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Monthly etymology gleanings for October 2015

Some Idioms

I keep receiving comments and questions about idioms. One of our correspondents enjoys the phrase drunk as Cooter Brown. This is a well-known simile, current mostly or exclusively in the American south. I can add nothing to the poor stock of legends connected with Mr. Brown. Those who claim that they know where such characters came from should be treated with healthy distrust. Cooter Brown may well have been a habitual drunk at the time of the Civil War. But compare the idioms to be all Coopers ducks with one “to be all over with one,” all in a heap like Brown’s cows, you got what Patty shot at (that is, nothing; personal communication from Minnesota—all the other sayings are British), as drunk as Davy’s sow, as busy as Throp’s wife, as wise as Waltam’s wife, as contrairy as Wood’s (or Lewis’s) dog, as proud as old Cole’s dog, as lazy as Lawrence’s dog, as fess (i.e. eager; ill-tempered, etc.) as Cox’s pig, as hot as Mary Palmer, as slow as old Jon Walker’s chimes, and dozens of others centered on proper names. A search for those people seldom brings convincing results, though a certain Mr. Waltam might have had a wife of more than average sagacity, while Mr. Brown might have lost all his cows in an accident. Even such seemingly transparent idioms as grin like a Cheshire cat are usually of unknown origin despite the fact that some have been the object of serious research.

Almost equally opaque is the expression hell for leather (the question about it came from another correspondent). To ride hell for leather means “to ride at full speed.” It is surprising how little books have to say about the origin of this idiom and how voluble the Internet is, especially because people love discussing the difference between hell for leather and hell bent for leather (hellbent is often spelled as one word). The first secure citation of the phrase goes back to 1889 (Kipling). The OED online adds a putative 1851 example from Wiltshire, but the word there is hellfalleero, and no one knows what to do with it. I am aware of two German etymologies of the phrase, namely Heil für Läufer, supposedly medieval and meaning “save the runner,” and Hülfe für Leder “help for leather.” I have no idea how those etymologies occurred to their authors, but both strike me as absolutely fanciful.

Those youths are indeed hell bent for leather.
Those youths are indeed hell bent for leather.

A more realistic explanation was offered in Notes and Queries in 1927 (vol. 153, p. 231). Its author wrote: “I believe the phrase originated among the gunners, and means exactly what it says, i. e., the fullest strain put on all harness by the dashing forward of the guns at the utmost pace of the horse-teams.” All the other suggestions known to me refer to riding a horse. Charles F. Funk (Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions, 1993) goes so far as to suggest that Kipling coined the phrase, “though he may have been actually quoting army speech.” (I don’t know why Funk added actually here; for decades I have been fighting my students’ use of this word in sentences like “the First World War actually began in 1914,” though I concur with this statement and most others reinforced by superfluous adverbs.) Funk “actually” continues: “Though the term must originally have referred to the terrific beating inflicted upon leather saddles by heavy troopers at full speed, even by Kipling’s time it had acquired a figurative sense indicating great speed, on foot, by vehicle, or by horse.” He does not say how he knows what the original sense of the phrase must have been. The editors of Brewer’s Dictionary of Fact and Fable offer no explanation.

Devizen and Devizes

In connection with the post on the word Devisen, Mr. Gavin Wraith pointed out that there is a town called Devizes in Wiltshire. He also quoted part of the relevant entry in Eilert Ekwall’s The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Place-Names, Fourth Edition, 1966, a fully reliable source. I’ll expand the quotation but will leave the abbreviated references to the sources undeciphered: “Divisas 1139 Ordericus, 1142 BM, Divise 1139 HHunt, (de) Divisis 1162 PJ. Fr devises, Lat divisæ ‘boundary’. An important boundary must once have run past Devizes.” (One can see that Wiltshire is featured prominently in the present post.)

