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Etymology gleanings for February 2016

By jingo, brooms, and kick the bucket

It is the origin of idioms that holds out the greatest attraction to those who care about etymology. I have read with interest the comments on all the phrases but cannot add anything of substance to what I wrote in the posts. My purpose was to inspire an exchange of opinions rather than offer a solution. While researching by Jingo, I thought of the word jinn/ jinnee but left the evil spirit in the bottle. I also ran into Thomas Shanley’s intelligent Jynges and once again receded in embarrassment. It is curious that so many similar-sounding words surfaced in print at approximately the same time (the second half of the seventeenth century). The conjurers’ gibberish, mentioned in the OED, belongs here too. Given the multitude of look-alikes, it is no wonder that numerous outlandish etymologies of Jingo have been offered. As usual, the least convoluted one may perhaps be the best, but, if Jingo is of Oriental origin, it would be good to know how it reached England when it did. The same requirement holds for all borrowed elements, phonemes, grammatical forms, syntactic constructions, and lexis. Besides, it is not inconceivable that a mysterious foreign word (or name) met a similar native one. Such things happen. Jingo and by jingo may have more than one source.

In my file on hang out a broom, I find multiple references to the custom of marrying under the broomstick, to witches flying on broomsticks, to the phrase to cry mopstics (I wrote a special post on the latter one), and to the idiom good wine needs no bush. Many people sought a connection here, but the links seemed weak to me, and I did not mention them.

In kick the bucket, both elements may be less transparent than they seem. Even so, the whole remains a mystery. The tragic event connected with the coal merchant Kick & Sons happened too early to be the source of our idiom. For the sake of entertainment I would like to recall part of an essay that has often been quoted, though I suspect that the episode is a hoax. I’ll be quoting from the original, published in The London Magazine, vol. 7, 1823, pp. 442-43 (“Anglo-German Dictionaries”). The essay, as was the rule in those periodicals, bears no signature, but the author referred to Mr. Coleridge, and I assume that he meant Samuel T. Coleridge, who was still alive in 1823 and could have refuted the report of his friend; apparently, he did not.

It is told that around the year 1794 a certain German came to Bristol and heard of a widow to whom he decided to propose. With the help of a dictionary he tried to put together the sentence I have heard that your husband died. He first explained to the bewildered lady that, according to his information, the late lamented had kicked the bucket. Since the woman failed to understand that statement, next to the first gloss he found hopped the twig but met with the same blank look, and, only when he explained that the worthy gentleman had gone to Davy’s locker (sic), he made himself understood, to the delight of his hostess, who enjoyed the language rather than the mode of wooing (the phrase was known in the streets of Bristol).

Allegedly, the hapless German found all those idioms at sterben “to die.” According to the OED, the idiom kick the bucket turned up in a slang dictionary only in 1785. In 1792 most English speakers did not know it. What was the dictionary published between 1785 and 1792 that instead of glossing sterben as “die” listed several examples of the very latest newfangled slang? German-English dictionaries printed around that time exist, but I had no access to them and, as noted, told the story “for fun.” On the other hand, Coleridge’s dedication to German is famous. So perhaps his tale was not a hoax? Perhaps. But by every intelligent Jingo, die must have stood in the dictionary before kick the bucket!

Hulagu Khan: a cruel man, but not the first hooligan.
Hulagu Khan: a cruel man, but not the first hooligan.

Some troublesome words


I’ll quote the letter:

“Resulting from a heated discussion on the purported Irish origin of the word hooligan, I offer the alternative. After reading an article on the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongol Hulagu Khan in 1257, it occurred to me that the term hooligan may have for its origins the name Hulagu. Just as a criminal can be called a vandal, after the 5th-century Germanic tribe, it makes sense to me that calling someone a hooligan… after Hulagu Khan is more plausible than a rowdy Irish family.”

The analogy is excellent, but hooligan appeared in English at the very end of the 19th century from a comic strip, and one wonders what happened to this word between 1257 and the late 1890’s. There is not a trace of it in any book. And how many English speakers have heard about the 1257 event? True, the Vandals are also separated from the 17th century (when the word resurfaced in its present meaning) by more than a millennium, but the story of its new life is known. In principle, heated arguments about etymology should be avoided. Many easily available good books give convincing answers to such questions or say that no one knows for sure where the word came from. To our correspondent I offer a puzzle: What can, in his view, be the derivation of hoodlum and larrikin? Both are hard nuts to crack.


