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Monthly etymology gleanings for November 2012

By Anatoly Liberman

It has been a tempestuous month in the world but a quiet one in the department of English etymology. Both the comments and the questions I received dealt with separate words, and there have been not too many of them.

Lollygag. In July 2007 I already wrote what I thought about this word. Although most people, at least in America, say lollygag, its doublet lallygag is well-known. The variation is typical. We are dealing with a sound imitative or perhaps sound symbolic complex endowed with a vague sense, and vowel alternations emphasize the scope and fluidity of its meaning (a good example of what semioticians call iconicity). Outside English and partly in it, including its past periods, rather many words begin with lall– and lill-, synonymous with loll-; also, lolly once meant “tongue.” Even Engl. lull is “sort of” (those around me say “kinda”) related. Nor are compounds with loll– too rare. I could cite loblolly “thick gruel” (to be strictly distinguished from the thin gruel Oliver Twist was fed), later “bumpkin, hayseed, hillbilly,” and lollypop, along with British dialectal lollpot “lazy, lounging fellow” and lollypot “idiot.”

Lollygag too is probably of dialectal origin. Although seemingly an Americanism, lollygag aligns itself very well with lollypot and the rest. Gag is another sound imitative word, as evidenced by gaggle, giggle, dialectal guggle, and their kin. Loll- covers the territory from mumbling to loafing; gag- refers to actions as different as choking and cheating. Conjoined, they produce the effect of a wasteful activity, whose overtones vary. A specific difficulty in etymologizing such formations is the dubious character of the third vowel. Perhaps lollygag arose as loll-a-gag (compare lack-a-daisical, jack-a-napes, rag-a-muffin, and so forth). In pronunciation, the difference between connecting i and a is not too significant. Anyway, lollygag resembles the tautological compounds mentioned in the previous post. Both elements of this verb seem to mean approximately “kill time.” Those are odd words: lollygag, bullyrag, scalawag….

Theodore Roosevelt’s bully pulpit. We have fallen prey to the ambiguity of the word bully. Roosevelt was fond of the adjective bully, which in his usage meant “excellent.” He, quite correctly, believed that the White House is a splendid (“bully”) place for propagating ideas. Since the positive sense of bully is now nearly forgotten, most people understand the phrase as referring to a platform from which you can bully your opponents.

Fowl and dog. I agree that no facts militate against connecting fowl with fly. But is this enough for the onus probandi? Unfortunately, facts supporting the derivation of fowl from fly are also absent. The question should, of necessity, remain open. As for dog, I, naturally, have read the relevant article in Indogermanische Forschungen (naturally, because I regularly follow the main publications for my database and later try to catch up with the less visible journals). The hypothesis suggested there is one of many. Perhaps it solves the problem, and perhaps it does not. The other words of the same type (pig, stag, frog, and one or two others) are also obscure, as is, incidentally, fox. The Indo-European root of hound is reconstructible, but its meaning is not. We can only say that people called the dog a “dog.”

Bald-faced lie. This is a late phrase, apparently, an American (US) alteration of barefaced lie. Its origin is not quite clear. Perhaps it refers to a “white,” that is, “unblushing,” rather than hairless, face. Mere guesswork, once again quoting Skeat’s favorite phrase. Bold-faced lie is an alteration of the otherwise incomprehensible locution, a product of folk etymology. While on this topic, I may mention the circumstance that Mr. Verdant Greene, the hero of Cuthbert Bede’s evergreen novel, went to Brazenface College, Oxford, which, though usually full, was not known for “overcrowding” and was by all accounts a nicer place than Mr. Squeers’s Dotheboys Hall (Nicholas Nickleby).

Fresh and stale tidbits

Spelling. The only practical way to reform English spelling is to get very many people involved. This means inundating newspapers and journals with letters to the editor. In 1907 Charles P. G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary and a passionate supporter of Spelling Reform in the United States was in a position to announce in The Nation: “Information on this subject may be had by writing to the Simplified Spelling Board, No. 1 Madison Avenue, New York,” and the Board’s headquarters bombarded the media with letters and discussion. So far, despite a few splashes, the reformers have kept the proverbial low profile.

More from The Nation. Chicago, I understand, was in narrow straits at the beginning of the nineteenth century. One reads in a letter responding to Professor Blackburn’s address to the Central Division of the Modern Language Association of America (1906): “Where shall we find the teachers who may ‘do much’ to restore to our children their lost inheritance? Not in Chicago’s schools. Here, I can assure him, he will find dozens of schools in which not one teacher is capable of setting an example of pure and beautiful speech.” It is always comforting to know that our ancestors were as ignorant as we are.

