Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymology gleanings for May 2019

Ethnic phrases

In connection with the discussion of take French leave, Dutch uncle, Welsh rabbit, and the like (see the posts for May 15 and May 22, 2019), I was asked whether other idioms with such ethnic names exist. They probably do, but in my database, I only stumbled upon have the Danes “to have diarrhea.” The idiom, allegedly recorded in the 17th century, was mentioned in Notes and Queries for 1878, with reference to the horrors of the Viking raids. I notice that the Vikings and their gods have been made responsible for several English idioms, and in all cases in which I could check the facts, the explanations turned out to be wrong. The plant danewort (= dwarf elder) was also said to be a laxative. The association with the Danes in this phrase looks like a product of folk etymology, though it may be a coinage by some post-Renaissance erudite, who associated the plants growing in the places of old battles with the tragic events of the Middle Ages. I don’t know whether the leaves of the danewort are or were ever used as a laxative. A comment about taking French leave (read it in the relevant post) is suggestive, but the English idiom is apparently native, because the French (to avenge themselves?) say filer à l’anglaise.

A rare linguistic question

Egg on his face. Image credit: “Egg on yer face-col” by Robin Hutton. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Students of linguistics never write me, except that once every two or three years, someone asks what it takes to become an etymologist (and I explain that it takes one’ whole life). So I hasten to answer a recent query from abroad. This was the question: “In books on English grammar, I sometimes find mention of the zero article. Is zero article the same as the absence of the article?” No, not quite. In linguistics, zero refers to the meaningful absence of something. Compare the egg is in the basket (obviously, the speaker refers to the egg mentioned before), have you never seen an egg? (any egg), and there is egg on your lip (the stuff, probably yolk). One can also cite less obvious cases: in an Icelandic saga, such events are commonplace (in any saga), in the Icelandic saga, such a detail looks odd (the saga you have been talking about, though perhaps the generic use of the article), and in Icelandic Saga, one often finds references to sorcery (Icelandic Saga as a genre). Such examples are not restricted to the use of the articles.


Is she chicaleary? Image credit: “Naughty but nice” by Trevor King. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

A correspondent writes: “In Barbara Kingsolver’s recent novel Unsheltered, on p. 328, a young woman of the 19th century says of her sister, ‘I’m sure she’s all chickaleary now, drinking chocolate….’ But none of the citations I find seem to fit that usage.” On April 4, 2007, I wrote a post titled “One, Two, Three, Alairy” and in passing mentioned the dialectal word chickaleary “aged pedestrians on winter mornings.” Our correspondent discovered this post, and I decided to reread it. To my amazement, I found numerous comments, the most recent one going back to May 18, 2019 (!). In 2009, the University of Minnesota Press published my voluminous Bibliography of English Etymology. Ten years ago, I had access to a single old citation (from Blackwood’s Magazine; there, the word was traced to Scottish Gaelic), but later, I came across some more discussion of this noun (not an adjective) in Manchester Notes and Queries. If anyone is interested, in the future, I may briefly summarize that exchange. To me, chickaleary looks like chick-a-leary, with –leary meaning the same as alairy (discussed in detail in the 2007 post), and a, inserted, as in cock-a-doodle-doo and many other words, including perhaps rag-a-muffin. A chicken with its legs more or less apart will fit the idea of an aged person on a slippery wintry road, though, if chickaleary is indeed Celtic, the English transformation may be due to folk etymology (again folk etymology!). The word is almost certainly northern. Kingsolver’s character must have been jittery (with excitement?), while drinking chocolate.

