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The Oxford Etymologist: 2023 and adventures in the idiom wonderland. Niagara Falls.

2023 and adventures in the idiom wonderland

2023 is apace, and The Oxford Etymologist welcomes you to another year of adventure and suspense. Please read, wonder (for what else is the wonderland for?), and comment on what you have read, whereas I’ll pick up where I left off in December. How many of our readers know enough about the production of dictionaries? Unfortunately, Samuel Johnson’s definition of the lexicographer (“a harmless drudge”) has been trodden to death and evokes a wan smile at best. No, not a drudge and considering how often people argue about words (that is, engage in logomachy), not necessarily harmless.

Now that my book of idioms (Take My Word for It) has appeared, I decided to say something about its history. For several decades, among other things, I have been busy working on a new dictionary of English etymology. While searching for the relevant literature, I sometimes ran into words that today exist only as components of phrases. Where in the world is the lurch in which we are so often left? How heavy is the brunt one occasionally bears? What does the kibosh look like, and what exactly does one put it on? All was grist that came to my mill, and in the course of the years, I have amassed a sizable collection of articles on such words. This part of the database lay fallow in my office, and I finally decided that it was worth being expanded and published.

Left in the lurch.
(Via PxHere, public domain)

The number of idiomatic phrases is incalculable, and any attempt to cover all or most of them would resemble an attempt similar to damming up Niagara with a pitchfork or mopping up the Atlantic. In 1901, Thomas Ratcliffe, an active folklorist, wrote: “The old gossips still use hundreds of unrecorded sayings” (Notes and Queries, 9/VIII, 1901: 14). I may add: “Thousands, rather than hundreds, and not only old gossips.” And no one knows who coined them.

I looked through dozens of so-called weather proverbs (like make hay while the sun shines) and countless misogynistic sayings. It is impossible to decide how old they are. For example, a wicked reference to a whistling woman and a crowing hen (both are supposedly evil) surfaced in print late. My earliest citation goes back to 1850, and the same date appears in the OED. Who coined it and when? Not in 1850! A similar phrase, as it turned out, exists in French. Perhaps we are dealing with a translation from that language. And who was the first French hen-and-woman hater? Hens do sometimes crow, and they supposedly bring bad luck. This is a common superstition. People tend or tended to kill such hens. Incidentally, a correspondent from Cheshire (in northern England) pointed out in 1873 that crowing hens lay eggs quite well. It is beyond my comprehension why whistling compromises a woman. What superstition accounted for that taboo? Or was such a woman considered to be not “feminine” enough? Singing, yes; whistling, no?

Some stories of idioms are truly amazing. Take the phrase fox’s wedding. The reference is to the phenomenon of simultaneous rain and sunshine. Numerous phrases describing this situation exist in the languages of the world. Fox’s wedding (and sometimes jackal’s wedding!) originated in India. Rain and sunshine meet, and the idea of a union makes sense, but what does the fox have to do with it? All kinds of events are described in weather sayings about this “wedding.” They feature animals, the Devil, and human beings, among whom cuckolds and tailors predominate. Tailors, it will be remembered, are traditional figures of fun and disparagement in oral tradition and popular sayings.

However, some languages have innocuous descriptions of “fox’s wedding.” For example, in Russian, people speak of gribnoi dozhd’, that is, literally, “mushroom rain,” implying that after such a shower, mushrooms will pop up in great quantities. A learned 1957 monograph on “Fox’s Wedding” and its analogues was written by the Finnish scholar Matti Kuusi, half the world across Eurasia from India. A study of idioms is not less attractive than a study of words. I may add that one of the rather obscure tales in the Grimms’ collection (No. 38) is called “The Wedding of Mrs. Fox.” A garbled echo of the same tale? Perhaps some student of oral tradition will be able to enlighten us.

Where is the fox?
(By Lance via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In etymological work, serendipity plays a noticeable role. This is true of both word and phrase history. Once I encountered the odd phrase that beats Akebo (an expression of great surprise). John Hotten, the author of an important slang dictionary (1864), knew it. Judging by this citation, Akebo (or Akeybo) was someone who outwitted the Devil. But why Akebo? I had no clue. As luck would have it, Notes and Queries enjoyed such popularity that almost every county launched its analog (the periodical American Notes and Queries also exists). My small team and I looked through all of them, including the excellent Devonshire and Cornwall Notes and Queries (DCNQ). There, in the 1872 volume, I found the phrase: “That beats Ackytoashy, and Ackytoashy beats the Devil.” (Serendipity!) Another variant has Acky Baugh instead of Ackytoashy. Acky, as I read, seems to be short for Hercules and Archalus, both names having been occasionally used in the county and sometimes confused. Acky Baugh looks like a variant of the name Akebo that puzzled me. I saw the first ray of light that illumined the glom, as Dickens might put it. The light is dim, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The idiom with Ackytoashy occurred in the 1922-23 volume of DCNQ. I wonder whether the correspondent to that volume knew that in the London Notes and Queries for 1872, the alliterative phrase That bangs Banagher, and Banagher beats the world had been discussed in four letters. Banagher resembles Baugh, however slightly, and the legend about the hero who reportedly beat the Devil (a very common plot) was indeed current. Akebo lost all interest. Apparently, we need a hero whose name begins with a B. Strangely, the name of the Russian trickster who outwitted a whole family of devils also begins with a B (Balda, stress on the second syllable; no etymology of the name is known). All this goes a long way toward confirming my belief that before discussing the origin of a word or a phrase, researchers should know everything ever said about it. Otherwise, they are doomed to surprise one another with the news of Queen Anne’s death.

A common or garden grig.
(By Riccardo Zampieri via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

By the way, for old or universally known news, my database has three phrases: duck’s news, Piper’s news, and Roper’s news. The world of idioms is amazingly picturesque. For the time being, I am done with it, and I am as merry as a pismire or as a grig. Not everybody knows what pismire and grig mean, and my spellchecker underlined grig. The word, most probably, means “cricket” and has nothing to do with Greek.

A short postscript is perhaps in order. Today, any author of an etymological dictionary faces a formidable difficulty. Anyone can google for an interesting item and get an answer, reliable or suspicious, as the case may be. It is difficult to outwit the computer. I fought this enemy throughout the time it took me to write the dictionary, but it is of course not up to me to decide whether I succeeded in defeating the virtual Akebo, a.k.a. as Baugh and Banagher.

A Happy New Year!

Featured image via PxHere (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Margaret Catambay

    Yesterday two black cats crouched and looked at us and the ran over the snow. I wondered if this was bad luck. Is this a very old idiom or superstition? The I realized that the cat’s got my tongue and on and on…

    Your blog is especially amusing when you discuss idioms I had neve heard of before!

  2. Israel "Izzy" Cohen

    Why does “a whistling woman and a crowing hen” refer to a wicked or evil woman?
    The Hebrew word for “woman”, aleph-shin-heh @iSHah, is a homonym that is also a less-often-used word for a “hen”.
    A major motivation for forming an idiom is to convey a meaning without using the words that normally have that meaning. The word one does not want to say is sometimes disguised by metathesis (switching adjacent sounds) or by a secret language such as Pig Latin. Pig Latin moves the first sound of words that begin with a consonant to the end of the word and adds -AY.
    The ancient Greeks did the opposite. They moved the last consonantal sound of the root to the beginning of the word and replaced the suffix, if any. For example, Mt. Olympus, an axis mundi (navel of the world), was derived in this manner from omphalos, the Greek word for a “navel”.
    The Hebrew word for evil / wicked, resh-shin-aiyin, sounded like RaSHaQ when the aiyin had its ancient velar G/K-sound (as in aiyin-zaiyin-heh = Gaza).
    The Hebrew word for whistling, shin-resh-quf SH’RiQah, sounds like the metathesis of the Hebrew word for evil.
    And the Hebrew word for “crowing of”, kuf-resh-yod-aiyin-sof Q’Ri’aS, sounds like the Greek secret language modification of the Hebrew word for evil.

  3. Stephen Goranson

    I am reading Take My Word for It. It is an excellent compilation of and commentary on English idioms that have been around for long enough for folks to wonder where and why they arose–with some mysteries remaining.

  4. Dave

    Please check your spelling. Dr. Johnson said a harmless “drudge,” not “grudge.”
    Lexicographer. n. s. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” peterharrington.co.uk

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