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Monthly Gleanings: March 2010


By Anatoly Liberman

LOL and the wide world. Many thanks for the interesting comments, questions, and antedatings! Here comes the first spring set of gleanings. In a story, supposed to be funny, a boy who did not speak until he was six years old suddenly said at dinner: “Too much salt in the soup.” The family was overjoyed, and everybody asked: “Why have you not spoken before?” “So far, I had nothing to complain about,” was the answer. My mail is not too heavy, apparently because I seldom irritate our readers. But last month I applied the epithet short-lived to LOL, the king/queen of texting, and immediately three comments assured me that LOL is very much alive. I stand corrected and hasten to express my joy about the longevity of such a serviceable “word,” the more so as I have studied the history of laughter, and every expression of it, especially when it is unconcealed and loud, warms the cockles of my heart.

Generic they, a permanent irritant.
This is an old hat. At one time, I launched a quixotic attack on sentences like when a student comes, I never make them wait and if a tenant is evicted, it does not mean they were a bad tenant. I contended that such sentences owe their existence to a misguided attempt to get rid of generic he and that the remedy was worse than the disease. Let it be repeated that I did not defend him or her and in general did not say anything outrageous, but my taunt brought forth numerous responses. Some people said that constructions of this type had been used since the days of King Alfred, Chaucer, Fielding, Thackeray, and many other illustrious authors who lived before the-mid seventies of the 20th century (the chronological span is a bit disconcerting). Almost nothing of any interest has been found, and certainly no monstrosities like those I quoted in my post turned up in any old book, for the antecedent has invariably been someone, no one, a person, and so forth. However, every now and then I receive letters purporting to prove me wrong. Here is an example dated 1909: “I don’t want to be a lady… they can’t ever ride straddle nor climb a tree, and they got to squinch their waists and toes.” (Frances Boyd Calhoun, Miss Minerva and William Green Hill; I have no page reference). This is a far cry from the expectant student and the hapless tenant mentioned above. There was no way to avoid they here except for repeating the noun (I don’t want to be a lady. Ladies…). I can say something like it about anything. “No, not a marker. They leave traces on my hands” or “Is this only a mouse? I am not afraid of them.” But they were not a bad tenant? Give me a break!

More about pronouns: “You are It.” I received a question about the origin of it in children’s games. Much to my disappointment, not a single citation has been found in my database (which now exists as A Bibliography of English Etymology). This means that in over 20,000 articles and notes I have read while compiling this bibliography, no one mentioned the history of it even in a perfunctory way. The editors of the OED seem to have run into a similar problem. In the original edition, it (in games) is not mentioned at all. In the First Supplement a few examples appeared, none of them antedating 1888. Later an 1842 example was dug up. The most amazing thing is how late those examples are. Should we assume that it in the games of tag and blindman’s buff did not exist before roughly the middle of the 19th century? This would be a startling assumption. Yet I believe that Murray did not know the word it in this context. Although very seldom, he included words not supported by citations. When he was growing up, the “catcher” must have been called something else or, more likely, nothing at all. In German, a child “tagged” hears: “Du bist dran” (approximately, “you are there’). In Russian, the corresponding expression is “tebe vodit’” (“you will ‘lead’ now”; stress on the last syllable in both words); thus, no noun in either case. If Murray or anyone on his team had remembered you are it from their childhood, such an egregious omission would not have occurred. So where did it come from? Children’s folklore is passed rather faithfully, even if in garbled form, from generation to generation and sometimes retains words lost elsewhere.

My expertise in this area is limited, but I investigated the history of eena, meena (there is an entry on eena in my dictionary) and have an idea of the literature on children’s games. However, my search for the origin of it yielded no results. Mr. Walter Turner, who posted the question, explored the analogs of it in other languages on his own, and both of us came to the same conclusion: outside English, children say nothing like you are it. German das bin ich / ich bin es “that’s me” (note: bin, not ist in the first case) have nothing to do with games. If our readers have suggestions on the origin of it, their answers will be greatly appreciated.

Buzzword and other words. So far, no one has offered any conjectures on the origin of the name Sganarelle and its possible connection with Engl. scoundrel. Nor have I heard from any Yiddish scholar or anyone living in northern England whether my Jewish etymology of the Lancashire word fefnicute is realistic. But I fared better with regard to humbug. My reconstruction of humbug from hum buzz “a person droning on and on” has been treated kindly, and, according to Dr. Richard Tracey from Arizona, humbug “sweetmeat” (a widespread British provincialism) may have received its name from the circumstance that it is deceptively meant to be a peppermint, but inside it is a toffee. Perhaps those who ate humbugs in their childhood may come up with more ideas.

