Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymology gleanings for September 2016

As usual, let me offer my non-formulaic, sincere thanks for the comments, additions, questions, and corrections. I have a theory that misspellings are the product of sorcery, as happened in my post on the idiom catch a crab (in rowing). According to the routine of many years, I proofread my texts with utmost care. The blog is posted on Wednesdays, and I usually write the first draft of the next one on a Thursday, let it simmer on a back burner, reread it several times, and finally send it to New York during the weekend. In the process I change a lot (“alot,” according to most undergraduate papers I happen to grade) and make sure that everything is correct. As a reward, the most elementary words sometimes appear misspelled. Wizardry is undoubtedly the cause of this shame. I have studied enough folklore to know how often “little men” come at night and do their work. They are usually friendly, but not always.

Good elves, good work. Kindhearted shoemaker. No misspellings in the Grimms' tale.
Good elves, good work. Kindhearted shoemaker. No misspellings in the Grimms’ tale.

I am also grateful for several letters about Spelling Reform. If the Congress ever materializes, I’ll answer them later. At the moment, I see no point in beating a dead horse.

Huddle, an overused word

No doubt, the observation that huddle originated in team sport is correct, and I have nothing against this verb.  I even have a soft spot for it, because I like the image it conjures up. Besides, I treat with respect all words of unknown origin, and huddle, cuddle (and, to a certain extent, scuttle) are among them: the first two are frequentative verbs with unclear roots (what is hud, and what is cud?). But huddle has been trodden to death, with a special grave reserved for it, since politicians and especially presidents are always said to huddle. The implication seems to be that those worthies find themselves in a state of permanent conspiracy or even collusion, whispering something to one another that we, poor mortals, are not supposed to overhear.

Huddling outside football.
Huddling outside football.

Slang, the thing and the word

In my most recent post, I averred with great vehemence that slang has always existed and that, contrary to what dictionaries say, the origin of the word slang is known. My statement aroused a serious critical comment, and I have to say something in my defense. Slang is a loose concept. In discussing it, people tend to lump together a great number of heterogeneous phenomena. For example, our ignominious F-word is called slang, along with many other formerly unprintable obscenities. All kinds of professional jargon, thieves’ cant, and simply colorful, racy words are often called slang. This approach does not clarify the problem.

I assume that human language has always had various registers. People speak differently with their peers and their superiors. There are words you’d rather not use addressing your grandmother. Expressive adjectives, nouns, and verbs must have been around forever.  Naturally, our relatively scanty medieval texts have preserved few of them, but old poetry is full of elevated vocabulary, which presupposes the existence of its opposite. From Latin we know dozens of “low words,” for, naturally, in public baths young men resorted to the language different from that expected from them while addressing an oracle or a senator. That is why I believe that slang as a special register is ubiquitous and perennial.

Now the word. Its age has nothing to do with the age of the “thing.” The familiar terminology is recent. The terms jargon and argot were coined relatively late. Samuel Johnson, who wrote his English dictionary at the end of the eighteenth century, called slang words low. Our synonym for low would be vulgar. The evidence points to the origin of slang as I gave it in my post. It appears that the word was current in northern England, meant something like “hawker’s turf” and “itinerant salesmen’s language.” Analogs of this transfer (from the territory to the speech prevailing in it) exist, and the phrase slang patter seems to confirm the idea I defended. The mystery does not concern the origin of the word but rather its spread. Another northern noun that conquered the Standard is pimp. For Fielding and Goldsmith slang was a jocular word. To us it is stylistically neutral.

Etymologies are not theorems. In most cases, they cannot be “proved.” Anyone has the right to say: “I don’t believe it.” Historical linguistics as a field of human knowledge is not different from any other. It is dominated by authority. If some etymology appears in Skeat’s dictionary, no one is afraid to repeat it, for being wrong in such good company is fine. The approval of the OED is even better. So far, the etymology of slang in the OED online has not been revised, and I have no way of knowing what its editors think of my proposal. If one day it happens to be accepted at Oxford, everybody will immediately agree with it. But at the moment it is safer to sit on the fence. That’s fine with me: I have nowhere to hurry. As the mother duck said (though not about the fence) in “The Ugly Duckling”: “I’ve sat on this egg so long, I may sit for some more time.”

This is Fagin, the notorious fence in Dickens's Oliver Twist. They are now in prison never to leave it.
This is Fagin, the notorious fence in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. They are now in prison never to leave it.

Avocado, its origin

Here is the entry from The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, with the abbreviations expanded: “Spanish avocado, advocate (whence French avocat), substituted by popular perversion for Aztec ahuacatl testicle, more closely represented by Spanish aguacate; further corrupted, through avigato, to alligator (pear).” Language is obviously the most corrupt and corrupted of all human institutions.


Yes, Scottish boothy “wilderness hut” is indeed booth with a diminutive suffix. I would like to quote a passage from an early translation of Laxdæla Saga, one of the greatest tales recorded in medieval Iceland: “Kjartan and his companions had come south over the pass, and the dale was opening out, when Kjartan said that it was time for Thorkell and his brother to turn back. Thorkell said they would ride with him to the foot of the dale. And when they were come south as far as the boothies called the North Sheilings (sic), Kjartan said to the brothers that they were not to ride further.”

The turns and twists of Modern American English

Singular or plural?

A colleague showed me a sentence from a newspaper. Somebody said: “There are not much data on this problem.” Data is a tricky word. Fortunately, we no longer remember the origin of agenda, another Latin neuter plural.

Justice and poetic justice

Also from a newspaper. The gang squad’s Lt. XX was talking about the most troubled part of the town in which I live. Murder is a common occurrence there, and the murderers are invariably men (that is, males). But the whole world and his wife are now “they.” In speech, this is the result of what I call plural obfuscation: “A guy could’ve shot someone five years ago, and they went to prison, and now they’re out of prison, and they’re shot at because the gang doesn’t think that justice was served.”

Images: (1) The Elves from Household Stories at Project Gutenberg, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (2) “Coywolf hybrids” by L. David Mech, Bruce W. Christensen, Cheryl S. Asa , Margaret Callahan, Julie K. Young, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (3) “Cruikshank – Fagin in the condemned Cell (Oliver Twist)” by George Cruikshank, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.  Featured image: Avocado by sandid, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Singular they is often used in indefinite constructions even where the gender of the referent is known, as in your example. In definite constructions, it is less likely to appear.

    Note to OUP: The image of Fagin presented here perpetuates nasty anti-Semitic stereotypes. Please find a less offensive replacement.

Comments are closed.