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Language peeves and the word peeve

I assume that since for quite some time there have been no new comments, the discussion about good and bad English in the pages of this blog is over, at least for now. Below, I’ll address very briefly the comments and private letters I have received. I very much appreciate the idea that language needs not only motors and brakes but also steering. That is why schools exist. But teaching has become a dangerous occupation, and “steering” is at present chaotic. The remarks I have received can be classified under several rubrics.

  1. Redundancy

“He returned a whole ten books.” Whole, like very, completely, and so forth, makes a trivial statement more emphatic; hence its allure. Remember the whole nine yards.

  1. Buzzwords

The use of clichés allows one to speak like a machine and to be rewarded with a membership in a prestigious club. You say so-and so made history and feel how important you are, almost as important as the person you described. Equally beautiful is the phrase empower and uplift.

  1. Sham grandeur and verbosity

Someone says epicenter instead of center and believes that the statement has acquired additional weight. Based off of instead of based on may belong here too: the longer a statement, the greater weight it appears to carry. (Curiously, Melissa Mohr, who interviewed Professor Fridland for The Christian Science Monitor—search for the short piece on the Internet—did not address any of the questions that interested us.)

  1. Finally, the English verb like never meant “to be equal to.”

The etymology of peeve

And now some ideas about the etymology of peeve. The word lives up to its meaning with enviable accuracy. Only the last stage of its history is known: peeve is a twentieth-century back formation from peevish, that is, the root was abstracted from the adjective. The question then is only about the origin of this adjective, rather than the noun. Peevish was first recorded in English texts at the beginning of the fourteenth century but was rare (rare in texts!) at that time. Later, the examples multiplied, but as the OED indicates, it is often hard to understand what peevish in some of them meant, even though all the senses seem to have been negative. Before looking at the rather numerous attempts to explain the word’s origin, I may suggest two things. First: if the word had been borrowed from some foreign language (most likely, Old French), its Middle English meaning would have been more transparent. Second: the adjective seems to have originated in slang as a term of disapproval, mockery, or abuse, and as we know from the history of modern slang, the etymology of such “low-class” words is usually hard to reconstruct.

Both men and women can be peevish.

The more or less ascertainable early senses of peevish are “doting, silly; malignant; obstinate, ill-tempered.” Today, a peevish person is irritable and fretful. Among its modern synonyms, we find “petulant, cross, ill-tempered.” Unexpectedly, in a 1691 dictionary, peevish is glossed as “witty, subtil” (a north-country word). The reference may have been to things bizarre, too subtle, rather than to a bent for humor. Shakespeare used the adjective more than once and understood it as “silly, senseless; perverse.” He applied it not only to human beings (boys, for example) but also to harlotry (so in Hamlet) and tokens. Walter W. Skeat summed up the situation so:

Thus, the various senses are “childish, silly, wayward, froward, uncouth, ill-natured, perverse” and even “witty.” All of these may be reduced to the sense “childish,” the sense of witty being equivalent to that of “toward,” the child being toward instead of froward.

Fro-ward indeed goes back to fro (that is, from: compare to and fro), as opposed to to-ward, but one wonders whether the common denominator of all the senses Skeat listed is indeed “childish.” “Senseless, silly, perverse,” as in Shakespeare, seem to capture the message of the adjective better. The idea of stupidity and sometimes meanness appears to underlie most of the recorded senses. It seems to have always been bad to be peevish, and with regard to meanness, one may cite Scottish pewische “niggardly, covetous,” recorded by the great lexicographer John Jamieson.

The most peevish birds in the English-speaking world at large.
Photo by Andreas Trepte, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5

The earliest attempts to discover the origin of peevish are not less sophisticated than the latest, and in a few cases, they are even more reasonable. From some sound-imitative verb like pew: “to complain; mutter”? (The adjective pewish “cross, froward” is, apparently, a doublet or a spelling variant of peevish.) Or from beeish “resembling a bee” (compare waspish)? (This is ingenious but fanciful.) Or perhaps from pipe or pew “to complain, to emit a mournful sound”? All such attempts assumed that peevish was a native word.

However, French etymons have also been proposed. Among the glosses of peevish, the adjective perverse turned up more than once, and perverse has been suggested as the source of the English word. It too surfaced in English in the fourteenth century and meant “perverted, wayward,” and “froward” (the latter is familiar to us from the definitions of peevish). Above, I expressed my doubts about the Romance source of peevish. Here, I may add that Middle English perverse and peevish seem to have belonged to different registers and that perverse never displayed such a variety of senses as did peevish. Leo Spitzer, a distinguished Romance etymologist, suggested the Latin etymon expavidus “startled, shy,” which surfaced in Old French in the form épave (an epithet applied to stray animals). He recognized some phonetic difficulties in his reconstruction but attempted to explain them away.

I am a very foolish fond old man.
Painting by Robert Smirke, The Awakening of King Lear, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

As we have seen, some early students of English etymology believed that peevish is a sound-imitative word. They compared peevish with the bird name pewet ~ peewit. Such was also Skeat’s final opinion, who rewrote his long verdict from scratch: “The leading idea seems to be ‘whining’, ‘making a plaintive cry.’” From the evidence we have seen (“doting, malignant, ill-tempered,” and so forth) it certainly does not follow that the sought-for common denominator is “making a plaintive cry” (curious how even the best researchers try to cut their cloth according to their readymade coats). But the idea of deriving peevish from an onomatopoeia seems fairly reasonable. Birds often supply people with metaphors related to stupidity. A fool in German is a silly goose (du, dumme Gans), while in English, a silly goose is a nervous, jittery person who has to stop worrying and come to business. Likewise, a booby is a fool, and being ga-ga is not an accomplishment either.  

Perhaps peevish was indeed one of such words. The reference would have been to the pewet-peewit called this for the sound it makes. If so, the word first meant “stupid, brainless.” The rest is plain sailing. From “stupid’ as the semantic kernel one may go in many directions. A classic example is fond, which first meant “foolish,” then “foolishly affectionate,” “doting,”, “desirous,” and finally, “having a strong liking.” Other than that, as regards its origin, fond is a rather obscure word. Thus, I disagree with the common verdict that peevish is a word of unknown origin. And if I am wrong, I’ll be happy to accept the proverbial booby prize.

Recent Comments

  1. Philip Heath

    While I would agree that in something like ‘a whole lot more’ ‘whole’ is redundant, is not the sense of ‘a whole ten books’ ‘as many as ten books’?

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