Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A rugby scrum - The Oxford Etymologist explores the meaning and history of the word "hooker" in rugby in "Etymology gleanings for April 2023" on the OUPblog

Etymology gleanings for April 2023

Since my previous attempt to glean on a half-frozen field, I have received quite a few letters and suggestions. All of them deserve a response. But first, as always, let me thank our correspondents for consulting the blog, asking questions, and offering words of encouragement.

Hook, hookers, and all, all, all

Since my subject was hooker “prostitute,” I stayed away from the other senses of the word. Therefore, I apologize to the correspondent who excels in rugby, calls himself a proud hooker, and found nothing about the game in my post. I share his pride, feel his pain, and have two things to say. First, a hooker is obviously anyone who wields a hook. In fishing, for example, a hooker is distinguished from a netter, and of course, a hooker is a filcher, as explained at length in my post. Consider also hook it “to make oneself scarce,” discussed at some length in my recent dictionary of idioms. As to hockey, yes, the word may be related to hook, but some details are obscure.

Another observation concerns the impact of words related to the sexual sphere on their sources. Obviously, gay “homosexual” is an extension of gay “merry, etc.” The development of the now prevalent sense has been traced in detail, but what matters is that gay “homosexual” killed all the other senses. I once noted that in A. T. Hatto’s splendid English translation of The Lay of the Nibelungen, gay (that is, richly dressed) knights appear with great regularity (this usage was already known to Chaucer), much to the amusement of my undergraduate students. The same happened to queer. In the mid-1950s, I learned and was puzzled by the word because of my lifelong admiration for Oscar Wilde’s works. The phrase snobs queer caused the 1894 trial. Was it possible anywhere in the English-speaking world to say in 1957 “what a queer (= odd, quaint, bizarre) dress,” without making the interlocutor blush or giggle? Many older people can undoubtedly answer this question. The same happened to proud hookers, alas! Today even hooker “ship” is funny. On the other hand, only forty years ago, it sucks was taboo, and now my computer, this precocious child of artificial intelligence, stubbornly suggests three answers to every letter I receive and lists this variant as an expression of my indignant disapproval. Cool!

Gay nights galore.
By Barthélémy d’Eyck, 1460, Bibliothèque nationale de France, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

As for filch (see the post Prolegomena to the word hooker for 19 April 2023), the connection with filchman is obvious, and that is why I referred to Jamieson. The putative Romany etymology of filch is also well-known. But it is far from clear whether the Romany word is not a borrowing of the cant of English thieves. And this brings us to the serious question of alternate hypotheses of word origins. I was asked what I think of the derivation of the adjective secure. Latin had sēcūrus and apparently, sicurus, because the latter was taken over by the speakers of Old English as sicor (Modern English sicker is dialectal, but compare German sicher “certain,” from sihhur). Could the English word be borrowed from a similar-sounding Greek one and be traced to a cognate of Latin sīcut “like” and understood as sic-urus? When there is a secure explanation, why look for another one? How is the vowel length in sīc– to be explained away, and what is –urus? Our correspondent borrowed his etymology from someone who, apparently, had little exposure to historical linguistics. People not versed in etymology often have good ideas about the origin of slang, technical terms, puzzling idioms, and the like, but the history of old words is a special subject, and guesses about their past are seldom, if ever, profitable.

Troll, trawl, and their likes

Trawl has traditionally, even if with reservations, been derived from Latin trahere “to draw.” All the senses of troll (“move about; roll; sing in full round voice”) may be related. The difficulty is that tr– and dr– verbs are often either sound-imitative, sound-symbolic, or both (compare trip, drip, trap, trickle, tread, tremble, trample, trill, drill, drawl, droll, drool, and so forth). This means that all of them might emerge in their respective languages independently of one another or influence their look-alikes, or serve as their sources, or be borrowed. Perhaps trawl has been borrowed or coined more than once with vaguely the same meanings. As regards the verb troll, the existence of stroll complicates the picture, and we wonder: is stroll a variant of troll with so-called s-mobile, mentioned in this blog more than once (a ubiquitous prefix without a clear function)? There is no way to answer this question, because we always face possible, even probable, but not definite solutions.

Notes on some idioms

In a sound-symbolic tizzy.
Image by Robert Higgns via Pixabay (public domain)

What is tizzy, part the phrase in a tizzy “in a state of agitation”? Given such a funny word as tizzy, it is almost natural to refer to it as an expressive coinage and to stop wondering about its origin. Compare drizzle, sizzle, swizzle “a frothy (!) intoxicating drink,” and fizz ~ fizzle. Once, tizzy also meant “sixpence,” apparently, an alteration of tester, itself an alteration of teston (the same meaning). Tizzy is a word easy to coin (the pun and half-rhyme are not intentional). There once was the word tuzzy-muzzy “a nosegay.” Dialectal tuzzy means “a tuft of hair” and must be related to touseled, which has respectable relatives but seems to be a member of the same group. The fuzzy Tootsie-Wootsie is also close by.

Can step change “a significant change” be an alteration of sea change? Similarly, can thin as a rake be an alteration of the much more transparent phrase thin as a rail? In the absence of recorded intermediate stages, this type of reconstruction leads nowhere. Also, in connection with rake, our correspondent noted that the Hebrew for “rake” is a word spelled with the consonants resh-het-tof. If rake is of sound-imitative or sound-symbolic origin, then the combination r-h ~ h-r looks natural, but, as always, sound imitation is absolutely obvious only in cases like blah-blah and barfbarf

Sliding down in a handbasket to hell, I agree, is easy to visualize. It is the ascension to heaven by the same vehicle that remains a puzzle. What is the means of transportation? I asked our readers whether anyone could make sense of the phrase five miles to hell, where Peter pitched his waistcoat. The puzzle has not been solved, but one of our correspondents remembered an old man saying out where Jesus lost his sandals. This image makes more sense! Finally, I received a query whether I have any dirty idioms in my book. Alas, no! In the journals I screened for Take my Word for It, almost everything was prim and proper: in those days, smut and profanity were not allowed in print. The samples sent to me are a delight, but I dare not share them with the readership of this blog. In our speech, we are so squeamish, are we not?

Odds and ends

This is a tuzzy-muzzy, is it not?
Photo by Karolina Grabowska, via Pexels (public domain)

Did both ever refer to more objects than two? No. Bo– in both has cognates in and outside Germanic and has the same meaning everywhere. I believe that in the phrase both Father, Son and Holy Ghost through all eternity, Father and Son was taken for one unit. I am also grateful to another reader who pointed out that the word sib is very much alive in the genetic community and means “sibling” in the speech of its practitioners. And one more. A teacher wrote me that explaining a spelling rule by reference to history is often helpful. I agree. We have rite, right, write, and wright. While dealing with an advanced learner who wonders why English has four written images for the same phonetic unit, a glance at the past may be valuable. But the problem is that spelling is taught (or should be taught) at an early age, and we cannot delve into the history of English while dealing with children. In explaining the spelling of Kate, cat, car, and care, history is good for dessert but not as the main dish.

Once again: please send me questions and notes, and I’ll do my best to comment on them in my gleanings.

Featured image by quintinsmith_ip via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.