Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Monthly Gleanings: November 2009


By Anatoly Liberman

Semantic change. The question was about how words narrow and broaden their meanings. The vagaries of semantic change are often hard to trace, but both narrowing and broadening of meaning have been recorded. As regards the history of conservative and liberal, mentioned in the question, it should be remembered that political terms regularly acquire derogatory connotations in the mouths of opponents, but the original meanings happen to be forgotten even by those who have been mocked. The word god (another example) also changes its semantic range, depending on the society’s attitude toward religion. It is not everywhere that someone may or might say: “So-and-so is my god.”

The burden of proof in etymology. In etymology, does the burden of proof lie on the side arguing relation or on the side arguing no relation? Can we conclude that good and god are unrelated simply by noting the lack of demonstrable evidence as supporting the opposite conclusion? As far as I understand, problem solving in etymology is not different from a related process elsewhere, because, in searching for the truth, any honest scholar will weigh all the arguments for and against the proposed solution. Experience shows that in at least non-axiomatic branches of knowledge it is easier to refute or call into question a conclusion than to prove it. Certain facts are marshaled in defense of what the researcher believes to be the best inference, but facts can be interpreted in many ways; hence the perennial tug of war in the scientific world. I am not aware of any proposal in everyday life or scholarship that does not have its critics. The position of attackers is usually stronger that that of defenders, which does not mean that it is always more viable, for were it such, we would have been unable to make even the smallest step forward. Occasionally attackers have enough ammunition to destroy the fortress (sorry for speaking in metaphors). Returning to the subject that inspired the question, god had a short vowel, while good had a long one. Anyone who tries to show that the two words are related has to get over this obstacle. No one has succeeded. Emotions and righteous feelings don’t count. (See more on good and god below.)

Idioms and phrases
Nimble Jacks. Our correspondent wonders which came first: the nursery rhyme (“Jack, be nimble/ Jack be quick/ Jack, jump over the candle stick”) or Shakespeare’s mention of nimble jacks. I have dealt with Shakespeare’s sonnets and children’s literature for nearly forty years, but the connection has never occurred to me. Nor did anyone else seem to have thought of it. The two most detailed recent editions of the sonnets, by John Kerrigan and C. Blakemore Evans, make no mention of jumping, nimble Jack. The first eight lines of Sonnet 128 run as follows: “How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st/ Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds/ With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st/ The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,/ Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap/ to kiss the tender inward of thy hand, /Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,/ At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!” (Nimble is used adverbially and means nimbly.) “The dark lady of the sonnets” is represented playing on the virginal (a cased instrument resembling a spinet but without legs). Jacks are the keys of the virginal. The question is whether Shakespeare, when he chose the word nimble, intended a punning allusion to the nursery rhyme. We will probably never know the answer, but the coincidence is striking, and I may only hope that commentators will pick up this blog and give thought to it. The age of most nursery rhymes is indeterminate. However, this is what William and Ceil Baring-Gould say in their book The Annotated Mother Goose (No. 411, p. 194): “For centuries, jumping over a candle has been both a sport and a way of telling fortunes in England. A candlestick with a lighted candle in it was placed on the floor. The person who would jump over it without putting out the flame was assured of having good luck for a full year. This custom was particularly associated with the festivities conducted by the lace-makers of Wendover in Buckinghamshire on November 25th, St. Catherine’s day. This day, the popular holiday before Advent, was also in medieval times a day for weddings….” The distance between Stratford-on-Avon and Wendover is not great, and Shakespeare must have known about the festivities, so that the pun on nimble Jack/jacks is possible, assuming that the rhyme predates the second half of the 16th century, and this is something of which we cannot be certain.

