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Etymology gleanings for August 2020

These gleanings should have been posted last week, but I wanted to go on with Harlequin. That series will be finished next Wednesday; today, I’ll answer the questions I have received.

The idea of offering more essays on thematic idioms was received very favorably, and I am grateful for the suggestions. Yet let me repeat that my dictionary, now ready for submission to the publisher, contains only 1161 entries of varying length, and of course not all subjects are represented in it. The database at my disposal absorbed about 3000 items from various sources, but, as usual, when one begins collecting the data, the main danger is to miss something, but, when the work is over, it is more important to get rid of all kinds of uninspiring rubbish. The idioms that have survived ruthless editing seemed interesting to me, and I preferred a shorter book to a collection full of trivial data. At the final stage, I put together a thesaurus and thus isolated the especially prominent themes: curious proper names, alleged or real Americanisms, naval phrases, phrases pertaining to family life, and a few more. In this blog, I’ll try to go on in the same vein as before, but my resources are limited.

Naval usage and beyond

A common supply of rags. (Image via Pixnio)

There are hundreds of such phrases. Over the years, I have discussed about a dozen idioms going back to sailors’ experiences. Some of those in my database contain explanations that are too short or dubious, but I can add two that look attractive. One of them is to part brass-rags “to fall out, to part on bad terms.” Here is the explanation from the database: “It is a custom in the navy for two men in a gun’s crew, or otherwise, to have a common supply of rags and other cleaning material; if they quarrel sufficiently badly to dissolve partnership, they are said to ‘to part brass-rags’.” And: “The term ‘raggy’ is lower-deckese for ‘chum’—blue-jacket ‘pals’ being wont to share their ‘cleaning rags’.” The OED’s earliest citation is dated to 1898.

Quite often a phrase may have a nautical origin, but there is no certainty. One such phrase is to set the cap. It is used by a woman about a man when she wishes to become engaged to him. According to Earnest Weekley’s etymological dictionary, this is one of many nautical metaphors (like the French mettre le cap sur “to turn the ship”). Weekley was a first-rate word historian. Since his main area of expertise was French, he often found French sources of English words and expressions, where no one else would have thought of looking. Sometimes, despite my admiration for Weekley, I wonder whether he went too far in his conclusions. I discovered long ago that being a specialist in some area may result in an aberration of vision: for instance, those who are experts in Dutch or Scandinavian etymology are apt to find the origin of English words in Dutch and Icelandic, and so forth. This does not mean that they err: one should only beware of their focus and excessive zeal. That said, I hope Weekley was right!

setting one's cap
Setting a cap. (Image by John James Chalon via Wikimedia)

In a comment, our reader wrote that her late husband, a sailor, used to call “bathroom” the head (to hit the head “to go to a bathroom”). She suggested that early ships did not have bathrooms and the sailors would use the sea instead. In the famous The Sailor’s Word Book by Admiral Smyth, head occurs hundreds of times, but I could not find this sense of the word. Yet I think our correspondent was close to the truth: toilets for sailors are indeed situated in the bow, and head is the name for the place. They might be situated in the stern too, and it is probably not for nothing that poop, a Romance (sound-imitative?) word, has a second, universally known meaning in English.

Diagram of poop deck of HMS Canopus
A poop deck. (Image via Wikimedia)

In the same post (August 5, 2020), I mentioned the phrase let George do it. One of our readers commented on it. The following query from the New York Public Library, going back to 1923, may be of interest, even though it was never answered:

“The expression ‘Let George do it’ has in the last ten or dozen years become current in America. Especially during the [First World] war was it in common use. The phrase meaning, of course, ’Let the other fellow do it’. We are interested to learn if there is any foundation to the statement that this phrase is of English origin. We know that the French have employed for several centuries a very similar expression, ‘Laissez faire à George, il est homme d’âge’ [‘Let George do it, he is a grownup man’] which they trace back to the time of Louis XII. Has such an expression been used in England, and, if so, is there any explanation of its origin known to you or your readers?”

A century later, I would like to ask our British readers: Do you know this phrase, and, if you do, what do you know about its connection with French?

A recent post was devoted to idioms referring to family relations (August 19, 2020). In a comment, a reader mentioned the amusing phrase the grey mare is the better horse, said about a henpecked husband. The phrase, which is quite old (the OED has a version of it going back to 1529), has been discussed many times but without success. From the literature at my disposal I learned a good deal about crusaders, about the use of mares in the Middle Ages, about Chaucer’s knowledge of farmers’ horses, and so on, but nothing about the idiom. Apparently, a mysterious grey mare was considered much more useful than some stallion (metonymically, the mare’s “husband”), but why grey? Or did the phase once mention a grey (white, black) stallion? Losing the end of a long idiom is not uncommon. The conjectures known to me lead nowhere. Phrases like a horse of another color and curry favor (favor goes back to Old French favel “pale,” the reference being to a pale horse), as well as all kinds of biblical references to horses are suggestive but do not explain the English adage, provided it originated in England.

Why cannot we split infinitives?

Such was the question in one of the comments. Of course, we can. The particle to (and the same holds for German zu, Scandinavian at, etc.) is a relic of the preposition before the dative of an infinitive, because in the past, infinitives were declined. German nouns like Leben “life,” with its genitive Lebens, remind us of the genitive of the infinitive. English has lost nearly all endings, and, when we hear live, it may be to live or (I, you, they) live. That is why we say to live, when it is necessary to mark the infinitive. German has retained the ending –en; therefore, it is not necessary to use zu with the infinitive in isolation: the German for to live is leben, not zu leben. In principle, groups like to see, to hear, to do are almost single units, but the merger has never been complete, and sometimes, especially when adverbs occupy an awkward position in a sentence, the separation is fine. Consider the following:

“to fully understand and appreciate the enormous influence of this change, one has only to compare…”

“To understand and appreciate fully”, etc., is OK but it separates the verbs from their object and perhaps a split infinitive is the best option in this case. But “one has to only compare” would be monstrous. To be or not to be, right? Now, on the eve of a new academic year, university instructors receive countless letters from the highest administrators about how to deal with the pandemic. Again and again, we are implored to not ignore the needs of students, to not forget that the circumstances have changed, to again explain to our students, and so forth. I have no tolerance for this ugliness. The rule is known very well: avoid gratuitous splitting.

War and peace: an etymology

Ion Carstoiu, my regular correspondent from Romania, points out that the words for war in various languages seem to be associated with the names of pagan deities, sometimes the same names in various cultures. For example, he derives bellum, etc. from such names. As far as I know, people invent the names of their gods from words, rather than the other way around.

Feature image by Jean Louis Tosque from Pixabay 

Recent Comments

  1. Alan Mighty

    On’ poop’, as in ‘the poop deck’ or the verb ‘poop’ meaning for a vessel to ship a sea or receive a wave breaking on the poop deck, I thought the etymological chain from nautical Modern English 1748 pouppe (the aftermost part of a ship); from Middle French 1246 pupe or pope, (the stern of a ship; from Latin puppis, (stern of a ship). Earlier than that, the trail seems cold.

  2. Alan Mighty

    Similarly, I thought ‘head’ (US English) or ‘heads’ (UK English) had been well established since 1748 as a word meaning ‘the latrine of a ship’, referring to the bows of the ship. The UK English plural form ‘heads’ being understood to match the plural form of the ‘bows of a ship’, where each bow is a shoulder (from Middle Dutch boech, shoulder) leading to the neck (hawse of the ship) or head of the ship.

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