Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

One-sided etymology

There is a feeling that idioms resist interference. A red herring cannot change its color any more than the leopard can change its spots. And yet variation here is common. For instance, talk a blue streak coexists with swear (curse) a blue streak. One even finds to swear like blue blazes (only the color remains intact). A drop in the bucket means the same as a drop in the ocean. We can cut something to bits or to pieces, and so forth. Specialists have described this type of variation in minute detail.  A less trivial case is the use of what I would like to call a substitution table. For instance, what can be on one side? We’ll soon find out. A man from Peddleton (Lancashire) wrote in 1875: “All on one side like Rooden Lane is a common expression hereabouts. It arises from the fact of the village—Rooden Lane—being all on one side on the road, the other side being the high wall of Heaton Park, the residence of the Earl of Wilton.” Good information to store up, and nothing to wonder at: the park was private property, and a wall around it could be expected.

Rooden Lane today. The houses are certainly no longer on one side. Image credit: Yellows yellows by Ivy Barn. Public Domain via Unsplash.
This famous tower is certainly all on one side. Image credit: Leaning Tower of Piza Italy by TheDigitalArtist. CC0 via Pixabay.

Yet there is a little hitch here. In Essex, that is, all the way south from Lancashire, roughly to the latitude where London is situated, they say all on one side like Takeley Street. Wikipedia has an entry devoted to the village of Takeley but offers no comments on the simile. And yet, as early as 1889, one could read the following about the phrase in Notes and Queries: “This would be said of love, justice, right, &c, or of a slanting tower or spire. The village of Takeley, between Dunmow and Bishop’s Stortford, has all the cottages on one side of the road, and the squire’s park on the other.” The similarity of the two situations is striking. The speakers who had no contact with one another would hardly have come up with the same rather exotic image (think of love, justice, and right, all of which are like Takeley Street!). Apparently, the basis all on one side like was available, and, inspired by the local scene, one had only to supply the end.

I have noted more than once that etymologists (both professionals and amateurs) tend to reinvent the same wheel with monotonous regularity. Correspondents to Notes and Queries had the admirable habit of consulting the indexes to their favorite periodical before asking questions. However, some people were lazy (some still are). Sixteen years after the previous publication (that is, in December 1896), a resident of Essex, who chose the coy pseudonym Mus Rusticus (“Country Mouse”), asked about the origin of the Takeley Street phrase. Two weeks later, he received the following answer: “Takeley is a small village on the road from Bishop’s Shortford to Dunmow. I passed through it several times years ago, and my recollection is strong that all, or nearly all, the houses were built on one (the north) side of the high road.” Having given this explanation, Mr. W. T. Lynn looked through the indexes and discovered the early letter, to which he referred.

An etymologist at work. Image credit: Repair, bicycle, bike, and tie by Igor Peftiev. Public Domain via Unsplash.
Rus Musticus. Image credit: Wood Mouse Nager Cute by Alexas_Fotos. CC0 via Pixabay.

The regular subscribers to Notes and Queries, some of them versed in word history, antiquities, old literature, and folklore (James A. H. Murray, Walter W. Skeat, A. L. Mayhew, and Frank Chance, among them, to mention just a few illustrious names; on Frank Chance see my post for April 12, 2006: “The Unsung Heroes of Etymology”), might have come up with the idea of idioms as substitution tables if they had systematized the enormous material in the popular press. As early as 1861, someone wondered: “What is the origin of the saying all on one side, like Bridgenorth election?”  This was (perhaps still is: I have no way of knowing) a common idiom in Shropshire (West Midlands, a county bordering Wales). The answers were many and informative. First, a short reply appeared to the effect that there had once been an election in Bridgenorth, when all the votes were on one side. By way of afterthought, the correspondent mentioned the Devonshire saying all on one side, like the lock of a gun (Devon is in the extreme southeast).  He added that, since the lock is indeed on one side, the phrase needs no explanation. The plot thickens. In 1876, a letter appeared about the same phrase being used in Gloucestershire (we are now again in the southwest) and said “when anything is awry,” so also about love and justice?

According to the writer, “influence in the borough was supposed to be a possession of the owner of the nighbouring Apley estate, which includes nearly all the town.” Yet the MP was not always the nominee of Apley, a Tory, and the opposition did have a chance. “When the saying came into vogue, there were two members.” Ultimately, the Whigs lost all influence there, so that the proverbial one-sidedness triumphed. Amusingly, in 1929, someone again wondered where the phrase about Bridgenorth election came from. This time, no one seemed to remember the exchanges of old, but the answer is worth reproducing: “This saying is largely quoted from traditional history, and though Bridgnorth (sic) is connected with it, it might very easily apply elsewhere [hear! hear!]. It refers to the days of ‘tied’ Boroughs, when at a certain election a Whig dared to oppose the two Tory members, with the result, it is said, that only one vote was recorded for the opposition candidate, and that one was his own. Hence the election was all on one side. This occurred before the Ballot Act [1872], in the days of open voting [not by secret ballot], and could not very well occur today.”

The moral of the story is that such sayings might and probably did originate from local conditions, sometimes gained popularity, became known beyond their home counties, and were everywhere more or less convincingly tied to the local scene, with the substitution table being always close at hand. One last trip. We have already been to Devon. In 1876, they said there: “All on one side like Kingswear boys.” Kingswear, a village in Devonshire, certainly exists, but what was so peculiar about its boys that accounted for their touching unanimity? Or was it an ironic, disparaging remark? I have no idea. Perhaps some of our British readers may help.

Featured image credit: Jaguar Sisters by Friday Bredesen. Public Domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    Devon is in the south west – only Cornwall lies further west.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Beats me, concerning “All on [or: “of”] one side like Kingswear boys.” Though Kingswear is on the east side of River Dart, the (or a) west side Dartmouth collocation is “Dartmouth Dickey-Birds.”

Comments are closed.