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Eric Partridge and the etymology of slang (part two)

This is part two of the essay begun last week (26 May 2021). Partridge, quite correctly, distinguished between cant (the language of the underworld) and slang (informal language). The vocabulary of criminals is often international, while slang tends to be local. However, one should not rely on this distinction too heavily. For instance, British slang owes something to the Romany language and Shelta, the secret language of itinerant Irish tinkers and other artisans. The situation in France and Germany is similar (except for the absence of Shelta), while American slang has absorbed many words from the New York Yiddish. Partridge was interested in Romany and Shelta and often wrote about them. Of course, he was not a student of those languages, and no one expected such expertise from him. More important was his other weakness, namely, his fondness for intelligent guessing. In dealing with the basic vocabulary of Indo-European, Semitic, and Finno-Ugric, to give the best-known examples, we operate with language families and certain regularities. By contrast, in slang, every case is an individual riddle. It was Partridge’s lack of a serious philological background that often exposed him to ridicule. Yet, while dealing with such a murky subject as the origin of slang, one never knows who will laugh last. Below, I’ll again cite a few of his conjectures that may be worth discussing.

Tanner

Money is a fertile field for slang. A case in point is tanner, “sixpence.” The oldest hypotheses of its etymology are uninspiring, to say the least. Today’s Internet cites two more suggestions (one traces tanner to a family name). According to Partridge’s correct observation, a tanner was earlier known as simon, and he quoted an old riddle:

Image by sarflondondunc (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“What is the earliest banking transaction mentioned in The Bible? —When Peter lodged a tanner with Simon.”

The pun is on lodge. In Acts X: 6, we read: “He [Peter] lodged with one Simon a tanner” (a different Simon from the one whose name the word simony commemorates). Thus, one simon a tanner. According to Partridge, he offered that explanation in 1937. “It was greeted with howls of ribald mirth—except by very few. These few have become less few.” I am sorry he gave no references. Who derided the explanation and why? Who endorsed it? At present, several scholars in the English-speaking world study the history of just such words. It would be interesting to hear their opinion. Perhaps they will leave comments.

Spiffing, spiv

He laughs best who laughs last. (Image by Pexels via Pixabay.)

Spiffing “excellent” and spiv “one who makes a living without working for it,” along with spif(f)licate “overcome, crush,” which is supposedly unconnected with the first two. Partridge offered no definitive etymology but cited spiffed (Scottish and Yorkshire) “anything unusually good” and dialectal spif(f) “neat, smart, dandified; excellent.” One wonders whether spiffing and its kind are indeed of dialectal origin. The group spif has a rather typical onomatopoeic appearance. Compare Russian pif-paf (from German?) “the sound made by a gunshot,” English piffle “talk ineffectively,” puff, and even the puffed-up puffin. German pfiffig “smart, cute” also comes to mind. Such words are often used as the bases of other fanciful formations (for instance, German Pfiffikus “smart person, rogue, etc.”). Wasn’t spifflicate coined with the original sense “to impress tremendously; crush”? If, by any chance, pfiffig made it to England or the United States, pf would of course have become p, and adding the notorious s-mobile, so often celebrated in this blog, is never a problem.

A puffed-up puffin. (Image by Ray Hennessy via Unsplash.)

Good scout

In 1939, Partridge wrote:

“A fairly recent Americanism is good scout, as in ‘Smith is a good scout’, or an exclamation ‘good scout!’… the phrase was anglicized very soon after the [First World] War, probably owing to the influence of the American soldiers.”

Partridge believed that the exclamation goes back to the days of early wars between the American colonists and natives. I do not know how the phrase originated, but I doubt Partridge’s explanation for chronological reasons and notice that the exclamation great Scot is, most probably, also an Americanism, strange as it may seem. In any case, the earliest citation in the OED goes back to 1893, and in 1896, a correspondent to Scottish Notes and Queries remarked that he had never heard the phrase and wondered whether the spelling should be Scot or Scott.

Stooge

A stooge is a decoy, an informer; an assistant doing some unpleasant work; an understudy, etc. According to Partridge, a stooge is also a learner; a deputy or stand-in; an overwilling fellow; a third-rater. “Decoy” and “informer” make one think of “stool pigeon.” Partridge did not object to this etymology of stooge but preferred the derivation from studious, pronounced stoo-djus. That suggestion (going back to Partridge?) was mentioned in a noncommittal way in the post-war supplement to The Oxford English Dictionary. Stooge from stoo-djus looks good, but Partridge says that the word’s earliest sense was “learner.” Was it really? Stooge seems to have originated in the underworld, rather than in a schoolyard. Lots of German slang goes back to students’ argot. In England, the hotbed of students’ slang used to be Oxford/Cambridge, but stooge was hardly coined there.

*

A fairly ugly and totally unplugged plug-ugly: a bloke but not a blockhead. (Image by Tycho Atsma via Unsplash.)

Eric Partridge’s greatest drawback was his lack of serious schooling in historical linguistics: he was a gifted self-taught man. His opinions on the origin of slang are worth consulting; unfortunately, he did not believe that the history of research was worth knowing and bravely volunteered his opinions. Thus, he made several remarks on the origin of bloke, a word believed to be from Shelta. It is tempting to compare bloke with blockhead, but here Partridge was right in saying that bloke has never meant “fool.” I wonder: Can plug-ugly (a nineteenth-century Americanism) be of any help? No one knows what plug has to do with it. A German variant of block or bloke? Ugly is transparent enough! The most enigmatic part is the pronunciation of the vowel. Whence the long o? Partridge’s own hypothesis is hard to take seriously. He accepted the idea that the word’s root was “the Hindustani loke ‘man’” and believed that “the b- was caused by the initial letter of a word too low for mention here.” (Did he mean bloody? Pygmalion, with its famous not bloody likely, was presented as early as 1913, and Partridge wrote those lines in 1939.)

While dealing with the words of the type mentioned above, one notices with surprise that so many of them supposedly came from Romany, Shelta, and Irish, or that they reached slang from some remote dialect. Apparently, it is not enough to pin them down to a seemingly probable source: one should be able to trace each item from the lending language (dialect) to London or to the American underworld. Many of those words are short-lived. My students often tell me that they don’t understand the slang used in the films of the fifties and are amused that I know those words; yet I know them passively, as I know the vocabulary of Beowulf. Anyway, for an etymologist no word is too recent or too old.

Eric Partridge’s stock of knowledge was such than any student of slang will learn something from him. Etymology was not his forte, but those who risk studying the derivation of words should familiarize themselves with everything their predecessors said about the subject. Wrong guesses may show the way to good solutions. I certainly have come to praise Partridge, not to bury him.

Featured image: Jaffa’s Old City – Simon the Tanner’s House, by Yoshi Canopus (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Recent Comments

  1. Nigel Middlemiss

    1. Great Scout means ‘great scouting’ i.e. gleaning intelligence: the ‘scout’ bit is cognate with French ecouter (I can’t show it here but the first letter is spelt e acute in French, which very frequently morphs to s in English). A scout went round listening secretly to the enemy talking abour their plans.
    2. Great Scott – this is quite different: it’s a strong expostulation equivalent to “Great God” (c easily switches from g as both are velar plosives, and t easily switches from d, as both are dental plosives). Scott here is a euphemism (like Golly or Gosh but different). I am sure you will be gracious enough to recognise in next week’s column the viability of both these theories.

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