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Monthly etymology gleanings for March 2015, Part 2

Many thanks for comments, questions, and reprimands, even though sometimes I am accused of the sins I have not committed. If I were a journalist, I would say that my remarks tend to be taken out of context. Of course I know what precession of the equinoxes is and italicized e, to point out that it is indeed the right form (precession, not procession). An extra warning sometimes comes in useful. While writing about Hel, the Old Scandinavian goddess of the Underworld, I added a special parenthesis (one l!). Kipling wrote “The Elephant’s Child” for his favorite (“best beloved”) daughter, who at that time probably enjoyed using “hard words,” and Kipling introduced them for fun. Similar insertions, interpreted by Kipling’s biographers as family jokes, occur in some other Just So Stories (even ’satiable may be one of them). Consequently, my parenthesis sic was not sneery. Some real errors in the blog were caught by our vigilant readers so early that we could correct them almost at once. Others will stay there for all eternity, along with my apologies.

Shooting one’s bolt

Yes, the metaphor does go back to shooting arrows from a crossbow, and, if anyone is interested, I can quote a few relevant explanations from my database of English idioms. Just one tiny quibble. Martin Eden was not sick; he was crushed, but this does not change anything in the interpretation of Jack London’s sentence. It certainly means: “He tried his best, his very best, and now he was defeated.” Incidentally, I have received a letter from someone who read Martin Eden only after seeing it mentioned in my post. She admired the book, and I cannot imagine a better reward for my labor of love (sic).

Shooting his bolt hard.
Shooting his bolt hard.


Indeed, doors and thresholds are an important topic in myths and folklore. This is not surprising, because crossing over to “the other” or even another world is always fraught with danger. Hence numerous checkpoints in myths and fairy tales, like the house at which Thor and his companions stay on their way to Utgarthaloki’s kingdom or Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken legs. But the connection between Loki and Grendel is not direct, even if my etymology of Loki can be accepted. In any case, the World Serpent of the Scandinavians, the great encompasser, has no parents. That he is called Loki’s offspring should not be made too much of; several cosmic monsters, Hel among them, are said to be his children.

Paddy wagon

The origin of this word is “uncertain,” that is, we lack enough evidence to explain its etymology to everybody’s satisfaction. Unfortunately, my database contains nothing beyond what is universally known about this word (or collocation). Paddy wagon is an American coinage and seems to be less than a hundred years old. Its place of birth is either the East Coast (Philadelphia or New York) or Chicago. In any case, the word has always been slang and belongs to the criminal life of big towns. The suggestion that those wagons were padded inside seems to be the least persuasive. Paddy is probably Patrick, and there is no need to refer it to the Gaelic form Padraig. In American English, the consonant t is usually realized as a flap hardly distinguishable from d. Some phoneticians assert that there is a difference between this flap and d, but I think that, if such a difference existed, my students would not be writing title (= tidal) wave, futile for feudal, and deep-seeded (= –seated) prejudice. Near where I live there is a town called Wayzata; the only admissible pronunciation of this place name is Wayzada. Patty would have become Paddy without any recourse to Gaelic. At the beginning of the previous century, many policemen were Irish, and, conversely, many Irishmen were arrested at the time when the word turned up. As a result, some people say that the wagon was named for the officers, while others derive it from the prisoners who were often shoved into police cars. We will hardly ever know a more precise answer.

Woman as an adjective

Our correspondent would prefer female where people say woman. The question was so short (“Why do people use woman as an adjective, though the word female exists?”) that I am not sure I understood it correctly. But if collocations like woman doctor are meant, they seem to be inoffensive. In English, nouns don’t become adjectives, but they regularly perform the function of attributes, and everything in our interpretation of such nouns depends on the word order. Compare rose garden and garden rose, animal farm and farm animal, let alone child development. One of our correspondents admires the British word wizard “superb,” as in it’s wizard, it’s smashing, it’s keen. Now, wizard is not an adjective (compare wizardly), but in the sentence cited above it aligns itself with two attributes: smashing and keen. The tricky thing is that in dealing with such words there are several possibilities, and which form is idiomatic cannot always be predicted; compare teacher conference and teachers’ union.

