Eric Partridge is deservedly famous among word lovers. His main area of expertise was substandard English, that is, slang and cant. He knew informal and underworld English like probably no one of his contemporaries. Decades later, his books are in no way outdated, even though excellent work has been done in that area since his time (new historical dictionaries of slang, improved definitions, and secure or at least plausible etymologies, among others). However, Partridge was not a philologist in the strict sense of this term. I have some reason to believe that he could not read German and consulted etymological dictionaries in a perfunctory way. Undaunted by his lack of expertise, he decided to compile an etymological dictionary of English, because he concluded that the structure of the existing dictionaries is inconvenient. In that he was partly right. Arranging related words in nests (and this was his plan) makes etymology not more reliable but sometimes more transparent. Though reshuffling other people’s information without the ability to evaluate or improve it was not an enterprise worthy of a researcher of his caliber, he brought out his own etymological dictionary of English, and many people use it, because they don’t realize its derivative nature.
By contrast, in his journal articles and other books, Partridge made numerous ingenious suggestions about the derivation of slang words. Curiously, none of them made its way into his dictionary! It so happens that the origin of slang is often even murkier than the origin of “standard” words, and intelligent guessing in this area may yield useful results. I don’t think anyone has put together Partridge’s etymological notes on slang, and today I’ll make a few of them more accessible to the public. No revolutionary discoveries should be expected from this post. It is rather meant as a tribute to an indefatigable word hunter and a great expert in the field that interests many people.
“Justice of peace, or magistrate.”
“…probably it is connected with beak, a bird’s bill, and, like so much early cant…, was perhaps due to those university men who ran wild in London. I suggest that beck, as an anglicized form of the French bec, is basically the same as, and afterwards became beak.”
Did Partridge mean that a beak is a person poking his nose into other people’s business or snatching things with it?
“The word may be due to a confusion and combining of the Lincolnshire binge to soak, and the cant bingo, defined as ‘brandy or other spirituous liquor’ by Francis Grose [the author of an 1811 dictionary of slang]. … Dr. [James A. H.] Murray in 1888 [in The Oxford English Dictionary] suggested that bingo was b (for brandy) and stingo; very diffidently I suggest that a Lincolnshire wit gave to binge, to soak, the termination o (after deleting e) on the analogy of the much older stingo, strong ale or beer….”
The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1966, later The ODEE, no longer refers to Murray’s blend but, like Partridge, tentatively connects binge with the dialectal verb binge, without, however, mentioning stingo. Partridge was a careful reader of Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary and drew several promising conclusions from his reading. Northern words did occasionally make their way into the slang of London and southern counties, as evidenced by the history of the noun slang itself: see the post for 28 September 2016. The difficulty consists in tracing the word’s suggested route from Lincolnshire to London. The ending -o needs no defense: compare weirdo, typo, and even lie doggo (with regards to this obscure idiom, see the post for 13 November 2019).
“To seize; apprehend; steal”
“…may be a figure of speech based on a dog’s removal of a bone to a place of safety.”
The ODEE gives no references. Though it calls the verb bone a word of unknown origin, it cites Partridge’s suggestion as probable.
“To acquire illicitly” surfaced during World War I.
“…the real solvent is supplied by the late and much lamented Joseph Wright, who, in his ‘English Dialect Dictionary,’ makes it clear that it is a North Country word, that one of the secondary meanings is ‘to wander about idly,’ and that one of the meanings of the noun is ‘a thorough search’.”
Here the fit is not so good as in the previous case. The ODEE goes its own way and suggests an alteration of scrunch, itself an expressive alteration of crunch “crush, squeeze.” The root-final –dge, as in dodge, nudge, fidget, etc. is indeed expressive. However, the way from “crush, squeeze” to “pilfer, snaffle, etc.” is not quite straight, even though nab and nap in kidnap, not mentioned in the dictionary, provides a parallel.
“Jam, marmalade.” The word is enveloped in total obscurity.
“Some of the best authorities [those familiar with the dish, rather than linguists] suggest a West Indian origin; others that it is from a South African language. Very tentatively I suggest posset, by a corruption of spelling and a diversion of the meaning.”
The word, popular at the time of World War I, seems to be forgotten, and its origin hardly bothers anyone. Posset is a drink, and Partridge made a heroic attempt to explain how posset could become pozzy:
“I suggest that an Englishman, hearing a native word for some mixture resembling either a very thick, sweet posset or a thin, watery jam, applied the name posset and that, conscious of the twisted meaning of a good old word, those who used posset for near-jam, then by a natural transition for jam, sympathetically debased the form of the word.”
Obviously, this “purely semantic theory,” as Partridge called his suggestion, has little chance to survive, but it may be worthy of mention that jam and posset are also words of dubious, almost unknown, origin, though a few conjectures exist.
“Joseph Wright’s dictionary offers two possibilities: the Cornish cobba, a simpleton, a bungler, may have been transported to Australia [where it means “comrade”; incidentally, Partridge was born in Australia] and corrupted to its present spelling and meaning; or, more likely, it is a development of cob (originally Suffolk dialect), to take a liking to.”
The word cob, with its multitude of senses, is one of the most obscure English nouns (see also the post for 13 January 2021: “Cubs galore”). The verb to cob “to take a liking to” is as impenetrable as the noun cob. An etymological stream of consciousness may carry us in many directions. For example, cobble is another verb of unknown origin. By back-formation, cob could have been coined from it, and, if one can cotton to someone, why not cob? Hence cobber. Ingenious but probably useless.
“To grumble” was originally a soldier’s word. It resembles Old French groucier ~ grouchier “to grudge” but is too late to be its descendant.
“…the missing links will probably be found, perhaps in such words as grudge and the American grouch.”
Initial gr- is a common sound-imitative and sound-symbolic group in the English language: think of grumble, grim, grin, groan, and many others like gruesome and Grimalkin “devil.” Partridge may have been on the right track, but we should rather look for similar formations than for exact etymons or missing links, which, as experience show, tend to remain missing.
If this potpourri has any value, next week I may go on with Eric Partridge’s tentative etymologies of slang and cant.
Featured image by drew007m via Flickr