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Monthly etymology gleanings for August 2013, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman

I have received many comments on the posts published in August and many questions. Rather than making these gleanings inordinately long, I have broken them into two parts. Today I’ll begin by asking rather than answering questions, because to some queries I am unable to give quotable (or any) answers. If someone can be of help, their assistance will be greatly appreciated.

Buck rabbit.
The question was not of the predictable type, that is, “why rabbit if the dish is made of bread, cheese, and a few other ingredients, rabbit meat not being one of them?” “Why Welsh?” or “Is it rabbit or rarebit?” (Rabbit, rabbit, not rarebit.) The puzzling word is buck: Why (or whence) buck? I have a sizable database on Welsh rabbit but not a single mention of buck. Does anyone know how buck appeared in it? Or is the solution embarrassingly simple? (In so far as we are dealing with an imaginary rabbit, let it be a strong and active “buck” (male) rabbit: one piece of nonsense fortifying another.)

My mother (brother, friend) and I.
When and under what circumstances were people taught to put I in the second place? I wonder whether it is a product of courtly manners and sham modesty or whether the smallness of the letter i helped to drive it from the head position in sentences that began with enumeration. Or did English borrow this rule from French, in which and I is et moi and has to follow the word that precedes it because the “dictionary pronoun” is je? Somewhere in the books on English historical syntax one can surely find reference to the period when this usage was imposed on English, and an explanation. The French hypothesis seems not unreasonable to me (if it is correct, the usage probably goes back to late Middle English).

Capsize, its origin.
Many relatively recent nautical terms are obscure. I have dealt with galoot, painter “rope,” awning, and tarpaulin, and it has always surprised me that the origin of the words often coined in the full light of history, as the saying goes, remains unknown. I had some luck with galoot, but I stumbled into its etymology by chance (and wrote a triumphant post on my discovery). Capsize, a late eighteenth-century verb, has been dismissed by most dictionaries as impenetrable or with a brief noncommittal reference to Skeat (“perhaps from Spanish capuzar, to sink (a ship) by the head; apparently a derivative of Latin caput, the head”). Before Skeat (1882), Mahn’s etymology (in Webster-Mahn) had some currency: “from cap ‘top, head’ and seize, because it is properly to move a hogshead or other vessel forward by turning it alternately in the heads.” But how do we get size from seize?

The only attempt to improve on Skeat’s derivation came from Ernest Weekley, who pointed to the original form capacise. The first element, he suggested, probably means “head”, but French capoter and Spanish capuzar suggest some connection with cape “hood.” In a special article (1910) he said more than in his dictionary:

“The regular nautical word up to the nineteenth century seems to have been ‘overset’. I should guess that the word will be found to belong to the south coast of France. Provençal is particularly rich in compounds of cap, with an adjective or past participle, e.g. capcaudat [and many more examples], but these are all metrical terms…. Is there a Provençal phrase cap-assis, ‘topsy-turvy’? As the first part of this ‘low word’ means head, I am inclined to guess that the second part has some connexion with the head’s antipodes….”

The origin of capoter is not entirely clear either: perhaps from capot “trick” (in cards), used during the Thirty Years’ War in the phrase faire capot “kill” (supposedly, a grim joke). German kaputt is from French capot. Whether capot has anything to do with the cape that lepers were made to wear, to warn people of their approach, or with capoter is unclear. I can only add that capacize looks like many words with a in the middle (bric-a-brac, cap-a-pied, and others of this type, including cock-a-doodledoo); then cap-a-size.

From the south coast of France we should move to Brittany. Mr. Dominic King has written me the following:

“Cornouailles in Finistères (the extreme western peninsula of Brittany) has a rocky coastline and very treacherous waters, with unpredictable tides and storms. The most dangerous area for shipping has historically been around the lighthouse-strewn Pointe du Raz and the Pointe du Van, between which lies the infamous Baie de Trépassés, a name which refers to the wreckers who drew ships to their doom, and the bodies washed up along the shore. The entire cape is known as Cap Sizun…. The coincidence of letters seems too exact to ignore. I can well imagine survivors of a ghastly wreck returning to the English Cornwall and mentioning “Capsizin’” in connection with their experience. I can find no trace of this possible explanation, and wonder what you and your readers might think of my suggestion.”

I would very much like to join Mr. King and ask this question of our readers. What is known about the Breton origin of the place name Cap Sizun? Can capsizing be connected with this name?

Kastell ar Roc'h. Réserve du cap Sizun, Finistère, France. Photo by Jymm. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Kastell ar Roc’h. Réserve du cap Sizun, Finistère, France. Photo by Jymm. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, for a change, I am turning to something I know.

Mr. David Loiterstein attached to his letter an article from the newspaper The Oregonian for 14 September 1888 and asked whether it might shed new light on the history of hobo. In the article titled “Origin of the Term Hobo,” a reporter asks the police captain: “What is new today?” and gets the answer: “A couple of hobos have just been brought in.” The captain adds: “I see by your puzzled look you do not understand what a hobo is.” He then explains that hobo is a word, or rather a secret password, used by tramps when they want to find out whether the person they have met on the road belongs to their Independent Order. The romantic story about the “order” is probably fiction, but the etymology referring hobo to ho beau (variant: ho bo’), an exclamation allegedly used by tramps while addressing one another, has been repeated many times. Although it cannot be refuted, the evidence for it is slim, and in general, the principle of onus probandi (the burden of proof) requires that the party who alleges the affirmative of any proposition produce the necessary evidence rather than that the defender disprove it. I once devoted a post to this word. In it I listed numerous conjectures on the derivation of hobo, most of them silly. The interesting part of the newspaper publication is that in 1888, in Oregon, a reporter, a person who must have been well versed in local slang, had not yet heard the word, though it arose around that time and in exactly that part of the United States. By contrast, the police officer knew not only the word but also a legend of its origin, which he believed. Beware of folk etymology!

