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English idioms: etymological devilry in baking and printing

It is curious how often those who have tried to explain the origin of English idioms have referred to the occupation of printers. Whether their attempts should be taken seriously is of secondary importance, because etymology may not always offer definitive answers. Regardless of their success, the attempts are worthy of note. A few examples will illustrate this point.

Baker’s dozen

Baker’s dozen means “thirteen.” It is a typical English way of expressing this idea, because elsewhere one usually finds reference to the Devil’s dozen. The phrase may go back to the old practice: the retailers of bread from house to house were allowed a thirteenth loaf by the baker: a payment for their trouble. Yet as early as 1588, the following phrase occurred: “I will owe you a better turne (sic) and pay it to you with advantage, at the least thirteen to the dozen” (no reference to bakers!). Perhaps our phrase preceded the custom of rewarding bakers and was applied to them later. Likewise, in the early days of publishing (unfortunately, I have no reliable reference), it was the custom of printers to supply the retailer with thirteen copies of a book on each order of twelve. Once again it appears that thirteen to a dozen was an ancient way of designating generosity, while bakers and printers came later. Amenable to the laws of literary composition, the Devil will return to our narrative at the very end.

To cut one’s stick

An unpromising idea connects printers with the idiom to cut one’s stick “to flee in a hurry.” Conjectures about the origin of the idiom are many. Some are fanciful or far-fetched, from the behavior of dying Vikings to some biblical phrase (in Zechariah IV: 4-14, the cutting of a stick is described as the symbol of abruptly breaking off the brotherhood between two parties). The phrase must have had a much more mundane origin. A hired worker on a farm would cut a new stick from the hedge and place it in the chimney corner if he meant to leave at Michaelmas, that is, on 29 September. Apparently, the phrase became popular thanks to a song in Glasgow (“Oh, I cherished my brogues and I cut my stick”), being the adventures of an Irishman in which the cutting of the stick referred to the common practice in Ireland of procuring a sapling before going off.

He has cut his stick.
(By Joegoauk Goa via Flickr)

But here, too, it has been suggested that we should look for the origin of the idiom in the printing office: allegedly, the compositor about to leave cuts his composing stick. This etymology is strained (to put it mildly). However, it again reminds us that, once a phrase becomes well-known, it can be applied to many situations, and then occasional usage pretends to be the source. In such cases, a good deal depends on chronology (see more about dating idioms below). To cut one’s stick has not been recorded in books before 1825. Given such a late terminus post quem, almost any hypothesis begins to look realistic, but the reference to a song holds out greater promise, because it is amazing how many popular phrases owe their existence to the music hall and street singers.

Johannes Gutenberg
(From Gutenberg Museum collection, via Wikimedia Commons)

In print

The phrase in print is particularly curious and deserves our attention, among other things, because, while working on the entry print, James A. H. Murray, the first editor of The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) wrote an article about the history of such a seemingly simple locution (Notes and Queries, Volume 10, No. 9, 1908, p. 447). At that time, Murray was working on the entry print. The phrase has undergone many changes since the end or the sixteenth century. For example, set in print first meant “plaited” (about clothes). To be sure, we still have the word print-cloth and know what printed cloth means, but those phrases refer to color rather than plaiting. Other than that, I need not remind our regular readers what a treasure trove of valuable information the periodical Notes and Queries (NQ) once was: one can find there precious information about everything from farming to numismatics. Almost the entire set is available online. According to the OED, in prynte (sic) turned up about 1473: very early indeed, because Gutenberg’s printing press was ready for action in 1450. In the OED, the earliest example of set in print goes back to 1598. A correspondent to NQ (the same year, 10/XI: 176) cites the curious phrase fools in print (1633). Since 1633, fools have been quite successful in spreading their dubious wisdom in pamphlets, newspapers, and books. Now, if they are ambitious, they have the entire Internet at their disposal.

In the wrong box?
(By Stuart Rankin via Flickr)

In the wrong box

 In the wrong box, that is, “in a wrong place” is another old idiom, made famous by the 1966 film. The OED offers a mid-sixteenth-century citation. It considers the possibility of an allusion to the boxes of an apothecary. All the later sources dutifully say the same. It has also been suggested that the source of the idiom is in the printers’ (compositors’) language: the compositor allegedly exclaims “in the wrong box!” when he finds a misplaced letter. Perhaps he does. Why shouldn’t he? But no citation in the OED predates 1555, too early a year for the printing business in England. This is what I meant when I wrote that in some cases the date of the first occurrence may be of decisive importance. More than once, we hear Murray remarking drily that a certain hypothesis is “at odds with chronology.”

Mind your P’s and Q’s

An old printing office.
(By Jost Amman via Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, we wade into the unmapped territory of mind your P’s and Q’s. The phrase is almost modern: no antedating to 1756 in the OED. Few other idioms have attracted so much attention. The proposed solutions are so numerous that even in my not too extensive research I have once run into a useless suggestion never mentioned elsewhere. Regardless of that instance, we read: “I was told by a printer that the phrase had originated among those of this craft, since young compositors experience great difficulty in discriminating between the types of the two letters.” Though the validity of this derivation has never been questioned, we lack a solid hypothesis about the origin of the phrase. In the delightful formulation of the OED, this etymology can be neither substantiated nor dismissed. Touch and go, as it were. I have no intention of wading through the P and Q puddle or quagmire. My idea was to show how often those who attempt to trace the source of an English idiom refer to printing. The subject “Idioms and Industry” deserves the attention of all those who are interested in the sources of the English language. See also the posts for 24 January and 31 January 2018 (mad as a hatter).

The printer’s devil

And, finally, what do we know about the phrase the printer’s devil? This odd name was applied to an errand boy and an apprentice at the lowest level in a printing establishment (such boys took the printed sheets from the tympan of the press). Why were they called devils? According to a 1663 statement, the boys so commonly “bedaubed themselves” that the workmen “jocosely” called them devils. Neither The Century Dictionary nor the OED, both of which quote this earliest source, was in a hurry to accept such a seemingly rational explanation. Indeed, though the reference to black devils looks reasonable, it smacks of folk etymology. Other derivations are even less trustworthy. I would like to add my mite to the hoard of the otherwise unreliable hypotheses. The history of boy “servant” and boy “devil” have crossed several times (see—please see!—the post for 10 April 2013: “Will boys be boys?”). The printer’s devil was a boy, a servant and, I believe, therefore a devil. Perhaps I shot another arrow into the air, which, as we know, “fell to earth I knew not where,” but this is how I understand the puzzling locution. In any case, I promised the return of the Devil and kept my word.

Featured image by Mike Finn via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    OED cut v, 44. has “to cut one’s stick,” take one’s departure, be off, go (slang)… from 1825

    Othello-Travestie… 1813, (Act I p. 8) has Roderigo supposedly say, “Why not cut your stick?” with note b, which is taken up (p. 165) with supposed critical remarks:

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