“I’d guess this is to be one of the class of common pesky words, but might okay and the Hindi acha be related?” Alas, no. Great efforts have been expended on the origin of OK, and the answer is known. OK goes back to Old Kinderhook, though it too resembles several foreign words.

Inexpressible love

Chichikov, the Hero of Gogol’s Dead Souls, enjoyed short fame in the town in which he tried to strike a lucrative bargain. One day he received a letter that began “most decisively: ‘No, I must write to you’.” I experienced a feeling akin to that which filled Chichikov when I received a letter beginning so (no capital letters and with few punctuation marks): “love is not enough.” I thought a declaration of love would follow but was mistaken. “another valentine’s day has passed and I was unable to express the depth of my love. ‘love’ is overused, the superlative ‘worship’ and ‘adore’ have religious overtones, ‘mad’ and crazy’ about you suggests mental instability. Can you please find a word for me that intensifies ‘love’ without those allusions? Many thanks” This was followed by a real signature. What about I am so fond of you, I dote upon, yearn, long for you, hold you so dear, care for you more than for anyone else? I wish I could think of something less trite. Just in case, reread the beginning of King Lear, where the king’s daughters profess their love for their father in truly Shakespearean terms. Pay special attention to Goneril’s words.

"...And in mine own love's strength seem to decay / O'ercharged with burden of mine own love's might."
“…And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay / O’ercharged with burden of mine own love’s might.”

A few tidbits from newspapers and ads

  • “Of everything I have read about ‘gun violence/gun control’, [X]’s commentary was the most unique attempt making sense of the Second Amendment dilemma.”
    There are more unique things in heaven and earth, Horatio….
  • “To even contemplate this kind of aggressive roundup…”; “To sometimes meet such a man…”
    Right: to be or to not be is no longer a question.
  • An ad: “Decadent, Delicious, Practical.”
    Complete works of Baudelaire in one charming volume on rice paper? No. A restaurant.
  • Decadent. Delicious. Practical.
    Decadent. Delicious. Practical.
  • News Service: “A Maine man who travels the country to document the final resting places of poets reached a milestone in Birmingham. Walter Skold, founder of the Dead Poets Society of America, said his visit to the grave of Sun Ra marked the 500th site.”
    And I, though still alive, some time ago had the audacity to advertise my 500th post… What a shame!

Image credits: (1) Hulagu Khan. Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, “History of the world”, 14th century. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Pygmalion and Galatea. Jean-Leon Gerome, c1890. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City . Public domain via WikiArt. (3) Old man without appetite. (c) KatarzynaBialasiewicz via iStock.

Recent Comments

  1. Robin Hamilton

    The author of the piece on Anglo-German dictionaries is Thomas de Quincey.

    Nathan Bailey’s dictionary of 1737 contains a separate glossary of cant terms. This dictionary lay behind the Anglo-German dictionary of Theodor Arnold (1752, and later editions), republished in two volumes in a revision by Johann Anton Fahrenkrüger in 1796 (English-German) and 1797 (German-English). As de Quincey towards the beginning of the article refers to “the German dictionaries of Bailey, Arnold, &c.”, it seems likely that he had Fahrenkrüger’s 1797 edition in mind (as “&c.”). However, the entry on “sterben” there, which begins, “to die, depart, decease, expire,” fails to contain any of the expressions in question.


    All three expressions – buckets, twigs, and locker – can be found in Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785 and later editions):

    TO HOP THE TWIG. To run away. CANT.
    To KICK THE BUCKET. To die. He kicked the bucket one day: he died one day. To kick the clouds before the hotel door; i.e. to be hanged.

    Grose’s dictionary was republished in 1788, 1796, 1811 and, most relevantly, in a revision by Piers Egan in 1823, the same year that de Quincey published his article in The London Magazine.
    It seems likely that de Quincey combined Bailey et alia with the newly-published Egan to produce a wholly fictitious comic dialogue, which he then fathered, probably illegitimately, on his (unsuspecting?) friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

  2. Elizabeth Knox

    A number of years ago I was reading about Hulugu Khan and had the same thought you have. I went on a linguistics forum – my first and I don’t remember which it was – and was promptly waved aside. I’m very pleased you’ve had the same thought. So many words came to English from North Africa and India through the British Army. I thought Hooligan might be one of them.

    (I’m not a linguist)


    Elizabeth Knox

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