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Monthly gleanings for July 2019

As always, many thanks to those who left comments and to those who sent me emails and asked questions.

Notes on animals


Rather long ago, I wrote four posts on the etymology and use of the word brown (see the posts for September 24, October 1, October 15, and October 22, 2014). The origin of the animal name beaver was mentioned in them too. Here I’ll say what I know about the subject. Beaver has immediately recognizable cognates in many languages and, apparently, goes back to Indo-European. The Germanic languages have similar forms: Dutch bever, German Biber, Icelandic bjórr, etc. The ancient Germanic etymon must have sounded as bebruz. The relevant words in Latin, Slavic, and Baltic are fully compatible with the Germanic ones. The Greek name of this animal is known to most of us from the myth of the “Gemini” Castor and Pollux. Some other animal name may have had the same root in Classical Greek, but the beaver was called differently (hence Castor).

The form bebruz, with its b occurring twice, is a telltale sign of what linguists call reduplication. Reduplication is ubiquitous. Consider the name of the disease beriberi; cucurri, the perfect of Latin cúrrere “to run,” and Engl. so-so and tut, tut, among dozens of others, to say nothing of phrases like it is very, very good. The main witness in the etymology of beaver is Sanskrit babhrús “brown, great ichneumon (a kind of mongoose),” and the traditional explanation has it that the beaver got its name from the color of its skin (“brown-brown”). But though repeated in the best dictionaries, this etymology need not be taken for God’s truth, because the color name may go back to the animal’s name! Some hypotheses on the origin of brown will be found in my posts mentioned above. None of them is definitive.

Pierre Parant. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The once very active American etymologist Francis A. Wood connected the animal’s name with Sanskrit bhárvati “to gnaw, chew” (related is Latin fōrma “mold, shape,” from which we have form). I don’t think anyone has discussed, let alone accepted, this conjecture. When mentioned, it is left without comment.

Pig’s eye

Our correspondent is interested not in the phrase itself but in its historical connections with St. Paul, Minnesota, for the town (the capital of the state) was for some time called Pig’s Eye. This was the nickname of Pierre Parrant, the first non-indigenous inhabitant of what later became St. Paul. Reportedly, he was blind in one eye. The phrase goes back to Middle English piggisnye (nye stands for an eye, that is, a neye, an example of misdivision (also called metanalysis), as in nanny from mine Annie, and the like). The word first occurs in Miller’s Tale (Chaucer; see the OED). At that time, it was a term of endearment. Pigs have small eyes, and possibly the association was between them and tiny but precious jewels. There is also a flower called pig’s eye. Parrant used “Pig’s Eye” as the name of his bar. Perhaps he suggested that his establishment was precious, but by the nineteenth century, the phrase pig’s eye had acquired a negative meaning and developed into a vulgar word.

Pig’s eye also became a synonym of pig’s ear as an expression of disbelief. In rhyming slang, pig’s ear meant “beer.” Again, we cannot decide whether Parrant was aware of Cockney slang. In any case, he sold liquor, and pig’s eye could very well become the name of his brand, regardless of British usage. I have read somewhere (but I cannot find my note) that at one time pig’s eye meant “anus.” No source I have consulted records it, but all the best dictionaries of slang include the phrase in a pig’s eye, synonymous with in a pig’s ear (an emphatic expression of disbelief). The sense “anus” would go a long way toward the amazing deterioration of meaning: from “my precious one” to a swear word. I suspect that Parrant knew just that sense and that his customers enjoyed the rudeness or perhaps the ambiguity of it. Be that as it may, there is still a park in St. Paul called “Pig’s Eye,” and a brand of beer also bears this name.

Pig’s eye, a true picture of beauty. Pig by Tim McReynolds from Pixabay. Pig’s face flowers public domain via pxhere.


Pig and whistle

I was delighted to see the positive comments on my posts devoted to American idioms and will definitely write more about them. My prospective dictionary of idioms is expected to be published in 2020, and I hope it will sell like hotcakes. At the moment I have two things to say.

Here is the now famous tavern sign. Its popularity is recent. Photo © Jaggery (cc-by-sa/2.0).

Above, I made a few inconclusive statements about pig’s eye. By way of compensation, I mined my database for pig and whistle. This is the name of a tavern sign. (Did Parrant know it? Probably not.) The literature on such signs is a pleasure to read. The occasional phrase gone to pigs and whistles seems to have meant “ruined with intemperance,” but, if so, why did it? The inspiration must have come from the pub. Ebenezer Brewer, the main nineteenth-century authority on the origin of idioms, connected pig “a small bowl” (compare piggin “a small wooden pail”) with whistle, being a variant of “wassail,” and his explanation has often been repeated.

