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.
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.)
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:
“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.