounds like kw in quick, gw in Gwendolyn, and hw in the speech of those who pronounce what as hwat, only with ch of Scots loch at the beginning) and from modern usage: where I live (Minneapolis, Minnesota) the most common pronunciation of quarter is korder.

From Goranson we also have several 1811 examples of gallivant. They antedate the examples I found in the printed version of the OED by more than two decades. Earlier I said that the suggestions on etymology of gallivanting are uninspiring. In my database that includes notes on the most recondite English words, there is one reference to gallivant. This means that no author of a special publication bothered to explain its origin. The OED suggested “a humorous perversion of gallant.” Leo Spitzer (it is again Spitzer) was right in failing to see the humor in that “perversion.” But his own etymology carries little conviction. All specialists use their expertise in reconstructing the past of words. For instance, those who are proficient in Scandinavian linguistics tend to find Norwegian or Icelandic look-alikes of the words they discuss. Spitzer was an outstanding expert in Romance philology, and, though occasionally he would be carried away by rather fanciful theories, many of his hypotheses are astute. Not unexpectedly, he discovered a local French word that resembles gallivant, namely galavarda “stay in bed; to idle away one’s time,” and took gal(a)vart (one of the variants of the verb in question) for the etymon of gallivant. This etymology has little chance of survival. The idea of a loan sounds persuasive only if the ways of penetration have been elucidated and the time of borrowing makes good sense. Why did a southern French word suddenly become popular in 1811? Did the English learn it from Napoleon’s soldiers? Does the French form have any currency outside the southern dialects in which it has been recorded? Why was (and is) this verb used mainly in its participial form gallivanting? Spitzer did not touch on any of those questions (see The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 44, 1945, pp. 95-97).

No one has so far commented on my post devoted to Engl. cool “excellent” and its Swedish and Finnish look-alikes. One of the relatively older meanings of cool is “unabashedly arrogant.” A touch of admiration seems to accompany this sense: arrogant, impudent, but breathtakingly bold! I wonder whether that usage has rubbed off on our modern cool or whether it owes its existence solely to jazz. In any case, the OED offers no citations of cool “arrogant” in the superlative. Here is a quotation from Skeat, which I will reproduce partly because of the superlative and partly out of love for the author (in this note, he speaks about an idiotic derivation of Whitsunday): “I think this is the coolest and most deliberate invention I remember to have met with. All is thought to be ‘fair’ when it comes to etymology, and boldness of invention is still held to be a merit. It is a strange principle” (Notes and Queries, 7th Series, vol. II, 1886, p. 26).

Thus end December and this year. The drama of 2008 is over. Like the Clown in Twelfth Night, I would like to linger onstage now that all the other characters have recited their verses and say a few lines, with the lights dimming over my head:

Whether fat or lean,
Walk with patience and glean,
Cut your way through a wood.
Take no note of your spleen,
The plate is good when it’s clean;
When the plate is clean, it is good.
There will be many a New Year.
See them in and be of good cheer.
Exit Clown, pursued by a pride of lions.

Act drop

PS. Fate decreed that this post should contain 2008 words (the postscript has not been included in the count).

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

Recent Comments

  1. Anne Ulmer

    It mas such a treat to start the new year by listening to you on MidMorning– frequently I get only a tantalizing taste of the program and have to get out of the car. But today I enjoyed a cup of tea and your discussion with Keri Miller.
    As a fellow German prof, I have to agree with your assessment of “cutting edge” and “interdisciplinary.” It’s nice to hear somebody express skepticism about those phrases.
    Happy New Year — and thanks for all you do!

  2. Jim Allaire

    A question and two comments;

    For years I’ve wondered if spell-check is responsible for the disappearance of the word “pled” (as in “He pled guilty” vs. , the
    current, “He pleaded guilty”) and similar words that were in common usage until about twenty or so years ago. Other similar words that seem to have disappeared to be “knelt”, “sunk”, etc.

    A comment re: to be Blagojeviched My two favorites are the verbs to “Bork” and to “Gerrymander”.

    A comment re: plug-uglies I always thought that this came from a nickname for a derby or bowler type hat “plug hat” and that it was the sort of hat the Plug-Uglies (a Baltimore street gang) wore in there there activities in support of the “Know Nothings” in the 1850s.

  3. Michael

    Regarding your comment about the rarity of proper names used as verbs. Here are some more:
    hector, guillotine, marcell (after M. Grateau),
    gerrmander (Elbridge Gerry), marconi, and tarmac (McAdam).

  4. anonymous

    A caller on Midmorning asked about the word honjak (not sure of the spelling) I believe this is a Czech word (Bohemian to be more precise) for a hairy, unkempt man.

  5. RL

    Another, later example, from Gissing: New Grub Street (1891):

    ‘I want to know what is to be the end of it all? I’ve no doubt it’s uncommonly pleasant for Reardon to shift his responsibilities on to our shoulders. At this rate I think I shall get married, and live beyond my means until I can hold out no longer, and then hand my wife over to her relatives, with my compliments. It’s about the coolest business that ever came under my notice.’

  6. Nathan Carlson

    “Arrogant, impudent, but breathtakingly bold!”

    This phrase reads like the advertising tag for a cologne or a whiskey. Or perhaps a cologne that smells like whiskey.

  7. Paul Peterson

    About the Swedish “kul,” I had always assumed it was a borrowing from English, maybe some hippie-ish jargon brought over through late 60’s anti-war protest music. But lo and behold, I read “kul” in a 1950’s Swedish novel, and my whole world was shattered. As a Swedish teacher, it is definitely cool that “kul” was cool in Scandinavia before cool was cool in English. I’m now taking a deep breath. This was definitely a very cool way to end last year. May there be many more.

  8. […] and inspiration play an outstanding role in etymological work. Read the posts in this blog on conundrum and bigot, to see how things sometimes happen. Or read the recent post on dude. The “ultimate” […]

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