He was wrong by definition, for who would have put together two garbled words to produce the phrase in question? The entire phrase should be accounted for: etymologizing it word by word looks like a forlorn hope. Even the great scholar Max Müller succumbed to this temptation and traced pig to Danish piga “girl” (why?!) and whistle to the same wassail (wassail was an old salutation—wæs hāl! “be whole/ healthy!”). A reasonable hypothesis sounds so: “The phrase originated in order to explain the way in which the wood of some soft-grained tree, instead of being devoted to the formation of some permanently useful valuable article of furniture, was used up by boys and youth in the whittling of pegs and whistles. That is to say, gone to pigs and whistles means ‘reduced to some mean and trifling service’.”  The alternation of short i and short e in dialects is common, so that peg could easily be confused with pig and become the source of the joke. (Signs are supposed to be memorable, not logical: compare Dickens’s “Magpie and Stump”).

In a brown study

In the posts on brown, I discussed this idiom, which means “in deep meditation.” At one time, I came to the conclusion that the phrase in a brown study had not crossed the Atlantic Ocean. I was wrong. Moreover, we should assume that it was widely known even among the lower classes. Of all people, Huck Finn says (close to the end of Chapter 41): “She judged she better put in her time being grateful we was alive and well and she had us still, stead of fretting over what was past and done. So she kissed me, and patted me on the head, and dropped into a kind of brown study.”

Slav and slave

Jon Cowan adduced two examples of an ethnic name being used for coining the word for “slave.” Both are too marginal to create a pattern, but of course, the existence of such an equation could be expected somewhere in the world. However, in the history of the Eurasian Middle Ages, similar cases are either non-existent or vanishingly rare.


Thank you for calling my attention to the sources on the origin of numerals. I knew them both. In connection with the exchange in the comments, I can only add that of all the old Indo-European words the numerals are among the most hopeless from an etymological point of view. None of them goes back directly to Greek, even though they have cognates in Greek. Their obscurity is astounding because such primitive words could be expected to have rather obvious origins. But none of them is transparent, and the reconstructed roots sound like eeny, meeny, yield no meen’ing and leave us in the dark.

Feature image credit: D. Gordon E. Robertson, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jonathon Green

    As regards Pig’s Eye, the one-eyed barkeep. I have no earlier examples, but the 1864 edition of Hotten’s Slang Dict. offers pig’s eye as the ace (of diamonds). Given that an ace represents a single unit, perhaps this lies behind Pig’s Eye’s single eye.

  2. John Cowan

    A third idea about beaver is that it is the (reduplicated) bearer: *bʰer- ‘bear, carry’ > *bʰe-bʰer- > *bʰé-bʰrus ‘beaver’. Unfortunately I don’t have a proper citation for this idea.

    A bit of suggestive evidence is that the beaver is the only animal in Northern Eurasia capable of carrying large, heavy loads: adults range from 20 to 30 kg and are capable of dragging at least their own weight.

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    Just a few years ago it was possible to question the origin of “primitive” words in many I.E. languages. And argue these can’t be directly derived from Greek roots.

    [“None of them goes back directly to Greek, even though they have cognates in Greek”].

    And kick the “can’t” down the road to a made up PIE.

    But several recent scientific aDNA studies force a reconsideration of that view. Since we now have objective scientific evidence that Neolithic settlers of the UK (and other parts of Europe and the Levant) descended from the Aegean.

    These Neolithic settlers (replacing, for example, the indigenous Neolithic UK population by 90%) would naturally bring their language (Greek) with them.

    There is no mystery now how so so many common (primitive) English words have Greek roots! And that would include the numerals! No mere “cognates” here with unknown origins.

    The “eeny meeny” counting rhyme best makes sense as being “ena m’ena” (Greek for “one by one”). Which is the essence of counting down game. As in the rhyme. I’ve made that point before. Selective memory?

    We are in the dark only when we refuse to turn on the switch.


  4. Matthew Goff

    Thank you for taking up the question of Pig’s Eye. I know that this this it a blog about words and language, but I do want to make a couple of picky points about local history: St. Paul was never called Pig’s Eye. Pig’s Eye was the name of a separate settlement that was located where Pig’s Eye Park now is, and Parrant almost certainly never called his grog shop Pig’s Eye. There is a great deal of legend surrounding this Pig’s Eye Parrant character. I am hoping that peeling back the legend might reveal something interesting about the early history of St. Paul and the upper Mississippi in general. Thank you again for taking up the question.

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