Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly Gleanings: February 2009

By Anatoly Liberman

The Speed of Semantic Change. I am well aware of akimbo being used about legs and fingers, though I have no way of ascertaining whether Tom Wolfe is responsible for this extended usage. Mollymooly’s comment addresses the well-known fact that despite all the recorded intermediate stages in the development of meaning, the end result following hence in historical dictionaries often comes as a surprise. Language historians face two models: incremental change versus change “by a leap.” On the one hand, at any given moment we have either entity X or entity Y; on the other, observation shows that the movement from X to Y is nearly always gradual. The resolution of this paradox lies in the coexistence of the conservative and the avant-garde styles. In the vocabulary, individual authors (especially poets) and children sometimes effect leaps. A five-year old has heard the phrase full tilt, generalized it with the vague meaning “very much,” and explains that he hates mosquitoes full tilt. Numerous changes of meaning are of a similar nature. Others are more puzzling. For example, it is clear from the inner form of the adjective handsome that at one time it referred to things (and people) handy, serviceable, dexterous; its development to “convenient, becoming,” and “decorous” (handsome manners, handsome style) seems natural. We may not object to the next step (“generous, liberal”: a handsome present, apology; handsome is that handsome does), for bounty depends on the hand of the giver, and “ample” (a handsome sum of money), but then we are confronted by the fateful hence “(graciously) generous,” hence “pleasing to the eye, good-looking.” Hence? Really? No development in language is predetermined: if something has occurred, the provisos for the event should be taken for granted, but the change is seldom, if ever, inevitable: in a neighboring language and even in a neighboring dialect X becomes Z, rather than Y, or stays intact.

Words and Idioms. Coat: Why is it not spelled cote? A more difficult question is why cote is not spelled coat. Middle English had two long o’s, that is, two distinct vowels with the approximate value of non-Midwestern aw in today’s awning: one was closed, the other open (pronounced with the mouth opened more widely). Closed o, the continuation of Old Engl. long o, was usually designated by the letter o. The wider vowel developed from short o lengthened in native and French words, and, to mark its open character, scribes used the digraph oa. Coat, from French, had an originally short vowel; consequently, the spelling oa is justified. However, cote also has a lengthened vowel and should therefore have ended up with oa. Modern English spelling is an unreliable guide to etymology. Float has a history similar to that of coat, but roam should have been spelled like home. Such inconsistencies are numerous. That is why people who fight Spelling Reform for fear of losing ties with history usually do not know what they are talking about. Camshaft. The question was asked in connection with my remark that –kim– in akimbo can hardly be traced to Gaelic cam “crooked.” Our correspondent wonders why the origin of cam in camshaft is said to be unknown, for at least here it must be from Gaelic. None of the dictionaries I consulted doubts the origin of camshaft. A camshaft is a shaft supplied with cams, and cam “projection on a wheel” goes back to Dutch kam “comb.” So here too there is no need to refer to Gaelic. Fit as the past tense of fight. This form has been widely attested in both British and American dialect speech. Joseph Wright (The English Dialect Dictionary) mentions it among about a dozen others (Old Engl. feaht “fought” has spawned amazingly many forms), and so does DARE (Dictionary of American Regional English). The OED calls it dialectal or vulgar (in this context, vulgar means “popular; in the manner of vulgus “people”).

Jaywalk. Dr. Douglas G. Wilson, a member of the American Dialect Society, sent me an instructive letter and a link to his database, for both of which I am grateful. In my previous “gleanings,” I noted that jaywalk cannot be a sum of jay and walk because in Modern English there is no model for deriving such verbs: jaywalk must be a back formation from jaywalker. But Dr. Douglas is right that, once such a verb has been coined, it may begin to serve as a model for other verbs and cites to duck-walk. (I would add that “functional change” should also be reckoned with: if the noun duck-walk had any currency, the emergence of the verb duck-walk can be expected. Compare the noun phone, from telephone, and the verb to phone derived from it.) His citations include several nouns like jay rider, jay driver, and jay cyclist. In his opinion, jay driver was the first of them. Like his predecessors, he believes that jay in those words means “hick.” Yet if the old suggestion to the effect that jaywalker originated in Kansas is right, the problem of origins is solved, for Jayhawk and Jayhawker are the traditional nicknames of an inhabitant of Kansas. Only then the whole is based on a pun: from the bird name (as in jay hawk) to jay “hick.”