Back to Chicago: CBS and its Progeny. Apart from what everybody recognizes, CBS means hundreds of useless things, for example, “can’t be stuffed” and “can’t stop laughing.” This type of English has become a curse to those who have not mastered it. The problem is not new. A hundred year ago, there was “an eruption in Chicago of the expression curious to know.” One popular journalist was so fond of it that he wrote c2k instead. Our inventions are far from original.

A second lease. Words tend to disappear and then return with a vengeance. The first edition of the OED recorded obese in 1651, then in 1654, and never again until 1822. Close to it is occupy, which quite early acquired the sense “cohabit” and was therefore avoided in the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth century. Who could have thought that both words, especially obese, would become so common in our life!

Scots and English. Speakers on both sides of the Atlantic will be amused to see how many forms considered Scots in 1760 are now proper English, sometimes depending on where it is spoken. Here are a few samples from an article printed in Scots Magazine 22, 1760, pp. 686-688:

  • Sc. friends and acquaintances / Engl. friends and acquaintance (for Jane Austen, I remember, acquaintance, was only a collective noun: “those with whom one is acquainted”);
  • Sc. maltreat / Engl. abuse;
  • Sc. proven /Engl. proved;
  • Sc. pled / Engl. pleaded;
  • Sc. incarcerate / Engl. imprison;
  • Sc. tear to pieces / Engl. tear in pieces.

(To be continued.)

Friends and acquaintance

Sequence of tenses. Some time ago, I noted that journalists use would for no obvious reason: it is neither the subjunctive nor the so-called future in the past. Here is a characteristic passage: “Obama has been clear for more than a year that he would resist direct U.S. intervention, but in August he said one circumstance would cause him to revisit that position.” Only the second would makes sense to me, for I doubt that the first one means “would rather.” I expected will resist.

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

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Image credit: Édouard Manet. Luncheon on the Grass. 1863. Musée d’Orsay. Google Art Project. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    The first use of would means ‘intended to’. Will would be excessively definite.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    For some reason or other, some poor quality whiskey was called in the US “bald-face.” For example, in the 1840 Indiana General Assembly House of Representatives journal.
    Bald-face(d)may have been associated with lies sightly later but at least as early as 1844. Here’s a Missouri newspaper with two uses of


    Now that does not prove a connection–a sort of drunken lie–as if Post hoc ergo propter hoc. But it might could raise a question that could be looked into.

  3. Ann Snyder

    How early was the phrase “What’s up with” used? Not as in “Hey, what’s up?”, but as in “What’s up with that action?” or “What’s up with that odd choice of clothing?” or similar questions about behavior or appearance. My impression is that the phrase has been around for a few hundred years, but I would like to know for certain it’s early appearances in British slang.

  4. James Geach

    “Would” certainly doesn’t mean ‘intended to’ there, just think about the new sentence:
    Obama has made it clear for more than a year that he intended to resist direct US intervention.
    That would be used if for example, one year ago, Obama had wanted to resist US intervention but hadn’t because something prevented him; he’s spent the last year explaining that he intended to, but couldn’t.

    But I agree that it is being used to avoid definiteness: if you said
    Obama has made it clear for more than a year that he intends to resist direct US intervention.
    That (at least somewhat) implies that the US will intervene.
    On the other hand, if we say,
    he would resist direct US intervention
    we are implying
    [IF the US were to intervene]

    The only problem I have with the sentence is that the writer used ‘resist’ instead of ‘oppose’!

  5. Oh, what lark! | OUPblog

    […] come to the point. In lai- most researchers recognize a sound imitative complex. Last week, while discussing lollygag, I touched on the complex lal- ~ lol- ~ lul- ~ lil-. Among other things, it often refers to sound. […]

  6. Fabio (Vinos Ambiz)

    The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar.
    It was tense.

  7. […] Scotticisms. Rather long ago I began reproducing items from Scots Magazine for 1760. There I found Scots words as opposed to […]

  8. Philippa Bogle

    Regarding lollygagging,I wonder if there’s a connection with the Pollari word “Lallies” which means legs?

  9. Eddy Mulgie


    “We’ve been thinking we would go to Iceland this year (if the scheduling works out).”

    “I told him I would continue to stand fast and would not give in to his extortionate threats.” [This “would” seems to have an element of “will” in the sense of a vow or a deliberate stance or commitment to pursue a certain course. This “would” also probably involves the conditionality of an implicit “if this extortion persists.”]

    I haven’t researched this, but I’m sharing something that occurred to me off the top of my head.

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