Finally, I will quote one more answer to my query about the coining of buzzword: “…it is derived from the slang buzz, a term I most often hear used to describe a short-term popular interest in or response to a current event, usually something frivolous and connected to celebrities. There’s a TV show called ‘The Daily Buzz’ which focuses mainly on entertainment news and various publications and radio and TV shows worldwide called ‘The Buzz’. A buzzword, then, would be a word which has recently risen from obscurity or non-existence to intense (implicitly short-lived) popularity.” The question is whether the slang buzz is older than buzzword and in what milieu buzzword was coined. It would be a pleasure to quote the letters in which our correspondents and listeners to my talk shows on MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) express their contempt for buzzwords, particularly issue, that has clung to our teeth like gum. I share their contempt wholeheartedly.

Blends. What is ginormous? It is a blend of gigantic and enormous (not too precious an addition to our vocabulary, IMHO). Kipling’s curtuosity. This word occurs in his Just So Stories (in The Elephant’s Child). Among other things, that story contains a loving parody of his youngest daughter’s propensity for using half-assimilated long words. It will be remembered that the little elephant was very curious, and every time he asked a question his dear relatives spanked him. The spanking had truly dire consequences when once he inquired what the crocodile has for dinner. Kipling says that the elephant’s child was full of ‘satiable curtuosity, a blend of curiosity and courteous.

Separate words. Extra “additional”: how old is it? According to the OED it goes back to the end of the 18th century; extra here may be a clipped form of extraordinary and imitate French usage. Ouster. Why does it mean “ejection” rather than “someone who ejects”, considering that oust is a verb? The verb oust was borrowed from Anglo-French (Old French oster, from Latin obstare “oppose, hinder”: cf. obstacle). In the legal language of late Middle English and early Modern English, many French verbs ending in –er were used as nouns. Ouster is one of them. In this respect it shares common ground with waiver, disclaimer, remainder, and the like. Leep-shun, as used by a German mother in addressing her daughter. This is liebchen “dearie,” from lieb– “dear” and a diminutive suffix. Depending on the woman’s dialect, the suffix may have sounded as shen or as khen, with the first consonant resembling the beginning of Engl. huge. Latin respice finem is the end of the sentence “Quidquid agis, prudenter agas et RESPICE FINEM,” that is, “Whatever you may do, do it prudently and think of (anticipate, consider) the end (outcome).” From one of the forms of respice we have respect. The verb respicio means “to look back,” but it also acquired the meanings “tale care; take into account,” and others.

I have several more questions, including one on the origin of kitschy, but will answer them in April and will finish by posing a question to our readers. Does anyone know why in American English Leif in Leif Eriksson does not rhyme with safe but is pronounced as if Leif were spelled lief or leaf? My ideas are few and crude.

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

    The 1902 edition online at Google Books has curtiosity, not curtuosity, and indeed this very posting is one of only two Google hits for the latter spelling. The notion that courteous is involved in this word is plausible but unverifiable, what evolutionary biologists call a just-so story.

    /lif/ for Leif is surely a spelling pronunciation associated with belief, relief. Americans are far more likely to learn the name from a history textbook than to actually know anyone, American or otherwise, who bears it.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Merely a wild game guess. In Scotland the game we call Tag was called Tig (e.g., according to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 10 [1821] 38), or Tigg, or Tig-Tow, (cf. Tic, Tig-touch-iron, etc.). And it is in Scotland where the earliest known “it” is found (1842 R. CHAMBERS Pop. Rhymes Scotl. 62/2 The tig usually catches and touches some one upon the crown before all are in–otherwise he has to be _it_ for another game). Might there be a role reversal metathesis, ti[g] to it?

  3. Stephen Goranson

    Further on “it” in games such as Tig me if you can in Scotland (1825 Jameson, Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language Supp. II: 569). Interdates between 1842 and 1888 related to possible “tig you’re it” reversals include:

    The Little corporal‎ – Page 36
    Alfred L. Sewell, Edward Eggleston, Emily Huntington Miller – 1869
    Tho’ yon like thin game of “tag,”
    And you play with all your heart,
    When you’re “it” you often lag- …

    Wide awake, Volume R (18)‎ – Page 209-19
    Ella (Farman) Pratt – 1884
    “Hey! Come on you–Personal Pronoun!”…
    “I’m not a Personal Pronoun!” Ruthie shouted…
    ~…”you’re it”
    Oh, it’s a game of tag, is it ?” cried Ruthie, quite reassured. ” Why didn’t
    you say so? I didn’t know you were playing.”

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