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Do you blather when you skate?

The origin of the word blatherskite ~ bletherskate “foolish talk; foolish talker” is supposedly secure. All the dictionaries and websites copy the entry from the OED. Below, I’ll reproduce the current explanation and slightly enlarge it. The same second element as in blatherskite (skite– ~-skate) occurs in cheapskate “miser.” Cheapskate, unlike blatherskite, is still a fairly well-known word, at least in American English, but it appeared in texts much later than blatherskite. A song attributed to the seventeenth-century Scottish poet Francis Sempill (or Sempel),?1616-1682, became popular during the American War of Independence. In this song, a young lady, accosted by a wandering piper, rebuffs his advances: “Right scornfully she answered him, / Begone, you hallanshaker, / Jog on your gait ye bletherskate, / My name is Mary Lauder.”  The unfortunate jogger, as we see, had no reward for his pains.

Hallanshaker must probably refer to the raucous sounds made by the wooer (they make the hall shake), while bletherskate (the word that interests us) means, as far as I can understand, “a blathering piece of shit.” No sources I have consulted (mainly amateurs indulging in guesswork, but a few dictionaries too) derive skite from shit. They call the word obscure or connect skate ~ skite with shoot, squirt, Scandinavian skata “magpie” (that is, a chatterbox), skat “tax, tribute” (compare German Schatz “treasure”), and even with the fish name skate. A correspondent to the popular British biweekly Notes and Queries (8th series, XI, 1903, p. 335) compared –skite and skit. None of those suggestions inspires confidence. Shit goes back to the form with a long vowel in the root (ī), and I see no serious objections to my idea.

A classic cheapskate.
(“L’Avaro” by Antonio Piccinni (1878), British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

By way of postscript, it should be added that on the American continent, bletheramskite and its Dutch double blathenschuyt have also been recorded.  The Dutch form looks like bletheramskite produced by a Dutch speaker in New Amsterdam. The middle element (am) must be an insert of the same nature as de, a, and maw in tatterdemalion “a ragged person,” hobbledehoy, Flipper-de-gibbet “the name of a fiend,” cock-a-doodle-doo, and dialectal gamawdled “tipsy” (from gaddle “to drink greedily and hastily”). Betheramskite resembles one of such (usually humorous) extended forms. The German term for them is Streckformen, and German linguists explored them in depth, while in English scholarship, they attracted almost no attention, the only exception being such modern coinages as fan-damn-tastic. Thus, our word resolves itself into blether-am-skite. The variation a ~ i in the last syllable is a well-known dialectal phenomenon. (Some of our readers may have seen a cartoon, probably from Australia, with a smiling nurse saying to an elderly woman: “Congratulations, Mrs. Smith, you are going home todie.”)

Blather also deserves our attention but poses fewer problems. It may cause surprise that I so often refer to sound imitation and sound symbolism. But this happens because both factors play an outstanding role in language evolution, especially in the history of slang and conversational words. The more emotional a word is, the more striking its form should be. I have often mentioned the role of fl- in English. This initial consonant group appears in numerous verbs denoting inconstant or erratic movement: flitter, flutter, flicker, but also in fly, flow, flip, and many others like them. Perhaps flatter belongs to this group too. We note that fl– may alternate with bl– and that bl-verbs belong more or less to the same group as flitter, flatter, and their likes.

Jog on your gait.
(Photo by Isaac Wendland on Unsplash, public domain)

A typical example is Old Icelandic flaðra (ð has he value of th in English the). It seems to have meant “to beat about the bush.” In the modern language, flaðra means “to fawn on one, jump around someone (especially around a master), cringe before one, flatter.” We also observe that Old Icelandic blaðra was a synonym of flaðra and conclude that initial bl– may be as “symbolic” as fl-, even though it occurs in fewer words (but all conclusions about sound symbolism, even though valid, rest on a rather flimsy foundation).

English blather ~ blether is a borrowing from Old Norse. Thus, blatherskite is half-Scandinavian, half- Scottish. If my idea that skite is related to shit has any merit, then the second component may also be from Scandinavian (Old Icelandic for the verb shit was skíta), but in Scottish, as in the Scandinavian languages, the initial group sk– did not become sh– (that is why we don’t say Shotland or Shandinavia). Given my etymology of –skite, bletherskite can be, from a historical point of view, fully Scandinavian. But there is no certainty.

Sheep always express themselves sheepishly but symbolically.
(Photo via Pixabay, public domain)

It may now be worth our while to throw a quick look at some bl-words in Modern English. We first notice blah-blah-blah, which, amusingly enough, has been the subject of some etymological research (it is an American coinage). Blah resembles bleating, even though in English, the sheep “says” baa. In any case, bl– has firmly established itself in words whose meaning is quite “suggestive”: blab, blabber, blague “humbug,” blare, bleat, blither, blubber, and blob. There is little doubt that Icelandic blaðra is a member of the same family.

Just why bl– and fl– carry the overtones so obvious to us remains a puzzle. The initial bl– group occurs in numerous words in which it may have performed the same sound-symbolic function long ago (so, for instance, in blood, as well as blow “puff air, etc.” and blow “a hard stroke”). The same holds for fl-, but referring to this factor in etymology is risky. At present, the more such nouns, adjectives, and verbs we have, the stronger the impression is that they form a cohesive group, but in trying to discover the past of very old words (like blood, for instance), we cannot decide whether the associations so obvious to us existed two or three thousand years ago. Sound imitation is more or less universal. Cows and cats “say” the same everywhere, and people hear something like moo and meow in all places and at all times. The history of sound symbolism is hard to reconstruct.

To conclude, a bletherskite is, to my mind, a blathering shitter, whether he speaks, pipes, or is sent packing.

Featured image by cottonbro via Pexels, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    The top photo made me think of “Skate” as in ice-skating. Apparently, this has a completely different origin? I am back ice-skating again at Mariucci.

    It is interesting to see “skate” in different different words such as cheapskate and the fish.

  2. Richard Hollick

    You almost get there when you talk about Scottish sk- words. What I need to tell you is that in Scotland not only is shit pronounced shite, but the skitters means diarreha. Presumably we can thank those Vikings.

    On the subject of Scotland, you might like to know that Scottish sheep say “Meh” not “Baa”!

  3. Celia Nyamweru

    I remember as the ‘skwitters’ for diarrhea – from a southern English childhood. Never saw it written – could have sounded more like squitters.

  4. OUPblog team

    From the author:

    It has been pointed out to me that hallanshaker is Scottish for “windbag.” I am grateful to Mr. David French for the correction and sorry for the mistake.

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