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Etymology gleanings for November 2019

Amateur etymologists and a golden key

I agree: no voice should be silenced, but it does not follow that every voice deserves equal respect. I called the previous two posts “Etymology and Delusion” and deliberately did not emphasize such words as madness, lunacy, and derangement, for perfectly normal people can also be deluded. In etymology, the line separating amateurs from professionals is in most cases easy to draw. Amateurs tend to discover a single key to all problems. They begin by refuting what they call dogma, concentrate on some one factor that, in their opinion, holds out great promise, and treat with disdain the professionals who cling to their petty, porous hypotheses and fail to see the forest for the trees.

The dogma may indeed be wrong, but this circumstance does not make the opposing view correct. Moreover, the weakness of the scholarly consensus is its main strength. By contrast, revolutionary counter-theories are not falsifiable, and that circumstance dooms them. In the posts, I cited a few daring proposals. All English idioms, we were told, go back to some lost Low Saxon dialect. Or the source of all English words is Irish (Arabic, Hebrew, Latin—you name it). According to a brilliant theory, all words of all languages derive from the roots sal, ben, yon, rosh. Conversely, the underlying concept of all words was said to be “earth.” Indeed, why not?

Since all such hypotheses appear to be equally convincing, they cancel one another out. An etymology worthy of consideration usually seldom goes far enough. An amateur has no knowledge of the mountain of articles and books devoted to the history of every word, be it Boche  or kibosh, and sees no use in studying them, for in his mind their fallacy is a given. Details don’t bother him. (Excuse my pronoun: I am not aware of any woman among the characters I have discussed.) Similar situations also occur in other spheres of knowledge. For instance, many people insist that Shakespeare is not the author of the plays ascribed to him. Various candidates have been proposed, and we face the familiar situation: all hypotheses are equally persuasive. Last week, I suggested to those who have not read Chekov’s Ward No. 6 to read it. Now I would like to advise them to turn to The Tale of Captain Kopeikin in Chapter 10 of Gogol’s Dead Souls; its background is characteristic. Yet it is only fair to admit that dogma may get hold of a serious researcher. A pet theory becomes an obsession, and the scholar turns into a monomaniac and charlatan. But, as a general rule, amateurs know the truth, while specialists seek it.

Guinea pigs are often suppressed. Photo by Jay Reed, CC by-sa 2.0, via Flickr.

Before the discovery of the comparative method (at the beginning of the nineteenth century), all etymologists were amateurs. While groping in the dark, they occasionally stumbled on convincing solutions, but the lack of method tended to produce monomaniacs. The famous Horne Tooke derived all words from past participles. It is a joy to see how watertight his etymologies sounded and how many people admired them. My advice to amateurs: first learn the subject, then write about it. Incidentally, in giving this advice, I have no concrete targets in view. Nor do I expect that anyone will follow my recommendation.

Early metaphors

Yes, indeed, Old English had kennings, that is, compounds that needed decipherment, such as bone-house “body.” There were also phrases like the road of the whales “sea, ocean.” I deliberately stayed away from the mindboggling kennings in Old Icelandic skaldic poetry, but, if we look at simple kennings in that language, such as the field of necklaces “woman,” we discover that they have the same structure as the road of the whales (periphrastic collocations). Yet Old Icelandic was far ahead of Old English and Old/Middle High German, for it had rather numerous idioms like our let off steam, pull the strings, bury the hatchet, and to leave something on the back burner. The image behind such phrases was clear to the speakers.

My beloved is (like) a rose. Le printemps by Emile Vernon. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In principle, every idiom must have had a similar history. The difference between older and later Germanic is that the number of even transparent idioms (forgetting about Old Icelandic) was extremely small. By contrast, today every European language has hundreds of obscure phrases. No speaker of Modern English understands why something happens before you can say Jack Robinson, why it rains cats and dogs, why we pay through the nose, kick the bucket, go the whole hog, and call a spade a spade. The original motivation has been effaced. (In a way, the same can be said about words: apparently, when a word is coined, its origin is clear to the coiner.) Usually our picturesque phrases do not antedate the Renaissance. And the same holds for metaphorical thinking as a whole: in the post-Classical languages, metaphors appeared relatively late. Similes meet us at every step, but, apparently, it was hard to bridge the gulf between my beloved is like a rose (simile) and my beloved is a rose (metaphor).