In a rose garden a garden rose is not hard to find.
In a rose garden a garden rose is not hard to find.

Ask as a noun and gift as a verb

This is a perennial problem. English has lost most of its endings, a circumstance that all but erased the morphological borders between the parts of speech (compare rose garden and garden rose, above). Love is a noun, and love is a verb. This situation allows words to play leapfrog with rare ease. Shakespeare’s Grace me no grace and uncle me no uncle (Richard II, II: 30) is an anthologized example. So is the phrase but me no buts. People reacted with indignation to the noun meet when it arose. Now they are shocked by it’s a very expensive ask (proposal) and you did not meet our asks (= demands). To be gifted a horse sounds less than perfectly charming to me. I find such usage repulsive, but, paraphrasing the title of a long-and-deservedly-forgotten Canadian novel: the future is with it.

“Have you recently seen an infinitive that was not split?” asked me a long-time correspondent. Not really. To often ignore this fact, to violently attack the neighbor, to not agree are now standard phrases. Speakers possess a rare capacity for absorbing ugliness. This is called the history of language. The fact that grammar books and dictionaries don’t yet recognize this usage means nothing. They will, they will.

Thee, thou, and thy in Modern English dialects

Are those pronouns still used in northern England? They certainly are, at least in parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire, and also in Scotland. This usage has been described very well in special literature. For a glimpse of how things stood at the beginning of the twentieth century consult the English Dialect Dictionary by Joseph Wright. Those who are interested in the interplay of you and thee may also reread Shakespeare (Anthony and Cleopatra, for instance, or the Sonnets). Even Byron wrote: “Fare thee well! and if for ever (sic) / Still for ever, fare the well.”

The origin of cocktail

I am happy to report that cocktail, even though dictionaries keep calling it a word of unknown origin, has been explained most convincingly. Consult this blog: the post of 28 March 2007, titled “Etymological Cocktail.”

Taking a dump

Question: “Why do we say take a dump when we are actually leaving a dump?” Now that we are on the polite subject of defecation, I should say that take often means give. Compare take a look at my work. Doesn’t the phrase mean give it a look? So it is with dump, dookie, or whatever you call the content of your bowels. To be sure, give a s—t is a more transparent phrase, but language and poetry, unlike administrators and politicians, need not always be transparent.

I am afraid that after such remarks whatever I may say will sound like an anticlimax. However, I still have several questions unanswered. Please wait until the last Wednesday of April.

Image credits: (1) William Tell overture. Historic Sheet Music. Digital Scriptorium. Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. (2) Rose, Sakura-Gasumi (Misty Cherry blossoms), バラ, 桜霞(さくらがすみ). Photo by T.Kiya. CC BY-SA 2.0 via cq-biker Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Eva

    I disagree, ‘woman doctor’ is utterly offensive, as you can’t imagine anyone saying ‘man doctor’ can you? It’s nonsense, female doctor and male doctor are both used – to use ‘woman’ in this way only reinforces the idea that ‘man’ is a default; that the doctor, unless specified otherwise, is assumed to be a man. We must not accept this kind of thinking.

  2. nikita

    Isn’t the reason “Why people use woman as an adjective, though the word female exists?” is that one refers to gender and other to sex, which are becoming less and less aligned?

    “To be gifted a horse” looks like a motto for Musil’s “a horse of genius”.

  3. Stephen Goranson

    Though “paddy wagon” came to be associated with police vehicles, some early uses associate it with wheelbarrows. OED has 1909 for “paddy wagon.”
    Two newspapers via
    involve election bets where the loser must ride in a wheelbarrow.
    1908, May 29. St. John’s Review [Ont.]
    “There is a Paddy-wagon ride coming in any event.”
    1896, Nov 8. Houston Daily Post
    “Sioux in a Paddy Wagon” [headline]
    1868 [?], Nov. 5 Milwaukee Daily Sentinel [19th. c. news.] “Wheelbarrow…one little thought its symmetrical proportions deserved the vulgar epithet of “paddy wagon” of a by-standing Democrat of the old school.”