The etymon of this word is Old French guantelet “glove,” which is of Germanic origin. Gloves, or rather mittens, became surprisingly prominent in Old Germanic days. Grendel, the monster of Beowulf, collected his dead victims in a “glove” (glof; some sort of pouch?). One of the Icelandic legendary heroes was called Vöttr “glove” (whatever the reason for the soubriquet; vöttr, from the protoform wantur). This is the gauntlet one throws when challenging an opponent. Gauntlet, as in run the gauntlet, was confused with gauntlet “glove,” to which it has no relation, and goes back to Swedish, not French. Here the etymon is gatlopp, from gata “lane, street” (Engl. gate is a borrowing from Scandinavian) and lopp “course” (compare German laufen “run” and Engl. leap; also interloper: –loper is from Dutch). The name of the punishment returns us to the Thirty Year’s War. English soldiers picked up many words between 1618 and 1648. Those interested in another acquisition from that period may read my post on Old Nick.

To be continued.

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 on the OUPblog 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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Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    It is possible that “hobo” originated in Oregon or nearby. But how do you know that “it arose around that time and in exactly that part of the United States”?
    The St. Paul [MN] Daily Globe, Nov. 30, 1885 page 8 columns 1-2 has a long article on local tramps and hoboes and their slang, based on interviews. Available from Library of Congress:
    “Hobo” is used again in that newspaper on Dec 16, 1885. And in the Kansas City Star (reporting from Wichita) on April 19, 1888.
    The Nov. 30, 1885 article makes no geographic origin claim, but attests to use in Minnesota in 1885. The Nov. 1885 article may be mistaken about the etymology–or it may include evidence worth considering.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    The earliest use in the (unrevised) OED entry for capsize (verb) is from 1788. Here’s a use from 1758. The London Chronicle/ Lloyd’s British Chronicle for 1758 (Feb.) page 130, col. 2: Plymouth-Dock. Feb. 3. His Majesty’s ship the Duke being to be docked next spring-tide, the Officers used all expedition imaginable to get her unrigged, and got the main-top unbolted before they got the cap off, and after getting the cap off, and lowering it into the top, the top capsized, by which two men fell on the deck, and were crushed to pieces, one man was flung overboard and sunk, and has not been seen since, and several others had their arms and legs broke. At HathiTrust:

  3. Pascal Tréguer

    “Cap Sizun” is not connected with “capsizing”.

    “Sizun”, a Breton name, is also the name of a town in Brittany.

    The name “Cap Sizun” is related to “Enez-Sun”, the Breton name of l’île de Sein, an Atlantic island off Finistère.

    In “Enez-Sun”, “Sun” is a contraction of “Sizun”.

    It seems that “sizun”, which means “jagged”, “ragged”, describes the coastline.

    By the way, the French name “Baie des Trépassés” is not from ship wreckers, but from a misinterpretation of the original Breton name of this bay.

    The original Breton name is “Bae an Avon”, “the bay of the river”, but it was understood as “Bae an Anaon”, “the bay of the deceased”.

    However, shipping is so dangerous in those areas that Breton sailors have this saying:

    “Qui voit Molène voit sa peine
    Qui voit Ouessant voit son sang
    Qui voit Sein voit sa fin
    Qui voit Groix voit sa croix.”

    Molène, Ouessant, Sein and Groix are islands. The saying translates as:

    “Who sees Molène sees his sorrow
    Who sees Ouessant sees his blood
    Who sees Sein sees his end
    Who sees Groix sees his cross.”

  4. Pascal Tréguer

    About “capsize”.

    Ernest Weekley mentioned a possible Provençal origin.

    I don’t know if “capsize” is ultimately of Provençal origin, but its French equivalent “chavirer” is – it means, literally, “to turn upside down”.

    According to the CNRTL (Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales), the French verb “chavirer” is from Provençal “cavira”, which is from “cap-vira”, a compound of:
    – “cap” (from latin “caput”), meaning “head”,
    – and the Provençal equivalent of the French verb “virer”, “to turn”.

  5. Aurélien Langlois

    About “and I”: the corresponding French form would be “et moi”, without an -s. The order of the elements does not seem to be dictated by grammatical factors: sentences such as “moi et mon frère” are possible, but they’re considered less polite or vulgar, and children are regularly taught not to use them.

  6. Pascal Tréguer

    A. Liberman wrote:

    “Did English borrow this rule from French, in which “and I” is “et mois” [“moi”] and has to follow the word that precedes it because the “dictionary pronoun” is je?”

    But “moi” is as much a “dictionary pronoun” as “je”. The pronoun “moi” is what is called “un pronom tonique”, as opposed to “je”, which is “un pronom atone”.

    It is explained on this site: http://french.about.com/od/grammar/a/pronouns_stressed.htm

  7. Ted

    I wonder if the “and I” construction might have to do with some basic phonotactics.

    Using “…and I” nicely breaks up the two syllables: /æn.daɪ/, whereas the reverse juxtaposes two vowel sounds.

  8. […] On 28th August 2013, he said, in “Capsize, its origin”: […]

  9. […] The comments on the antedating and a detailed response on Cap Sizun, including the folk etymology surrounding the place name, were most useful. Yet Mr. Pascal […]

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