After a long dearth of queries, I may report a tiny drizzle and will now answer some of the questions I received in November.
Our correspondent writes that his father used to say: “Save me cobs,” requesting the last portion of something to be saved. Do I have anything to report about this request? I of course don’t know where and from whom the old man picked up his phrase, but I know a good deal about the word cob, because I once wrote a long article about it in An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. Such monosyllabic words can mean almost anything. The senses merge, and it is often hard to tell whether we are dealing with one word or several homonyms. Below, I’ll follow the explanation in the relevant entry as it appears in The Century Dictionary (a great multivolume reference work). The various nouns spelled cob are chiefly of regional origin and are or were current in predominantly British dialects (in the US, we first and foremost remember corncob). That is why it might be useful to know where our correspondent’s father was born and lived in his youth. The earliest sense of cob seems to have been “head.” Other than that, we find that cob often looks like a variant of cop “head” (again “head”!) and cub “(roundish) lump” (cub “a young animal” is not far behind). Among other recorded senses, “cobnut,” “a head of wheat,” “a kind of wicker basket,” and so forth turn up. It appears that in the phrase save me cobs, the word cob goes back to the sense “lump.” For amusement’s sake, see the last item in this post!
A few days ago, I read a long article by an Italian researcher about the history of the Scandinavian word for “shark” and remembered that I once had a post about the mysterious fish name (May 23, 2012: “Bigger in size but equally ignorant”). Since that time, I have not discovered any new works on this subject and find some of my old conclusions acceptable, but I have rather seriously changed my views on word creation. The reason is that I have acquainted myself with numerous studies on the history of slang and written more than once on the role of sound symbolism in etymology. The lines above on cob are a case in point. Let me repeat the main part of that section: practically any round object can be called cob or cub, or cop, or cup, and the impulse behind this name giving remains a mystery. With sound-imitation everything is clear: crack, creak, croak; bow-wow, oink-oink, and their likes are self-explanatory. But what is there in gl– that we hear in glow, gleam, glint, glory, glamor, and so forth or in fl– in flow, fly, flitter, flutter, flatter, flimsy, and the rest? Why should cop, cup, cub, and cob be associated with roundness?
Slang is our main lab for observing new coinages. Every time I see a word like flub or wonk I stop reading and look up their etymology. The answer is almost invariably: “Origin unknown.” Do they have an origin? What is there we don’t know? Now back to shark. I’ll cite the explanation from The Century Dictionary and then part of an entry from Earnest Weekley’s An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921). The Century Dictionary: “Not found in Middle English (the Middle English name therefor [sic] being hound-fish): usually derived from Latin carcharus, from Greek karkharías, a kind of shark, so called from its sharp teeth… But the requisite Old French forms intermediate between English shark and Latin carcharus are not found, and it is not certain that the name was first applied to the fish; it may have been first used of a greedy man.”
Walter W. Skeat, our greatest authority on English etymology, cited this conclusion with approval. The fish name was first recorded in 1569, and shark “scoundrel” surfaced in a text thirty years later, which means that it was current at least some time before. Weekley wrote a short article about shark in 1910 (of course, for Notes and Queries!), and this is the statement in his dictionary: “Although recorded as fish-name somewhat earlier than in sense of greedy parasite, I think the latter is the original sense, and that the word came perhaps via Dutch, from German Schurke “a shark, sharper, rook, rake, rogue….” Today, most etymologists seem to share Weekley’s opinion. I stick to my doubts of ten years ago. If shark was a slang word, perhaps a term from the international sixteenth-century cant, it would hardly have been used as a special fish name. It can be imagined that someone would have said in jest about an unfamiliar sea creature: “We encountered a huge voracious troll,” but it is harder to picture a path from troll to a new fish name that would have supplanted the old, perfectly transparent one (houndfish and dogfish). Until we find out why the 1569 sailors used a seemingly new word, the origin of shark will remain “unknown.”
I also wonder: did those English sailors know the German word Schreck(en) or Dutch schrikk “fright”? The group shr-k might perhaps have a sound-symbolic value and carry negative connotations (fear, abuse, and the like). If so, then shark “scoundrel,” an entirely different homonym, may belong here, without being the source of the fish name. The sound-imitative value of shr– is obvious in shrill, shriek, and perhaps in shrub and shrug. Be that as it may, too bad they did not call the fish flub or wonk.
The word was the subject of the post for October 4, 2023. Though the origin of the word remains obscure, it is not improbable that cowan reached English from French. Our correspondent informs us that in Cajun French, in southwest Louisiana, cowan is a vulgar term for “vagina” (something like “pussy”). This may be and probably is a mere coincidence. Yet it is not entirely improbable that English cowan had at one time reference to sex and was a vulgar word. As I mentioned in discussing another obscure word (brocard: see the post for October 25, 2023), when a language historian has nothing to say about the origin of a word, every clue matters. Even if it fails to provide the answer, it may suggest a promising path to the solution.
I was asked whether I had encountered idioms restricted to one family or to a very narrow circle. Some idioms are indeed known to few, but their rarity may be an illusion. Thus, many correspondents to Notes and Queries wrote between 1911 and 1924 that they used the phrase to make a long arm, which meant “to help oneself to something far from the place where one is sitting.” The phrase was known on both sides of the Atlantic, though in the United States, only on the East Coast, and all the letter writers believed that it was their family quip. The moral is: never assume that the peculiar phrase you use is not known elsewhere. Amazingly, the earliest recorded example in the OED goes back to 1593!