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Etymology gleanings for August 2018

The following items are my answers to the queries by Stephen Goranson

In a jiffy

Stephen Goranson has offered several citations of this idiom (it means “in a trice”), possibly pointing to its origin in sailor slang. English is full of phrases that go back to the language of sailors, some of which, like tell it to the marines, by and large, and the cut of one’s jib (to cite a few), are well-known. They have been collected and explained, and the journal Mariner’s Mirror (incidentally, a joy to read) contains numerous articles on their origin. In a jiffy has not turned up there (I have excerpted the entire set for my etymological database). Thus, having nothing to say about the environment in which the idiom was coined, I would like to tell a story about its possible derivation.

Jig, jag, jog. Image credit: Man Jogging Running Man Exercise Healthy Run by Free-Photos. CC0 via Pixabay.

Jiffy is (of course!) a word of “unknown origin,” though its connection with the verb jiffle “to shuffle, fidget” has been noticed. Two scholars have dealt with jiffy. I’ll begin with the second one. Toward the end of his life, Wilhelm Braune (1850-1926), a renowned Germanic specialist, published a series of articles on Romance etymology. They appeared in a journal devoted to Romance linguistics and literature, but in Germany and in German. The man’s full name was Theodor Wilhelm Braune; however, “the whole world” knew him as Wilhelm. Yet the signature under his contributions to the Romance periodical is invariably Theodor Braune, as though he wanted to distance himself from his Germanic persona. The article that interests us at the moment appeared in 1922 and is devoted to the roots g-b and g-f.

Braune collected several hundred Germanic words that were allegedly borrowed into Romance, and in his lists one also finds some English verbs and nouns (mainly regional). This series of articles is truly amazing, for it is so much out of character. Braune belonged to the school of German scholars who followed in the footsteps of Jacob Grimm and formed a group known in the history of linguistics as Neogrammarians (in German Junggrammatiker). Their emphasis was on a strict observance of phonetic correspondences (called at that time phonetic laws), and Braune wrote a typical Neogrammarian manual of Old High German, a book that ran into numerous editions, and, although it has been revised by several later editors, in essence it is still the same immensely useful old book. But in the article I am here talking about we are invited to a regular feast of disparate words, united by the alleged original meaning that Braune reconstructed as “to gape.”

Guffaw or a gaffe? Image credit: Man Embarrassing Embarrassed Scared Flash Of Genius by sipa. CC0 via Pixabay.

The entire series is of the same type. It was received very badly. To be sure, Braune’s articles could not be rejected, but the comments by Romance scholars were highly critical, while his Germanic colleagues ignored those publications. I have never seen a single reference to them, and, if I had not done with the German journal (Zeitschrift f. romanische Philologie) what I have done with Mariner’s Mirror, I would never have run into them. Braune’s conclusions resemble those of his distant predecessor (about whom see below) and those by Wilhelm Oehl, a Swiss researcher who wrote a book, as well as many stimulating articles, on so-called primitive creation and to whom I have referred more than once (see, for example, the post for 22 August 2007). Braune cited Engl. gaff “a fair; any public place of amusement,” gaffe “an embarrassing blunder,” guff “nonsense,” guffaw “a loud and boisterous laugh,” and even gaffer “old man” (usually derived from godfather), along with dozens of almost identical words from German, Scandinavian, and Dutch. Engl. jiffle and jiffy did not escape him either.

I don’t think Braune’s conjectures were ignored in England and the United States: rather, no English etymologist has ever read those articles. The overall meaning “to gape” does not look like a convincing semantic base for Braune’s lists, but most of his words certainly appear to have something in common. The origin of English words beginning with j-, unless they are obvious borrowings from French, is usually obscure. This is true of job, jog, jib, jig, and many others. Those are most often “low words,” to quote Samuel Johnson, slang, and obvious sound-symbolic and sound imitative formations. Braune’s examples form a family of etymological bastards. That is why their origin is “unknown,” and we may call them related, but certainly not in the Neogrammarian sense of this term. With them we probably come as close to the beginning of human speech as we can. I also note that jiff-le and fidg-et, if we disregard the suffixes, are mirror images of each other: whether one says jiff or fidge, the impression the sound complex makes will be the same. However, the common sematic denominator of such formations is elusive.