Our favorite words

Two and occasionally three times a year, I speak on language matters on Minnesota Public Radio (MPR News with Kerri Miller). Last week’s topic was “Our Favorite Words.” People called with comments and questions about the words they like. The choices were curious and confirmed the importance of sound symbolism in the life of language. Both men and women, regardless of their age, “like” words that more or less suggest their meaning. One such word was discombobulate. And indeed shouldn’t it mean “confuse, perplex”? Shenanigans was among the “favorites,” and so was danggonnit (which I have seen spelled as two words: dang gonnit, something resembling darn it, but looking like dang, gone it!). Other people enjoy bookish words: onomatopoeia (this message warmed the cockles of my heart), hyperbole, and diaphony. Some of the comments were very much to the point: “Chutzpah is my favorite. You can say it strongly and the way you pronounce it helps with the meaning of the word (which means you have the nerve to stand up),” spooky (“it’s fun to say”), or egregious (“it adds the right amount of emphasis”).

Caldo! Image credit: “Close Up Photography of Brass Hot Faucet”
by Pixabay. Public domain via Unsplash.

To be sure, sometimes we believe that the sound shape of a noun or a verb matches its meaning because we know the meaning and believe that the connection is natural (hence the surprise of English speakers that Italian caldo means “hot”), but a strict etymological analysis may confirm the sound-imitating or expressive origin of the word. It is amazing how often monosyllabic verbs like dig, put, and kick are dismissed in dictionaries as being of unknown origin. Indeed, an emphatic or expressive origin cannot be demonstrated (let alone proved), and language historians like precision. Discombobulate is certainly not a product of so-called primitive creation, but the pseudo-scholarly, jocular impulse behind coining it must have been similar. This brings me to biffy, another caller’s favorite word. Biffy is “of unknown origin,” and my database does not contain a single note on it. The names of such places go all the way from totally arbitrary (like john) to genteel (restroom), from apparently native but hopelessly obscure (loo) to bookish, borrowed, and transparent (privy, lavatory). The (sound-imitative?) verb biff “to strike” is well-known. Could it exist as a synonym of break wind? The common Indo-European (yes!) verb fart, from perd, that is, prd-, does look like an onomatopoeia. Among the countless synonyms for toilet, I found thunderbox. Anyway, skip to the loo or read my post of April 25, 2007.

In that talk show, I was indeed on the same wave length with the listeners. I too have a soft spot for “funny” words like tatterdemalion and nincompoop on the one hand and such “otiose” bookish monsters as lubricity and adumbrate on the other. Two people complained that, when they used “hard words,” those around them disapproved: “Don’t show off.” Naturally, being better educated and more eloquent than one’s neighbor is an unforgivable sin.

From newspapers

“Now that unemployment is at historic lows, thanks to we baby boomers retiring to the tune of 10,000 a day….” The tune is sweet, but what about the grammar? The use of we after prepositions has been noticed and discussed. Are we at the beginning of some ugly trend, like the ubiquitous infinitive splitting (to not see, to often watch, and the like)? Change in morphology often (if not always) begins as native speakers’ deafness to established rules. Shall we soon say something like everything depends on we?

“One of North Korea’s only allies.” Isn’t the redundancy obvious? Nearly half of the panel employed by the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language found the phrase one of the only acceptable. Yet such a locution does not seem to make sense, does it?

SPELLING REFORM (NOTE): The deadline for receipt of submissions of alternative spelling schemes is May 31, this year. The website is: <spellconf.pss@gmail.com>.

To be continued next week.

Featured image: “Sambucus ebulus” by unknown author. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian Ramalingam

    Some interesting ideas about the origin of “johns” and “jakes” are found in Theodor Rosebury’s “Life on Man”. (A fave book.) In Brooklyn, we said “Chick-O’Leary”, but I no longer recall the context. (Possible Irish slur.) I did think that the first syllable was short for “chicken” (cowardice). Isn’t the split infinitive a Latinism we don’t need to deal with? (= with which we don’t need to deal?) Euphony often demands it: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” (BTW, why is it “diaphony”, but “diaphanous”?)

  2. James Shaw

    Answering Vivian.

    Diaphanous is from the Greek διαφανής ‘through-appearing’

    Diaphony is from the Greek φωνή ‘through sound’

    So the roots are different.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *