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The henchman’s dilemma

The origin of some words is hard to find, and researchers dispute one another’s conclusions with the vehemence perhaps worthy of a better cause. Any good etymological dictionary lists a series of conjectures and often concludes: “Origin unknown,” that is, conjectures (clever or unreasonable) exist, but the solution is wanting. Such is the recognized format outside so-called dogmatic dictionaries, which lay down conventional wisdom as they interpret it. Yet I am aware of only two English words whose origin has provoked enough passion and bad blood to inspire a thriller. The first such word is cockney. At the beginning of my career as blogger, fourteen years ago, I posted a short essay on cockney (11 July 2007). It gives no idea of the spirit of the controversy, and I have a great mind to rewrite that post and tell the whole story anew. In my book An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction, I did discuss everything in detail, but that entry is too long for a busy reader to enjoy, and the book is, alas, not on everybody’s desk. The old exchange on cockney reads like a chapter in the history of a civil war.

The second word in this small group is henchman. The discussion played itself out in the pages of the periodical Notes and Queries and lasted with no letup for nine years (!), from 1887 to 1896. If republished, it might fill a small thriller. (Book proposal: “The Greatest Battles in the First Etymological World War: Cockney and Henchman.”) Most unfortunately, the 1887-1896 controversy has left only few vague, unrecognizable traces in our dictionaries. Those who today volunteer to write about henchman on the Internet are, as far as I can judge, unaware of it. James A. H. Murray, the main editor of the OED, contributed a short explanation about the word’s sources to that polemic but offered his opinion only in the dictionary entry and there stayed away from bibliographical references.

Boss and his henchmen. (Image © Astor Pictures – 1946 re-release, CC0 Public Domain)

The main opponents in that battle were Walter W. Skeat, a great scholar of Middle English and the author of our still most authoritative, even if in parts outdated, etymological dictionary of English, and Frank Chance, a medical doctor and extremely knowledgeable philologist, who, unfortunately, published almost only in Notes and Queries and is therefore all but forgotten. The readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for him and advertise his achievements at every opportunity. Though it is not in my power to rescue him from oblivion, I hope that the professional teams at the OED and perhaps also at Merriam-Webster will, as the result of my efforts, turn to Chance’s heritage more often than is usually done (my Bibliography of English Etymology contains a long list of his notes). Frank Chance died in 1897 and deserves at least as much fame as his namesake, the celebrated baseball player. Several other scholars and amateurs participated in the controversy, but only Chance and Skeat are its heroes: Chance attacked, and Skeat defended himself without the passion so typical of his belligerent polemic spirit. His mind was apparently set, and counterarguments did not impress him.

Walter Scoot revived many obsolete words in Modern English. (Image: Snapshots of the Past, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The word henchman surfaced in English texts in 1360 (thus, in Middle English) and has been recorded in the forms hengest (note this form!), henxst-, and hensman, among others. It first seems to have meant “a squire or page,” though the rank of that person and his original duties are not quite clear. Perhaps simply “attendant” was meant. In the seventeenth century, henchman was defined as “domestic, or one of a family” by Thomas Blount, the author of the book Glossographia, first published in 1656; he called the word German, without giving reasons for this attribution. Henchman has not fallen into oblivion, only because Walter Scott revived it. The sense “mercenary adherent, venal follower” developed in the United States and is the only one still known to the speakers of American (and probably British) English: “so-and-so and his henchmen”. The family names Henchman, Hensman, Hincksman, and the like bear witness to the word’s vitality (I have borrowed the last piece of information from The Century Dictionary).

The oldest etymologies connected henchman with Latin anculus “servant” (compare English ancillary) or with English haunch (henchman “a person at the haunch of his superior”; this was Walter Scott’s opinion). Compare the following quotation from The Quarterly Review, 1846-47, p. 344, note: “There is a curious etymological indication of an intermediate state of servitude in our olden time, when personal attendants, in public, were called henchmen, men at the haunch or side; in the Scotch dialect lackeys are still called flunkies…, which is from French flanchier.” The comparison between henchman and flunkey is commonplace; henchman designated “a personal attendant or chief gillie of a Highland chief” as early as the eighteenth century (gillie “attendant on a Highland chief”). Whether flunkey is indeed flanker need not concern us here. Neither etymology (from anculus or from haunch) has anything to recommend it, though even in the 1880s some people defend them.

