By Anatoly Liberman
The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is bad for the fowl, so that an expanded version of what I said on the subject of wayzgoose in July 2006 (see the “gleanings”) may be of some interest to the readers who will discover this post in December 2009. The great dictionaries, beginning with Samuel Johnson’s, preferred not to include wayzgoose (the one important exception will be discussed later). In Webster, to give one example, it appeared in 1880, was expunged from the next edition, and reinstated in 1934. The OED of course features it, and at the end of the 19th century the word’s origin was often, and not always unprofitably, discussed in the popular press. Wayzgoose, the name of printers’ annual banquet, turned up in our texts in 1683. Joseph Moxon, the author of Mechanick Exercises (1683-1684), wrote: “It is customary for the Journey-men every year to make new paper windows, whether the old will serve or no; Because that day they make them the Master Printer gives them a Way-goose, that is, he makes them a good Feast, and not only entertains them at his own house, but besides, gives them Money to spend at the Ale-house or Tavern at Night…. These Waygooses are always kept at Bartholomew-tide [August 24]; and till the Master-Printer have [sic] given this Way-goose the Journey-men do not use to Work by Candle Light.” This passage was discovered by word lovers long ago. The OED reproduced it in full, for no pre-1683 mention of waygoose seems to exist.
It will be seen that the earliest citation at our disposal speaks of way-goose. Wayzgoose surfaced for the first time in Nathaniel Bailey’s immensely popular dictionary (1731), and we still do not know why he added a z to this word or whether wayzgoose lost a z in Moxon’s dialect. Waygoose is now believed to be the original form. Lexicographers think that Bailey, not being able to explain waygoose, changed it to wayzgoose to get the meaning “stubble goose” or “a goose fed on stubble,” because he presumably understood wayz as “stubble.” This conclusion may be right, but it is not entirely satisfactory. Bailey’s etymologies are typical of the beginning of the 18th century, but it would have been silly to distort the name of a feast still celebrated or at least remembered in 1731. Consider publishing a modern dictionary with Thank-giving as a recommended variant! No one has done printers’ work more famous than Charles Henry Timperley. One of his books is titled Songs of the Press and Other Poems, Relative to the Art of Printing… (1833; the OED refers to it too). In it we find an anonymous, undated “Song, Composed for a Printers’ Way Goose” (p. 23; it is a drinking song); so again waygoose, not wayzgoose. Wayzgoose has no support from early texts, but the word occurs too rarely to justify generalizations.
In 1866 W. Carew Hazlitt published a poem The Schole House of Women (1572), in which the following lines occur (with reference to the rib taken from Adam): “A Dog vp caught, and a way gose/ Eat it clene.” To this place he added a note on the origin of waygoose (p. 124; I will return to it later). As ill luck would have it, Hazlitt was an unreliable editor. What he misread as gose ‘goose’ was goes. Those with a taste for watching other people’s humiliation are invited to read James Russell Lowell’s review of Hazlitt’s endeavor in his book My Study Windows. His comment on this place is “… a goose that could eat up a man’s rib could only be matched by one that could swallow such a note,—or write it!” (p. 373 of the 1899 reprint). So we do not have a 1572 example of way- or wayzgoose.
Much later wayzgoose gained some currency, but by the 19th century the custom, referred to by Moxon, had fallen into desuetude, and the word had acquired an antiquarian ring. It is a mystery why it has reemerged or survived in Bailey’s form. The OED remarks that even the alleged custom of eating a goose at the feast called waygoose is not supported by any evidence, even though Timperley said: “The derivation of this term is not generally known. It is from the old English word wayz, stubble. A wayz Goose was the head dish at the annual feast of the forefathers of our fraternity.” He never participated in that feast and imprudently copied Bailey’s entry. If, as the OED suggests, waygoose is an alteration of some word unknown to us, our chance of finding its etymology is zero. In a Russian folk tale, the czar says to a young man: “Go to a place called I don’t know where and find a thing called I don’t know what. The indomitable young man finds both the place and the thing and brings the coveted object to the czar. We will probably be less successful. Yet, as always, it is instructive to see what different people have said about waygoose ~ wayzgoose.
According to one hypothesis, wayz, with its exotic spelling, should be understood as ways, way’s, or wase. The dialectal noun wase “bundle of straw” exists. Even if some geese became fattened on stubble (an unlikely proposition), who has seen a goose gaining weight on “bundles of straw”? Also, geese are still lean at the end of August. The suggestions that the geese allegedly consumed by printers were stolen from the common or that they were fen-geese because wayz- is the continuation of a Middle English word for “mud,” are fanciful. Equally improbable is the connection between wayz- and some cognates of the verb wax “to grow.” In the periodical Verbatim for 2005 (XXX/3), Dorothy E. Zermach mentions Brett Rutherford’s suggestion that waygoose is French oie (pronounced as [wa]) “goose,” combined with Engl. goose. I have a soft spot for tautological compounds like Middle Engl. love-amour, but goose-goose as the name of a feast makes little sense.
Other etymologies trace wayz- to some place name. I am returning to the hapless Hazlitt. He believed that waygoose was a corruption (a common term in his days) of Dutch Waes-goose: “In Le Calendrier Belge, 1862, ii. 270, an account is given of the solemnity and enthusiasm with which the people of Waes, in Brabant, celebrated in former times the festival of Saint Martin, when it was usual to kill a large number of geese, the Saint’s peculiar bird….” He added that “wayz-goose is the designation applied to certain annual banquets (though at no fixed period of the year).” However, the banquet, as we remember, “was always kept at Bartholomew-tide,” while St. Martin’s day falls on November 11. Nothing points to the Dutch origin of the English custom. Other attempts to derive way(z)goose from names have been equally ingenious and equally fruitless, though, in principle, a word like waygoose ~ wayzgoose may have owed its origin to the place where it was held for the first time.
If it happened only in the middle of the 17th century that British printers began to celebrate the coming of autumn and coined the word for the feast, the question about the etymological obscurity of the term they invented receives no answer. If, however, the word sprang up long before that time, we have no explanation for its absence from earlier texts. Still it is safer to assume that the word and its first occurrence are roughly contemporaneous. The OED must be right in suggesting that waygoose was an alternation of some other word and that etymologists bothering about its initial meaning need not look for geese. Most probably, we are dealing with printers’ slang or some joke. New paper windows may have been made to the shouts of “Away goes!”; hence a way-goose. The joke or the slang must have been local and forgotten early, with the result that some people began to insert s ~ z in the middle of the word. Whatever the connection between waygoose and goose, it did not prevent Moxon from treating the compound as not depending on goose; this is evidenced by his plural waygooses.
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.”