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Ossing is bossing

If you know the saying ossing comes to bossing, rest assured that it does not mean the same as ossing is bossing. But you may never have heard either of those phrases, though the verb oss “to try, dare” is one of the favorites of English dialectology. The regular users of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE, very much in the spirit of this post) find in it hundreds of amusing words and discover that they can be puzzled tourists in their own land. But Americans hardly ever think that, even if a job search transfers them from Maine to Alabama, they will not be able to communicate with the natives. However “funny,” their language is still English. This is not the case in most West European countries, with their ancient, mutually unintelligible dialects. While leafing through Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, one wonders: “Is it indeed a dictionary of English”? The origin of even the most common words is often tricky, but at least it can be looked up somewhere. The etymology of regional words poses graver problems. Dictionaries seldom include them, while special articles and books are hard to dig up, and who, except a handful of lexicographers, ever does the digging?

Oss attracted the attention of a few timid specialists and a handful of self-confident amateurs. Its history can also be found in Thomas Hallam’s 1885 booklet. Unsurprisingly, as journalists like to say, linguists are more interested in dialectal words that have old ancestors. One of such aristocrats is nesh “soft.” Its Old English form has come down to us, and it has a cognate even in Gothic. Not every item in our regional speech is so fortunate. Oss, current over a large territory of England, remains partly (but only partly) obscure. Among those who dealt with this verb we find Henry Bradley and Walter W. Skeat (which already lends those items glamor), and, of course, it appears in Wright’s dictionary.

Joseph Wright reproduces the following scene from a Sunday  school in Cheshire: "Why did Noah go into the ark?" "Please, teacher, because God was ossin' for t' drown the world."
Joseph Wright reproduces the following scene from a Sunday school in Cheshire: “Why did Noah go into the ark?” “Please, teacher, because God was ossin’ for t’ drown the world.”

Several forms of oss have been recorded, including ost ~ aust, hoss, and awse ~ orse. Final t in ost ~ aust should probably be dismissed as excrescent (compare whilst, against, amongst, and many other words in English and German that today end in –st where one expects the historically legitimate s). Although awse and orse look like spelling variants of oss, they point to a long vowel in an r-less dialect. Hoss is closer to oss, but we wonder what to do with initial h: either oss is hoss with its h dropped or hoss is oss with an h added for the sake of gentility, as in the (h)atmosphere of the (h)air. The senses of oss are rather numerous. They include “to try,” “to be about to do something” (also occurring in awse about), “to shape, frame something; design; intend,” and, most unexpectedly, “to prophesy,” which happens to be the oldest one we know. It turned up in the fifteenth century.

Those who tried to discover the verb’s origin often said it is perfectly clear and undoubtedly, but nothing is perfectly clear about the history of oss. As usual, I’ll ignore some hopeless suggestions (oss derived from Basque, oss being a variant of ease, and the like). In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, most researchers believed that oss is a borrowing of either Welsh osio or French oser, both meaning “to try.” Hensleigh Wedgwood had a knack for finding words from unrelated languages that sounded alike and meant almost the same. This ability irritated some of his opponents, for, though his examples often violated phonetic laws, the forms he cited were invariably correct. Thus, he discovered Finnish osata “to aim right, strike the mark, to be able to do, to know the way” (so in 1872) and cited a close Estonian cognate. However, Wedgwood stopped short of offering an etymology and said nothing about Finnish. He stated that, in dealing with the English and the Welsh verbs, we “undoubtedly” have the same word but could not decide which language was the borrower and which the lender. He also had reservations about the French source, for “oss belongs so completely to the popular part of the language that it is very unlikely to have had a French derivation.”

Nine years after Wedgwood, C. B. West, a correspondent to Manchester Notes and Queries, made the following populist statement: “Anyone acquainted with the northern peasant knows his habit of stupidly playing with words and applying to them meanings they will not bear. He is in this respect like the calves which he tends, and is half-conscious of the fact that he is a fool though he persists in his folly. I can liken this habit of intentional absurdity best to that of the Irish peasant who so often perpetrates ‘bulls.’” From such heights of societal and linguistic sophistication Mr. West ridiculed another correspondent who had suggested a French source of oss: “I can only say when our Lancashire peasants begin talking French, the schoolmaster’s ‘occupation will be gone.’” As could be expected, he had his own theory: “My reply is… confident that the word awse is derived from the animal horse.” No details are given. I am aware of an old story about “hoss-men,” allegedly inhabiting Lancashire, but I’m not sure that it has anything to do with the etymology of oss and skip it.

Despite C. B. West’s incredible meanness, his reasoning was not quite unlike Wedgwood’s: since the word oss belongs to popular speech, it is unlikely to have come from French. This argument does not go too far, but, as Bradley made it clear in 1883, oss could hardly derive from oser, for, if such were the case, the consonant in it would have been z, not s. His conclusion is irrefutable. But the Welsh hypothesis inspires no confidence either, because the English word, unknown to the Standard, is known too far from the Welsh border. The opinion favored in the past by the best-informed Celtologists, namely that the Welsh verb was borrowed from English, must be correct.

Ossing is bossing.
Ossing comes to bossing.

Enter Comestor Oxoniensis. Alas, I don’t know who hid under this pseudonym and can only guess that he borrowed his signature from the famous Petrus Comestor. Whoever this Oxonian Devourer (of learning) might be, his contributions mainly or perhaps exclusively to Notes and Queries in 1902-1903 are excellent. This gentleman offered a good conjecture. He cited Old Engl. halsian (long a in the root, as a in Modern Engl. spa) “to adjure; swear; entreat; exorcise.” The noun formed from this verb meant “exorcism; augury, divination; entreaty.” Halse still appears in the largest dictionaries of Modern English. The group –al- must have become –aw- (as in talk, walk, chalk). It follows that hawse can be a legitimate continuation of halsian. The Devourer was in trouble with the derivation of oss (no h- and a short vowel), and this part of his reconstruction is less convincing, but he seems to have hit the nail on the head with regard to the etymon of at least one variant of the verb. Etymology is an anonymous science, and it grieves me that I cannot celebrate the real name of the discoverer. The first edition of the OED offered no hypothesis about the origin of oss, but the great Middle English Dictionary accepted, though with a question mark, halsian as its source, and Oxford followed suit.

And now back to the saying in the title of this post. To most it means “trying is the best way to achievement” (make an effort, and you will be a boss). But boss is a well-known dialectal word for “kiss,” so that the saying ossing comes to bossing means “be bold, and you will kiss your beloved.” Those interested in the subject of osculation will find some revealing data in my old post on kiss and in Nyrop’s book mentioned in it.

Image credits: (1) Noah’s Ark. East Anglia England Norfolk [perhaps]. illumination about 1190; written about 1490. Getty Open Content Program. The Getty. (2) Kissing Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. Photo by Brocken Inaglory (Photograph edited by Vassil). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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