Other phrases. I have said more than once that word columnists receive the same questions year in, year out. Quite naturally, they give the same answers every time they are asked, but no one seems to be much the wiser for it. A stock of questions considered worthy of asking (some sort of etymological folklore) seems to exist, for why else should people keep inquiring about the origin of the proof of the pudding and cat’s pajamas with such deadening regularity? A warning is in place here. The origin of phrases is sometimes even harder to discover than the origin of words. Numerous popular books have been written on the putative sources of proverbs, idioms, and catchphrases. As a rule, they should be consulted with utmost caution, because their authors do not refer to the works they used. Occasionally the date from the OED is given, but more often another unreliable book with a title like “Why Do We Say So?” serves as an authority.

Now cat’s pajamas and the rest. The oft-repeated statement that cat’s pajamas goes back to the end of the 18th century has no foundation in reality. In the twenties of the 20th century, many nonsensical, moderately funny phrases of this type appeared in the United States (cat’s whiskers, cat’s meow, bee’s knees, and so forth), all expressing admiration, though, as Jonathan E. Lighter notes in The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, cat’s pajamas may also express annoyance or displeasure. Some of them were popularized in cartoons, but the names of their originators are usually beyond recovery. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Apart from the incontestable fact that proof here means “test,” as in the maxim exception proves the rule, explanations referring to the composition of medieval puddings (pudding designated a kind of sausage), their length, and the way of their consumption look strained. Apparently, one cannot know the value of anything until it has been tested—a truism of the same type as praise the day in the evening. Just why the pudding has been chosen to “prove” the obvious remains hidden. The rule of thumb. At one time something must have been measured by the thumb (compare such units of measure as foot, span, fathom, and ellell as in elbow). The rest is guesswork, and the theories usually cited do not explain why this rule presupposes rough, intuitive, rather than precise, calculation. Happy as a clam. The meaning of the simile becomes clear when we remember that its full version is happy as a clam at high tide. By the by. The earlier variants were at/ of/ on the by. They make a bit more sense than our modern by the by.

Separate words. Jiffy. Most dictionaries say that the origin of this word is unknown, and this is true, though uninspiring. Hensleigh Wedgwood listed jiffy among other words designating “zigzag,” whereas Wilhelm Braune examined it in the context of words referring to gaps and an open mouth. Neither solution appears to be fully convincing. Jiffy is an expressive word, on a par with so many others having the structure g-b and j-b and vaguely referring to quickness and restlessness. Compare jab, gibberish, and giffle ~ jiffle “to be restless” (most words cited by Wedgwood and Braune are regional). Hubba-hubba. At one time, I devoted a special post to it and received several comments. Here I will quote the most recent letter from our correspondent and let specialists in the hubba-hubba problem investigate it further. From Mr. Henry Bergener: “My late uncle Frederick Bergener has published old articles depicting the origin of hubba-hubba. It seems my great uncle Charles Fritche was a vaudeville comic who coined the term during WWII. He later mentioned such ‘modern’ comedians as Bob Hope and Red Skelton. My late uncle’s family has signed memorabilia from both of these comics that are addressed to Great Uncle Charlie.” I will only add that several people claimed the authorship of hubba-hubba and that this situation is typical of slang. Solemn, tempt, etc. True, we can seldom be certain of how anything was pronounced in Middle English. The group -mn in solemn may have been a spelling mannerism imitating the word’s Romance source. Yet when we see words like dumb, it is safer to assume that what was written was pronounced. Modern tempt has p in careful pronunciation, but spelling dumb with final b is a waste of “ink.” Damn should perhaps retain its n because of damnation, but what can we lose if we dispense with b in dumb? Does drum need one more letter at the end? The comment that also in other languages b has been inserted in words sounding like Engl. thimble (Spanish is an excellent example) is quite correct. Such forms are often cited in books on general phonetics. Gypsy and chicanery. The origin of Gypsy (from Egyptian) is non-controversial, while chicanery is an obscure word. I once devoted some space to it in this blog and made a feeble attempt to connect chicanery with shenanigans. However, there can be no bridge from either of them to Gypsy.