Two points must be made here.

A page from an edition of Promptorium Parvulorum. (Image via British Library, Add MS 37789)

First. The word hengst “stallion” did exist in Old English. Among other things, the legendary leaders of the invasion of England by Germanic tribes in the fifth century were called Hengest and Horsa (if the legend can be trusted). Horsa looks familiar: it is hors “horse” with an added masculine ending of the weak declension. Hengist is also recognizable, but only from Scandinavian hengst, where both words have survived (the Scandinavian cognate of horse is hros, that is, ross: the interplay of the or ~ ro type is called metathesis). In English, the word hengst died out early: no records of it postdate the beginning of the thirteenth century. Henchman, it will be remembered, surfaced only in 1360. If henchman goes back to hengstman, the question arises how hengst became part of a compound a century and a half after its disappearance from the language. Even in 1200 it must have been an archaism. Moreover, nothing in the early or later history of henchman indicates that henchmen were riders par excellence.

Second. In 1440, a most remarkable English-Latin dictionary titled Promptorium Parvulorum…., that is, “Storehouse for Children,” was written in Norfolk. The text is of course available in modern editions. The word hengstman appears there and is glossed gerolocista or gerelocista. Unfortunately, the meaning of this rare Medieval Latin word is not quite clear, but it, most certainly, does not refer to horses, mares, or stallions. In the 1887-1896 exchange, a good deal of space was devoted to gerolocista. The zeal expended on this word was not wasted, because the distance between 1360 and 1440 is not too great, and the meaning of the word may not have changed too radically over eighty years.

I decided not to hurry and divided this essay into two parts. Next week, I’ll return to both mysterious words—henchman and gerolocista—and offer my cautious conclusion about the origin of the first one, the only item, as most will agree, that interests us here.

Feature image: Piper Ribbon via Max Pixel (CC0 Public Domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Pól Ó Dochartaigh

    Hengst also survives in modern German in the meaning “stallion”.

  2. David Campbell

    German “Henker?”

  3. John Cowan

    I look forward to next week’s post, but I think, based on the OED3, that you underestimate how long the word hengest may have survived. In the “Etymology” subsection “Possible evidence of later currency”, the OED mentions (but does not cite) the appearance of hengstus, eyngistus ‘war horse’ in 14C Latin documents reg. Edw. III., and provides the following Anglo-Normand citation: Pur mons’ Giles de Ballesmer vn chiual apele Hensk pres’ xxiiij. li ‘For Sir Giles de Ballsmer one horse named Hensk, price £24’ (1337).

    Now it’s possible (as the OED concedes) that borrowings of hengst survived in Anglo-Latin and Anglo-Normand for some centuries after being lost in English itself. But it seems more likely to me that *hengest, *hengist, *hengst, *henx ‘[some kind of] horse’ survived in speech for several centuries during the period when English was not often used in writing, and was adapted ad hoc to Latin and Normand.

    In a headnote to the oldest sense of henchman in the OED3 appears this: “In the earliest documentation, the word is applied to a small number of personal attendants to Edward III who appear to have served in a role similar to that of Groom of the Chamber.” Now groom certainly is a horse-word though later applied to officers of a much higher rank (cf. marshal, constable), which strongly suggests that henchman is too.

    Finally, the Scandinavian words you cite are all borrowed from Low German: the native form hest is < the Verner’s Law variant *henhistaz of *hengistaz, and therefore not directly relevant to henchman.

    (Thank you again for sending me your paper, which I read with great interest.)

  4. […] is the second and last part of the henchman tale, of which the first part appeared a week ago (August 25, 2021). The difficulties confronting an etymologist are two: 1) We don’t know exactly what the word […]

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