Devizes in Wiltshire
Wiltshire, England, and the castle in Devizes

The various hypostases of bodkin

Ms. Sara Thomas wonders whether Scottish Gaelic bod, “coyly defined” in one of the dictionaries as “membrum virile,” can be related to bodkin. Charles Mackay, who excelled in Irish Gaelic and in early Modern English, made a fatal mistake; he decided that he was able to look at an English word and stare out its Celtic etymology. The result was a dictionary that covered him with disgrace. But he wrote several other books, also touched by Celtomania but more useful. In A Glossary of Obscure Words and Phrases in the Writings of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries… (1887), at bodkin, he said, among other things:

S. P. Botkin, 1832-1884, a famous Russian clinician
S. P. Botkin, 1832-1884, a famous Russian clinician

“On this radical word, that exists in many Asiatic as well as European languages, might be founded an instructive examination into the occult and deeply comprehensible meaning of the root words of all languages, starting from the fact that bad signifies not only a point that pricks, but the divinely ordered instrument of human propagation, which none but physicians speak of without rendering themselves liable to the imputation of indecency and impropriety. It may here be noted that the English bawdy, obscene, is of the same Keltic origin, from bòd, the virile member, and badaire, a fornicator.”

One hundred and fifty years later we no longer blush when we mention “the divinely ordered virile member” in print or in mixed company. As regards the origin of bawdy, Mackay was certainly wrong. The etymology of bod is less clear. The word is old (in Old Irish it also meant “tail”—a common merger of senses), and its original form was bot, which complicates matters. The attempt to connect bod with Latin futuo “copulate” (a verb unrelated to the English F-word!) should be abandoned not only for phonetic reasons but because the name of the penis is hardly ever akin to the verb of copulation. The other etymology traces bot and the Slavic word for “nail” (Russian gvozd’, etc.) to the same Indo-European root. This is an impeccable reconstruction if bot indeed reaches all the way into Indo-European antiquity, but if it turned up as medieval slang, its history was different. The question remains open.

Another letter came from one of the bearers of the last name Bodkin. Despite the common derivation of Bodkin from Bawdekyn, from Baldwyn, a Norman name well-established in Ireland, this etymology runs into serious phonetic difficulties. Equally disputable is the derivation of Bodkin from bodkin and explaining it as an occupational name, like Smith or Cooper. In Russia, three famous Botkins made their name universally known there. Unfortunately, Boris Unbegaun’s excellent dictionary of Russian family names does not feature Botkin, and I could not find out from where the first Botkins came to Russia. In the English-speaking world, Botkin seems to be a variant of Bodkin.

Image credits: (1) Dirt flying action photography of a horse making a fast turn. (c) customphotographydesigns via iStock. (2) Fighting on a bridge by Arnold Böcklin. Public domain via WikiArt. (3) England Police – Wiltshire. Image by Nilfanion, Mirrorme22. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Entrance, Devizes Castle 19th century. Photo by Mike Faherty (2008) from the Geograph project collection. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (5) Sergey Botkin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    I can’t imagine that you could intend to imply that even the version “what Patty shot at” that you give here of the idiom is peculiar to Minnesota—or that it is not a British saying, albeit the British version is “what Paddy shot at” as far as I have ever heard. I was not aware of the version with “Patty”, which I think must mean I have never seen it, and a web search indicates that it’s much less common, even presumably among N Americans. I suppose I may have misinterpreted it as Paddy in speech, where any pronunciation of “Patty” so widely indistinguishable from “Paddy” as to obscure the difference between these names for a phonetician might seem to vindicate at least this aspect of the bizarre IPA transcription system adopted by the OED, whereby the use of solidi in /ˈpædi/ belies the possibility of even the potential distinction made possible by the allophones of /t/, which are still functional for many GenAm speakers. They may all be heading in the direction of /ˈpædi/, but they haven’t got there yet, and the transcription with solidi must seem premature to a lot of them. I’d be interested to know your view on this.

    And do you not think the spelling “contrairy” in “as contrairy as Wood’s (or Lewis’s) dog” is itself contrary? It’s not recognized by the OED as an alternative spelling, though in appears in quotations obviously intended to be demotic. But what’s the point of it? It represents a pronunciation which is nothing out of the ordinary in that particular sense.