Barf “vomit.” Its homonym barf-barf “bow-wow” suggests that the verb is also onomatopoeic, this time imitating the sound one makes when retching. Our correspondent’s grandmother used to call her grandchildren delovers. The word clearly means “loved ones.” Delove was not the old lady’s invention (see DARE, Dictionary of American Regional English). DARE considers the influence of beloved, but perhaps de is a facetious alternation of the. Lufkin (pronounced loof-kin) “fool.” The closest I can find is looby “a dull, clumsy person” (-kin is a diminutive suffix). Lob and lubber (the latter known to us mainly from landlubber) belong with looby. The OED mentions Germanic and French words of similar structure (l-b), but the French connection can probably be disregarded. It is unclear whether looby ~ lubber have anything to do with “lobbing” (loosely hanging things) or with lump. Polerhockerschmit “ragman.” The word is obviously German (-schmit betrays its origin). Hocker (usually with umlauted o, but hocker is current in some parts of Germany) means “itinerant salesman, huckster, hawker, badger” (to exhaust the synonyms for this word). Poler is unclear to me. Hobber-dobber “hurry up.” I can offer no etymology, except that, in my experience, the nucleus of such words (cf. hugger-mugger and helter-skelter) is usually the second element, whereas the h-part is added to rhyme with the first. Unfortunately, dobber led me nowhere, for the meaning I found in Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary (“the float of an angle”) sheds no light on the sense “hurry up.” On the other hand, here hobber may be the main part. If so, I have no clue to the compound at all. I mention hobber-dobber and poler in the hope that someone will have an illuminating idea on their origin.

God and good. Some of my opponents tend to believe that I am more ignorant than I seem. During the existence of this blog I have received numerous valuable suggestions. Also, quite a few of my statements needed correction, and I have gratefully acknowledged advice and help. But it amuses me to read comments to the effect that I have had no exposure to Old and Middle English (there was such an episode, connected with my discussion of generic they), that I am not aware of Sanskrit declensions and sandhi forms, or that I have fallen prey to my “exoticizing imagination.” Since I prefer not to speak about things I don’t know, such barbs miss their target. It is true that if god is a cognate of Sanskrit ghora-, it should be dissociated from the other roots supposedly related to the Germanic word. This, quite naturally, was Brugmann’s assumption. The remark of our correspondent that in Sanskrit and Vedic texts the gods are not feared is partly correct (partly, because worshipping often presupposes both adoration and fear), but the hymns of the Rg-Veda have nothing to do with “primitive religion.” Although they bear witness to the early or archaic stages in the history of the Indian religion, there is nothing “primitive” about them. In my post, I referred to the animistic period in the development of human beliefs, when every rivulet, every tree, and every stone had its divine inhabitant and when the spirits above us were visualized as multitudes causing diseases, mental and physical. Language often retains traces of such beliefs millennia after they disappear. Thus, I will not profit by the advice addressed to me (“physician, heal thyself”), for I do not suffer from the disease I have set out to cure. (On a similar subject. Modern Irish begorrah, mentioned by our other correspondent, is, most probably, the local pronunciation of Engl. by God, with d “rhotacized.”)

Mr. Kostas Fostieris has been working on an English dictionary supplied with Greek notes and is ready to share his findings with me. Needless to say, I am eager for cooperation. He pointed out that Greek-speakers connect Theos “god” with a root meaning “run” (“all people run to God for protection”). This is a product of folk etymology. He also believes that good is related to Greek agathos (the same meaning). However, the two words are probably not related despite the numerous attempts to prove the opposite. An almost exhaustive survey of the literature can be found in Sigmund Feist’s Gothic Etymological Dictionary (in German). The most authoritative etymological dictionaries of Classical Greek—by Frisk (in German) and Chantraine (in French)—do not recognize the connection. Greek agathos has no accepted etymology. In contrast, Russian god-nyi “fitting” (as well as its other Slavic congeners) and English good are unquestionable cognates.

