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A few bogus etymologies: “tantrum,” “dander,” “dandruff,” and “dunderhead,” along with “getting one’s goat”

Bogus, tantrum, and dander are fairly recent additions to the vocabulary of English. Like so many newcomers, they are words of unknown etymology. My greatest ambition is to promote their status from “unknown” to “uncertain.”

It is tantrum that will first engage our attention. Those who risked saying anything on the source of this word suggested the Celtic origin as a remote possibility. Most unfortunately, a search for the origin of tantrum on the Internet returns us again and again to Charles Mackay’s book on the Scots Gaelic etymology of the languages of Europe. Mackay, a poet and songwriter, who knew a good deal about English and whose other books are still useful, entertained the bizarre notion that thousands of English words go back to Gaelic. The very idea that tantrum is a sum of two similar-sounding Gaelic words, even though such a sum does not occur with the meaning “an outburst of anger” in any Celtic language, is implausible, to say the least. And in general, dissecting a hard word into segments and producing a spurious compound should be dismissed as adventurism. E. Cobham Brewer, the author of the once immensely popular Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, explained dander as d(amned) anger. Gullible people have repeated this etymology more than once.

Tantrums: a devilish trick.

The Latinized ending of tantrum should not trouble anyone. Even if some wag of the past added –um to tantra, the word owes nothing to Latin. I believe the safest clue to the origin of tantrum is the name of the devil Tantrabobus (Tantrumbobus, Tantarabobs, Tantraboobs, and other variants). Bobus has as little to do with Latin as bogus (about which more will be said later), tantrum, conundrum, panjandrum, and cockalorum (on conundrum and panjandrum see my post for 3 December 2008). Tantrumbobus is a relative of Flibbertigibbet, Hoberdidance, and Obidicut (also known as Haberdicut), the fiends mentioned in King Lear. I wonder whether English dander “to walk around; to talk inherently” and especially Old High German tantaron “to be out of one’s mind” are kin of the British devils, and, if so, whether those devils were also known on the continent. Tantrabobus and the rest were applied in some British dialects to a noisy child (likewise, in the US the word has been attested as a jocular term of endearment) and to a great noise made by children, that is, they designated ruckus, rumpus, or fracas. (If you want to increase your etymological despair, look up the origin of those three words: you will come away none the wiser but a good deal sadder.)

This is the most authentic image of our Tantrabobus.

In Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, the mysterious triad antrims ~ antruns ~ antherun, a close synonym of tantrum, occurs. Webster’s International 1, 2 mentions it in a noncommittal way, but there is no way of knowing what to do with it, and in the third edition the reference disappeared. More importantly, in dialects, tantrum has the variant dandrum, defined by Joseph Wright as “a whim, a freak; ill-temper.” We recognize it in the form dander, because it occurs in the phrase to get one’s dander up. Dander is “ferment in working molasses,” a putative variant of dunder “lees of cane juice”; the latter has been traced back to Spanish. Dander in the idiom and dander “ferment” may be related, but it is more likely that they are not: dander in to get one’s dander up looks more like dandrum without its pseudo-Latin ending.  Dander is also a piece of the vitrified refuse of a smith’s fire or a furnace, and there have been attempts to connect it with tinder.

The names of fiends, like those mentioned above, are more or less fanciful coinages and their origin is hard to trace, but, if dandrum historically preceded tantrum, then it resembles thunder, possibly a sound-imitative word like ding-dong, thud, and thump. My main suggestion can therefore be summarized as follows: there was an onomatopoeic word for “noise,” something like dunder ~ dander ~ tanter. Dunder too might have been used as the first element in the name of a noisy devil, assuming that dunder is related to din, more or less as does the word dunderhead (British dialects have the variants with –knoll, –noddle, and –prate in this compound, and John Fletcher knew the noun dunderwhelp). As to dunder, in the north it may mean “to rumble; to strike with a loud noise.” Who is a dunderhead? A person making lots of noise but saying nothing of consequence or someone who was knocked on the head and lost his wits? Tantrums are usually associated with an outburst of bad temper in children, so that the imp responsible for such hissy fits must have been some sort of bogey, a Eurasian bogyman, a relative of the Russian buka. Children believed that, unless they behaved, the bogey ~ buka would come and fetch them.

The bogey’s next of kin was, apparently, the bogus ~ bobus.  Late in the eighteenth century, tantrabobus ~ tantrabogus, a Vermont colloquialism for an odd-looking object, was recorded, while bogus surfaced as an American name for an apparatus that produced counterfeit money. Most certainly, all those Americanisms (dander also surfaced first in the US) were at one time taken overseas by colonists as so-called British provincialisms. Bogus has the reputation of a word of unknown etymology. I think we encounter a familiar devil, now minting false currency. Later, this creature was made responsible for all kinds of false things. The origin of the variation in bogus ~ bobus is again familiar: in such words, both vowels and consonants play the familiar games allowed in expressive formations.

Goosey goosey gander plotting its next move.

Although condemned by all, the phrase to get one’s gander up occurs with great regularity. This variant is hardly the result of folk etymology (in this case, gander substituted for the unfamiliar or incomprehensible dander).  Since old days, gander might have been a euphemism for “penis” or “amorous man” (in our unbuttoned age, we call such males horny), as follows from the narrator’s peregrinations in the nursey rhyme about the innocently-sounding goosey-goosey gander. But perhaps to get one’s dander up gave rise to the facetious model “to raise an angry beast in one.” Consider to get one’s goat, which also has the variant with up at the end. Those idioms were coined in America. The familiar idea that to get one’ goat owes its origin to horse racing looks like a poor joke.

Thor certainly got his goat(s).

Dandruff is the hardest word of all beginning with dandr-. If dander “ferment” is a variant of dunder “lees,” I have nothing to say. But if it is a different word and if at one time it had some vague sense of “dregs, refuse,” it may perhaps be the root of dandruff, while –ruff has been referred to the Germanic word for “scab” and the Roman words borrowed from Germanic (those are usually discussed at ruffian). Later it might have been associated with rough. Consider also riff raff, which is usually traced to French, but its place of origin is Germanic. Finally, I may mention the shrub woodruff; the origin of its second element is “unknown.” In any case, the Celtic sources of dandruff (suggested more than once) should be rejected for want of evidence. Be that as it may, dandruff, however irritating, has probably nothing to do with dander “anger” or any of the devils that have boggled our collective mind us today.

Image credits: (1) “Tantrum” by Jonty, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. Featured image and (2) “Doolagahl (Aboriginal equivalent of Bogeyman) by Steaphan Paton” photo by Nagarjun Kandukuru, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (3) Goose by Domenic Hoffmann, Public Domain via Pixabay.  (4) “Christmas throughout Christendom – Thor” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Surely dunder is a Dutch or North Germanic version of thunder, which has IE roots (cf. Latin tonare), rather than a primitive onomotopoeia.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Very interesting and entertaining, Anatoly. What about “drum”? Any connection to “tantrum”?

  3. Stephen Goranson

    Since tantrums are often noisy, might tantrum be a variant of the older tantara and tarantara, sounds of trumpet (or drum) fanfares and the like?
    PS. Was the initial quotation mark in the title word unintended?

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