Several weeks ago (21 July 2021), I posted an essay on homonyms and promised to develop this theme further. No one urged me to do so, but the subject is so rich that even without encouragement I think I have the right to return to it.
Some homonyms are truly ancient: the words in question might sound alike or be nearly identical more than a millennium ago. But more often a newcomer appears from nowhere and pushes away his neighbors without caring for their well-being. This is especially true in the realm of monosyllabic words, which tend to be sound-imitative or sound symbolic. Think of dud. Such formations (one syllable beginning with and ending in the same consonant, usually b, d, g, or p, t, k: bib, gig, gag, pip, pop, pup, tit, tat, kick, cock, and the rest) are a nightmare to an etymologist. They can be coined at any time and mean almost anything. Examples abound. Dud is only one such. In dialects, dud is not too different from dude, a word that has been discussed in minute detail. Dud means “a contemptible person” and “a worthless object.” Then, of course, we have duds “clothes; rags, tatters.” Dud “coarse cloak” turned up in the sixteenth century, and dud “worthless object” three hundred years or so later. Are we dealing with two words or with two senses of one symbolic “unit”? Chronology is of course a significant factor, but such words often linger in rural speech and popular usage (let alone low slang) “forever,” without becoming known to the rest of the world. A lexicographer and an etymologist are at a loss about how to organize the entry.
Or take dock, another monosyllable (a dock for ships). In the fourteenth century, the word came to English from Dutch or Low (= northern) German, where its origin is lost. Once again, we have a sound complex that may mean practically anything (like duck or dick), and indeed, side by side with this dock, stands dock “part of a horse’s tail.” The earlier meaning of this dock seems to have been “bunch, bundle.” Finally, dock “herb” exists. All three traveled from language to language (when the meaning is almost arbitrary, why stay at home?). Their antiquity (dock “herb” surfaced in Old English, the other two in the fourteenth century) explains nothing and proves nothing except that the sound group dock can designate various objects, most of them solid.
Dig and dog are equally obscure, and the complex dog has been applied to numerous objects, sometimes for no obvious reason. I believe that dog is a baby word (the nursey is a fertile field for monosyllables), but, as far as I can judge, no one is in a hurry to share my opinion. No doubt, dock1, dock2, and dock3 are different words (homonyms) because they denote different objects, but their existence shows how homonyms may arise out of a single sound group, whose reference is so vague that their semantic development is nearly impossible to trace.
A somewhat different case is frog. Like dog, pig, and stag, this word has puzzled language historians for centuries. Bug and bog belong to a different group of obscure words but have a similar structure. Frog, it will be remembered, is not only an ancient animal name. “A pyramidal V-shaped substance in the sole of a horse’s foot” (such is the dictionary definition) has been known in texts only since the seventeenth century. As the OED informs us, the Greeks, Portuguese, and West Frisians have similar uses of words for “frog.” Thus, though historically, we seem to be dealing with a metaphor (a frog-like image is called a frog), a modern dictionary finds it necessary to list two different words. Finally, dictionaries cite frog “an attachment to the waistbelt to carry a sword, etc.; an ornamental fastening for a military coat,” which surfaced first in Daniel Defoe’s works (thus, in the early eighteenth century). This frog is of unknown origin. Another clever metaphor? A chance coincidence? No one knows. This is how homonyms multiply.
There is a British saying Bob’s a-dying, which means “great racket; boisterous merriment.” The English Dialect Dictionary by Joseph Wright, a treasure trove of British regional vocabulary, cites this idiom (all the variants are about making a lot of fuss). The phrase has even been substantivized; hence the odd noun Bobsy-die (!). Several publications in the excellent journal The Mariner’s Mirror suggested that the phrase is of nautical origin (indeed, compare light bob “an infantry man”); yet no one knows for sure. I have often wondered: is really someone called Bob (that is, Robert) meant? A bob is anything round. This word has been known from books for four centuries, and, predictably, its origin remains undiscovered. There also is another bob “a blow, rap” (compare the verb bob “to move with a jerk up and down”). Isn’t this bob a-dying and setting off a considerable ruckus? I have equal doubts about the slang phrase up to dick (or Dick) “up to snuff,” but I’d rather leave this word, once mentioned above in passing, without discussion, even though nowadays, it is quite impossible to make anyone blush.
Other homonyms are tougher. Now that I have finished working on my explanatory and etymological dictionary of English idioms (it will be published by the University of Minnesota Press), all kinds of bizarre phrases pop up in my mind. Thus, monkey on the chimney (or house) means “mortgage.” To be sure, monkey business needs no explanation, and several phrases like monkey’s allowance “blows instead of alms” and to pay in monkey’s coin (“to pay in goods, in personal work, in mumbling and grievances”) are to a certain extent transparent, but monkey on the chimney? A facetious alteration of money? A pun on the animal’s name?
Monkey was an exotic case. Lexicographers and etymologists are in trouble with the bob ~ dud multitude and with seemingly incompatible words like flock, discussed in the July “gleanings” for this year, and while dealing with remote epochs, when the temptation is strong to combine senses, rather than to separate them. We mostly feel safe when the words to be compared belong to different parts of speech, such as felt (noun) and felt (the past of feel) or smelt (= smelled) and smelt (fish name). The origin of the fish name is unknown, except that another fish is called smolt (a medieval word game?). The origin of the verb is also unknown (!), and, if in some obscure way, the smelt and smolt received their names from their smell, we still realize that smell1 and smell2 are homonyms: one is a noun, the other is a verb.
My two unpretentious essays on homonyms had a most modest goal: to point to an interesting chapter of English lexicology, a chapter full of pitfalls and unexpected revelations.
Feature image: Tweedledum and Tweedledee by John Tenniel via Wikimedia Commons