Sincere. This word came to English from Latin via French, but the origin of the Latin adjective is unknown. Sincerus looks like a compound whose first element (sin-) has not been explained. In Latin it had a wide range of applications: “whole, uninjured; clean; pure, unmixed; genuine; sound, uncorrupted.” This fact weakens the etymology, according to which sincerus goes back to sine cera “without wax,” with reference to wine jars sealed so and remaining clean, or to honey free from wax, or to flawless pots sent to market in Ancient Rome (without wax being rubbed into the cracks to disguise them; no evidence exists that potters resorted to such tricks), or waxed tablets, once smeared with wax and then written upon (another fantasy). A process by which a word with a concrete sense acquires many figurative ones is well-known, but nothing testifies to the spread of the “without wax” meaning to other spheres. And how did sine cera become sincerus? The pure honey etymology has enjoyed great popularity since antiquity and was repeated in scholarly books as late as the middle of the 19th century. “Wholly separated” (from sin- “once,” as in singuli “one by one,” and cer-, as in cernere “to separate”) has little appeal, and several other conjectures are even less credible. The riddle remains unresolved.

The honeyless bee. I miss no chance to rave against the spelling bee nightmare. The above discussion of pure honey reminded me of my pet topic. Those who love their children, sweet and innocent, as well as disgruntled and no longer innocent, read and shudder at the words used in the last tour of the 2009 torture: Laodicean, gastaldo, thylacine, and macle. Do our teenagers have to ruin their mind and psyche by this nonsense for the sake of the title and $40,000 that go with it? Is the price right? Enemies of this hive unite!

I have received many questions about usage and will try to answer them in my next set of gleanings, on the last Wednesday of December, before 2009 comes to a close.

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

    Exceptio probat regulam certainly does not mean, or did not originally mean, ‘the exception tests the rule’. Rather it was and is a maxim of legal interpretation, meaning ‘evidence of the existence of an exception is evidence for the existence of a rule not (or no longer) extant.’ The phrase is a modern one, the earliest known use being from 1617, in Samuel Collins Epphata to F.T.; or, the Defence of the Bishop of Elie concerning his answer to Cardinall Ballarmine’s Apologie p. 100:

    “Indefinites are equivalent to universalls especially where one exception being made, it is plaine that all others are thereby cut off, according to the rule Exceptio figit regulam in [casibus] non exceptis.

    Note the use of figit here. By the time of Coke’s Reports the modern verb has appeared:

    “[…] upon which Award of the Exigent [a summons to appear on pain of outlawry], his Administrators brought a Writ of Error; and it was adjudged, That the Writ of Error did lie, and the reason was, Because that by the Awarding of the Exigent, his Goods and Chattels were forfeited, and of such Awards which tend ad tale grave damnum of the party, a Writ of Error lieth, although the Principal Judgment was never given; in this case, Exceptio probat regulam, & sic de similibus.” (Note also Coke’s use of the pleonasm “reason … because”, frequently denounced nowadays as a neologism.)

    Cic. Balb. 12.32 says something similar, but without either of these verbs: “Quod si exceptio facit ne liceat, ubi [non sit exceptum, ibi] necesse est licere.” The evident slip of the pen, tongue, or mind has been repaired in a variety of other ways, but all in the same general sense.

    That said, the proof of the pudding is indeed about testing, not about fixing or proving.

    I wonder if hobber-dobber is somehow tied to hubba-hubba, in the older sense of encouraging a slow player to get moving. I also wonder if the -er of the one and the -a of the other represent non-rhotic and rhotic spellings of the same thing.

    Lastly, I quite agree with you about spelling bees.

  2. mollymooly

    “begorrah” is pure stage-Irish. Less artificial examples of rhotacized dental stops would be: Dublin “shurrup” for “shut up”; or Scouse “a lorra” for “a lot of”, as in Cilla Black’s catchphrase “we’re gonna have a lorra lorra laughs”.

    “the incontestable fact that proof here means “test,” as in the maxim exception proves the rule” — Wikipedia’s article on “Exception that proves the rule”, citing Fowler, traces it to exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis (“the exception confirms the rule in cases not excepted”)

  3. mollymooly

    dental > alveolar

Comments are closed.