  2. Michał

    “The other etymology traces bot and the Slavic word for “nail” (Russian gvozd’, etc.) to the same Indo-European root. This is an impeccable reconstruction if bot indeed reaches all the way into Indo-European antiquity, but if it turned up as medieval slang, its history was different. The question remains open.”

    In Polish we have verb bóść or bodnąć which means: 1. to gore (bull), to butt (ram, goat); 2. to poke, to jab. Infinitive form could be misleading, because after conjugation we get something very similiar to bod & bodkin.

    Verb bóść is a source for noun bodziec:
    1. stimulus, 2. spur; and verb bodźcować which means to stimulate

    Verb bóść is a source for verb badać which means to examine, to check.

    Noun badyl means: 1. stalk, stem; especially dried; 2. leg of an elk or deer.

    Noun badylarz is a name for a male of an elk or deer.

  3. John Cowan

    If Americans differentiate Patty and Paddy, it’s in the vowel, and I’m willing to bet that Patty in this saying is a misinterpretation by Americans of Paddy. (The U.S. National Spelling Bee was lost at the last minute by a contestant who used the spelling heridable.) As for contrairy, I take it to indicate penultimate stress.

  4. Michael Lamb

    Yes, John, I too was betting on Patty in this saying being a misinterpretation by Americans of Paddy, which on the strength of a bit more googling certainly seems to be the older form as well as the more frequent. It even looks as if it may be almost as old as the game of cribbage itself, and as such may have quite a long history on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover a quote in the article on “World Wide Words” seems to reinforce the suspicion that it was a slur on the Pads from the start: “The pledged sacred honor of the Banks — Just what the Paddy shot at. The Boston Investigator, 9 Feb. 1838”. Latterly of course the Patty form may have commended itself to the PC. And right enough one has increasingly seen eye-popping forms like heridable now that nothing is proofread, and the efforts of spellchecker software are so unreliable that you can hardly blame people who can’t do their own spellchecking for not bothering with them.

    But you have often said elsewhere that your own speech represents a relatively advanced tendency to lose phonemic oppositions like this, and so by saying that if Americans differentiate these forms it’s in the vowel, I think you probably mean that in this context the opposition between /t/ and /d/ is completely suspended, and that any allophone in that position therefore represents an archiphoneme. But if the original opposition is still reflected in a difference between the vowels in such contexts, then it isn’t suspended, unless you propose to set up different vowel phonemes to account for this! And by analogy for phonetic vowel-length carrying the burden of the realization of the distinctive identities of similar pairs of consonant phonemes in final position, for example?

    I would argue that if GenAm say is a coherent dialect at all, it has to account for the whole range of allophones of /t/ from [t] to [d] exhibited by its speakers, with the [d] range obviously overlapping with the set of allophones of /d/, which means that it is only within the overlapping range that you have a clear case of homophony between /ˈpæti/ and /ˈpædi/. And even that homophony presupposes that there is no distinction such as you hypothesize between the vowels in that context, which itself would still enable us to identify the different consonant phonemes. And it doesn’t entitle us to write /ˈpæDi/or /ˈpæTi/, with an archiphoneme, or to follow others in saying that the situation represents the development of restricted distribution for /t/, since /ˈpæti/, is capable of being distinctive with respect to /ˈpædi/, but not vice versa, so that there remain two distinctive sets of realizations with different distinctive functions.

    My point about contrairy was that in that context there’s no need to mark it as having penultimate stress. It’s one of those otiose indicators of demoticity like HG Wells’s wimmin, as though the pronunciation was substandard in some way, though in the case of contrairy I suppose it may be the allosemy of contrary itself that is being held to ridicule. But neither that penultimate stress nor the particular sense it represents is in any way out of the ordinary.

  5. […] certainly did not imply that the idiom that’s what Patty shot at “nothing” was coined in or limited to Minnesota. However, before a listener to my talk show […]

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