The etymologist and spiritualist Hensleigh Wedgwood via Anonymous. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It is amazing that a study like this came from the pen of a consistent Neogrammarian. We should now jump from 1923 to 1855. Etymology, especially English etymology, is still in diapers. Almost every volume of Transactions of the Philological Society publishes a paper by Hensleigh Wedgwood. Many years later, he will become the main predecessor and even opponent of Walter W. Skeat. Today he is almost forgotten. His 1855 contribution is titled “On Roots, mutually connected by reference to the term Zig-zag” (I have retained the capitalization of the original). So now the unifying sense is declared to be not gaping but zigzag. No doubt, Braune never leafed through those volumes. Otherwise, he would have been surprised to encounter jig, jag, jog, juggle, goggle, job, jibe, giggle, giffle ~ jiffle, and jiffy, the latter defined as “an instant, the time of a single vibration,” among dozens of words that begin with neither g nor j. The curious thing is that a seasoned historical linguist who knew every sound correspondence (Braune) and an amateur who was wont to derive all words of all languages from sound-imitative complexes and did not think much of the Neo-Grammarian laws (Wedgwood) suggested not only similar solutions of the origin of jiffy but even gave their respective papers almost identical titles. Both were probably close to the truth, regardless of whether jiffy and its kin suggested gaping or zigzagging to their creators. The environment in which this word was coined remains undiscovered. But Admiral Smyth’s non-inclusion of jiffy in his famous The Sailor’s Word-Book is a warning signal when it comes to positing the word’s home at sea.

Katie, bar the door. Image credit: Scotland’s story : a history of Scotland for boys and girls by Marshall, H. E. (Henrietta Elizabeth). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Katie, bar the door

Stephen Goranson remembers that his mother used to say: “It’ll be Katy bar the door.” He wonders whether this strange phrase has anything to do with the first word of cater-corner (or kitty-corner), so that the reference is to a katy (diagonal) bar across the door.

In 1992 (Notes and Queries 237, p. 376), Fredrick G. Cassidy, the editor of Dictionary of American English (DARE) wrote the following: “In the United states today there is a vogue for the exclamation, ‘Katie, bar the door!’ used when any situation seems desperate or things are getting out of hand.” The best DARE’s team could do was to relate the phrase to the assassination of King James I of Scotland in 1437, when “Kate Barlass”—Lady Catherine Douglas—according to legend, thrust her arm in the staples of the door, from which the bar had been removed, thus preventing the murderers for a while gaining access to the house. Her arm was broken, but her heroic act was sung in popular ballads, with “Katie, bar the door!” as the refrain. Cassidy stated that many facts need verification but added that “It is certainly not the one about the contest of silence between a husband and wife called ‘Get up and bar the door.” He asked for any clues to the origin of the song, but no one responded.

More answers at the end of September.

Featured Image: In a jiffy. Image credit: Deadline Stopwatch Clock Time Pressure Watch by freeGraphicToday. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Thank you, though Smyth’s Sailor’s Word-Book (1867) page 412: “JIFFY. A short space of time, a moment. “In a jiffy,’ in an instant; equivalent with crack, trice &c.”

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Here are early uses of “jiffy” that may suggest maritime origin:

    1765. The Disappointed Coxcomb. A Comedy in Five Acts, by Bartholomew Bourgeois, (via Eighteenth Century Collections Online) page 28 [women want to get his rings]:
    MISS HARTSHORN: But Seaweed, won’t you give your old acquaintance no bauble among the rest–what is this topaz too? (Pointing to one of his rings.
    SEAWEED: That is an amethyst, my gull, or a petrified plum, which you will——–Blast ’em, I see I shall be unrigg’d in a jiffy, if I don’t close haul (Aside.

    1789 “Whereupon, in a giffy, Jem Cuffe, Brought his bum to an anchor near Harry.” Both Sides of the Gutter…Dublin, p. 15 GB full view.

    1791″…And off again in half a jiff* [*footnote:] Jiffy or jiffy, a jocular expression,
    and means a short space of time. Innumerable are the expressions (particularly amongst sailors)
    to shew what expedition may be…[other examples follow]. Edward Nairne, Poems,
    Miscellaneous and Humorous…Canterbury, pp. 66-7 ECCO.

    1794 “…[aboard ship with] a gale coming on. Each man threw on his stormy-weather jacket and jumped forward in a jiffy.”
    Columbian Centinel, Boston, April 5, p. 2. Am.Hist.Newsp.

    1836 “and he bouts ship in a jiffy”–Th. C. Haliburton, The Clockmaker, or, The sayings and doings of Samuel Slick…[a Nova Scotia character], p. 154 HathiTrust.

  3. Stephen Goranson

    “Katy bar the door,” in my brother’s suggestion, may be related to “Kitty bar the door.” (Going to 1437 for an Ur-Katy is rather far to seek.) Guess what? there are indeed printed American versions with “Kitty bar the door.” Here’s one example from October 10, 1874. Governor of Louisiana, William Pitt Kellogg in a speech, after urging his followers to register to vote, said: “They must not be in the condition of him who cries “Kitty bar the door.! (Laughter.)” the New Orleans Weekly Louisianan 2/5.

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