A hog on ice

In the post on lie doggo, I cited the American idiom as independent as a hog on ice as a piece of confirming evidence. Since there was a question about the idiom, I may return briefly to the subject. Charles Earle Funk spent years exploring the reality behind this phrase. His first book (1948) bears the title A Hog on Ice and Other Curious Expressions. Funk sought the advice of many people, but no one knew the origin of the odd simile. However, it turned out that a hog on a smooth icy surface cannot move about in a normal manner. His feet will slide out from under him, and the legs will spread, or they will be drawn under him. So much for the poor critter’s independence. The Irish or English origin of the idiom was suggested and abandoned, because of the rarity of ice in those parts and because pig was British use, rather than hog. Despite such arguments, the idea of the Scottish origin appeared to be feasible.

Keep hogs away from ice. Land girl with pig from the UK National Archives UK via Flickr.

In the Scottish game of curling, “when a player does not give his stone sufficient impetus to cause it to slide beyond a certain distance, that stone, when it comes to rest, is called ‘hog’.” Funk risked the suggestion that sometime during the early centuries of the game (perhaps in the 1500s) someone, at seeing a heavy stone not having enough momentum to carry it to its destination, likened it (partly frozen into the ice) to a hog, because of its unwieldiness. If so, Scottish immigrants brought the image and the idiom to the New World, and it stayed there. The first to suggest such an etymology was The Century Dictionary. Whether the question has been solved is anyone’ guess, but the reference to curling sounds realistic, while real hogs have probably nothing to do with our story.

Two words


No, doggone is not an echo of the phrase lie doggo. This curse (it means “damn!”) may be an American coinage. The Scottish variant is dagone! “deuce take it.” Doggone surfaced in the 19th century, and its predecessor was dog on it. The OED calls the origin of the phrase obscure. Perhaps I may add that the sacrilegious word play god/dog has been known for centuries. In the Middle Ages, one could be executed for discussing the similarity in public.


An aqueduct works equally well, regardless of how we spell the word. Roman aqueduct near Tarragona by Cruccone. CC by-sa 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Why is it not spelled aquaeduct? Quite naturally, the Latin form was aquæductus “water conduit,” in which aquæ, that is, aquae, was the genitive of aqua. Italian slightly “vulgarized” the first element (the word is acquidotto). French changed the form to aqueduct and later to aqueduc (e in the middle, and no final consonant).  English seems to have borrowed the word from French.

Please send comments and questions for the last “gleanings” of the year!

Featured image credit: Image by Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    From Memorabilia curliana Mabenensia.
    By Richard Brown (member of the Lochmaben curling soc.) (Dumfries, Scotland, 1830) page 105 (via HathiTrust) “Toasts and Sentiments” [on “hog” as a stone obstacle; “tee” as the goal, here the end, not the beginning, as in golf] “7. May we never come short, or prove a hog, when required to guard a friend…20. May we ne’er lie a hog when we should be at the tee.”

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    “I agree: no voice should be silenced, but it does not follow that every voice deserves equal respect.”

    That is well and good. Certainly many claims of truth were (and are) made. More by ‘experts of the time’ than by amateurs not heard of or listened to.

    But “[no] equal respect” for amateurs still places the intellectual spotlight on the “messenger” and not the “message”.

    And points to the unsustainable position of all that make “position” primary to argument.

    A well reasoned refutation of any of my provisionally proposed etymologies is always welcomed!

    For example, why English “grass” does not derive from Greek “grassidi”(grass), as I claim it does?


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