Straight as the crow flies. I mentioned in passing that crows do not fly in a straight line, and the question was where the idiom comes from. This I do not know, and, characteristically, with a single exception, none of the numerous books devoted to the etymology of idioms features it. According to a current explanation, crows, highly intelligent birds, fly to their food in a straight line. Crows are not birds of prey and look for carrion (compare ravens, the birds of battle in Old Germanic poetry). As a rule, they do not attack, and why should any hungry beast or bird, regardless of its intelligence, meander before coming to the point? The French speak about the flight of a bird, without specifying the oiseau. In any case, the idiom does not seem to have popular roots. Dialect dictionaries mention neither the idiom nor the compound crow flight, and the earliest citation in the OED is unexpectedly late (1800).

Calf rope “surrender.” Calf ~ holler rope, an exclamation known to children in many regions of the United States, but especially in the South, is well documented in DARE, which calls the origin of the phrase uncertain. Instead of solid data on calf rope, I have a few ideas, a dangerous development in etymological studies. In Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth, Act 1, Scene 3, we witness an altercation between the Protector (Gloucester) and the Bishop (Winchester). Winchester defies the Protector, but his men are beaten. Win. Gloucester, thou’lt answer this before the pope. Glo. Winchester goose! I cry a rope! a rope! Rope in this line is cited in the OED and has been explained as a derisive cry attributed to a parrot. However, every word in Gloucester’s reply contains a multilayered insult. Winchester goose was a proverbial name for a syphilitic swelling in the groin. Besides, goose meant “prostitute,” and here it echoes Gloucester’s earlier taunt that Winchester sells indulgences to whores. Parrots were indeed taught to cry rope, presumably, an allusion to a hangman’s halter. Some scholars believe that rope in the Protector’s speech means “a dysfunctional penis.” This interpretation cannot be excluded, but there is a danger to out-Gloucester Gloucester. Now comes my first fanciful idea. Is it not possible that in the 1590’s, when Shakespeare’s play was written, cry rope already meant “to give up, surrender”? (Holler rope is, obviously, a later substitution.) The pun would then be on cry “a rope!” and cry rope. If so, Gloucester, in addition to everything else, exclaims in mock despair: “I give up! What an awful threat!” True, no one thought of this nuance, but then none of the commentators, as far as I can judge, grew up Tom Sawyer-like, fighting other children and occasionally crying rope in humiliation and tears. Some of our idioms with the word rope (for example, to know the ropes) go back to the days of sailboats. Couldn’t cry rope also have originated in sailors’ language? From a syntactic point of view, cry rope resembles cry wolf and cry uncle. I believe that rope! belongs with exclamations like boatmen’s westward-ho! land-ho! Yet, contrary to westward-ho, it must have been a signal of a particularly dangerous situation.

My second fanciful idea concerns calf. It is known from the history of the verb to cave in that cave in it stands for calve. The original form was calve ~ cauve. After the sound l was lost in calve, calve and cave became (near) homophones. A piece of the wall was said to fall down like a calf “dropped” by a cow (“to calve in”). The collocation cave in was presumably borrowed from Low (= northern) German or Frisian, but to cave (without in) looks like a continuation of a form with l; it was a cognate of the continental verb. Cave can be intransitive (“fall”) and transitive (“let fall, tilt”). Although its earliest attestations are from American books, its home seems to be British dialects, supposedly East Anglia. I assume that calf rope goes back to calve rope (that is, cave rope) and meant “drop rope” in the situations in which sailors cried “rope!” Cry rope and calf ~ calve ~ cave rope coexisted as synonyms. The weak points of my reconstruction are obvious: an imposing structure has been erected upon the sand, but our correspondent (whose early years were spent in the state of Mississippi) asked whether I had any thoughts on the idiom, and here they are. An idiom with such a meaning does not augur well.

On this self-effacing note (which in a moment will turn into a self-congratulatory one) I will finish this post and see off the third year of my blog. It came into being in the early spring of 2005. Many happy returns of the day!

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

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Knowing the ropes may, perhaps, refer to sailing ships, but it surely isn’t sailor’s lingo. There is plenty of rigging on a ship, including a fair number of sheets, but remarkably few ropes: the wheel rope is the only one that comes to mind. Rope, on the other hand, is what is bought at the chandler’s; when it comes aboard it is line.

  2. Walter Turner

    Thank you for the discussion of “calf rope.” I didn’t expect you to come up with a definitive answer, but I’m amazed at where your thoughts did lead.

Comments are closed.