  4. Stephen Goranson

    On “paddy wagon” again.
    Gleanings in Bee Culture 1903, Dec. 1 v. 31, page 1021 [Google Books] “Try the experiment some time with a small paddy wheelbarrow, with a small wheel, and then with a modern wheelbarrow with a large wheel.”

  5. Robert DiLallo

    The fiddle-faddle concerning the split infinitive is a dead issue. It was a barely beating issue when it reared its ugly head centuries ago. It seems almost absurdly prissy to not split an infinitive to most people today. It sounds fine to the ear, at least in the U.S. and Canada, nothing ugly in it.

    Moving on… there are some older people on two islands in the Chesapeake Bay – Tangier and Smith – who use “thou” and “thee” but not “thy.” They pronounce them with America’s soft “th” – “dow” and “dee,” with a slight sounding of the “h” after the “d.” The people who originally settled the islands came from Cornwall, England, and have a raft of odd speech habits. They pronounce things quite differently from standard American english, saying “aboot,” “snoiks,” and “kewd” for “about,” “snakes” and “could.” They also distinctly pronounce two syllables in words like “school, (skoo-ool). They also have a way of turning phrases around. So an “ugly girl” means a “pretty girl,” and “too soon” means “too late.” Sadly, the invasion of mass media is killing the dialect, a subset of Tidewater speech.

  6. John Cowan

    The relevant paragraph of Martin Eden says:

    It seemed a life-time since he had received that letter from the Transcontinental, a life-time since it was all over and done with and a new page turned. He had shot his bolt, and shot it hard, and now he was down on his back. If he hadn’t starved himself, he wouldn’t have been caught by La Grippe. He had been run down, and he had not had the strength to throw off the germ of disease which had invaded his system. This was what resulted.

    La grippe is French for ‘influenza’.

  7. Stephen Goranson

    More early “paddy wagon” uses (following the 1868 one above, now a confirmed date):
    All from Milwaukee Daily Sentinel. December 6, 1869 [Two men, recent arrivals, charged with drunkenness] “having just come across the Herring-pond in a Dutch shallop on wheels [sic].The assertion the the boat was a paddy-wagon, and its occupants Fenianers, is groundless, [disproved by their names]
    June 29, 1872 “… borrowed a wheelbarrow….accordingly wheeled to town and barrowed into the station [and] …court room…His little scheme to become possessed of a “paddy wagon” of the first order led to an expense of $15 and costs”
    July 12, 1876 “William Brotherhood mourns the loss of a one-wheeled carriage of the pattern known as a “paddy-wagon.” The bow wheeler was stolen….”

  8. Stephen Goranson

    1850 (c.1849) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men: Seven Lectures. Uses of Great Men. Page 35:
    ‘Generous and handsome,’ he says, ‘is your hero; but look at yonder poor Paddy, whose country is his wheelbarrow;….”

  9. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    There is no rose without a thorn… Just wondering why did Anglo-Saxons call a letter þ Þ thorn in contrast to other rune users

  10. Stephen Goranson

    As observed above, “paddy wagon,” now usually associated with police vehicles, was formerly in many texts associated with wheelbarrows. And Emerson may have played a role in the term’s history with his 1850 essay.
    Why did Emerson write that?
    In the Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson (W.H. Gilman et al. eds., Harvard U. P.) are two earlier related texts.
    Vol. 4 (1964) page 351 [Journal A, 116. Concord 3 December 1834]: “The poor Irishman [–] a wheelbarrow is his country[.]”
    Vol. 5 (1965) page 228 {Journal B, 280. 1836]: “The poor Irishman, a wheelbarrow is his country.”

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