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Late winter etymology gleanings and a few little-known idioms

Questions and answers


Ms. Melissa Mizel found my post for July 29, 2009, on the ethnic slur Sheeny “Jew” and sent me her idea about the etymology of this ugly word. I returned to that post and was both glad and sorry to find numerous comments added to it quite recently. Nothing can be done about the system, but unfortunately, I have only now discovered the latest musings. When I write an essay, I am eager to learn what the readers will say, but if a suggestion appears years later, how can I discover it? In any case, I have reread the 2009 post and all the comments. The origin of Sheeny remains “unknown,” and the opinions are divided between the etymon I cited (the Yiddish variant of Standard German schön “beautiful,” an epithet used, as it appears, mockingly; this is the majority opinion) and some Irish word. Melissa Mizel wonders whether Sheeny may have originated in the Jewish community in Edinburgh that was close to Sciennes (pronounced sheens) Road, where the first Jewish cemetery was established in 1816. This gives us the earliest possible date for the origin of the slur. I hope that her thought-provoking suggestion will call forth speedy answers from those who know more about the subject than I do.

Goose milk

Silverweed, also known as Potentilla anserina, fed to young geese (Latin anser “goose”). The closest approach to goosemilk we could find. By Matt Lavin, CC2.0 via Flickr.

Mr. Alan Mighty sent us several interesting quotations with this phrase, and it turned out that goose milk was not invented in the American south. Goose’s milk occurs in the English translation of Athenaeus’s Deipnosophists. Since the Internet gives all the necessary information about the Greek author and his work, I’ll let those who are interested in the subject do the search for themselves. In the English text, we find goose’s milk, and it remains unclear how to obtain that food product. The British author Lydia Helen Burton (in the novel Abbots Thorpe, 1864) also knew about the existence of goose’s milk! The context is not illuminating. As for the pigeons, the only lactating birds in nature (Mr. Mighty mentions them too), I was well aware of their existence: see the entry cushat in An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology. But the trouble with the American phrase referred to in my post is that both characters use goose milk (not goose’s milk) ironically, and it seems to mean something like “the project may (or might) look difficult to some, but it is not.” Surprisingly, the most comprehensive dictionaries seem to have missed this slangy idiom. Other than that, search the Internet for goose milk. Great fun!

The desire of the moth for the star, or wishful thinking. White and Black Pendant Lamp by Евгения Егорова, via Pexels.

Wishful thinking

The question was about the age of this phrase. It seems to have been coined in the nineteen-thirties and has always meant the same, namely, the belief that something one wants to happen will indeed happen, with the implication that the belief is a product of self-deception. According to the OED, in the sixteenth century, wishful meant “longing, desirable, desirous.” Then we find only “desirous,” and finally, “colored by what one desires for the future.” Yet today, wishful (“suggesting a wish”) hardly ever carries positive connotations. The path from “desirable” to “illusionary” is a rather mild case of what historical linguists call deterioration of meaning, as opposed to amelioration of meaning.

Matt’s money

See Stephen Goranson’s comment on a previous post. He seems to have unearthed the real person, alluded to in the idiom. If he guessed well, my fear that we are dealing with a fictitious figure, someone like the elusive Jack Robinson (before you can say Jack Robinson), was ungrounded.

Little-known phrases and idioms

As promised, I am continuing to cite some idioms and phrases not included in my dictionary Take My Word for It. Here are a few examples with the word butter. Many idioms with butter are well-known and widely used, for instance, (he looks as if) butter would not melt in his mouth, bread always falls on the buttered side (incidentally, that is why it is important to observe on which side your bread is buttered!), a bread-and-butter letter, and so forth. One of the most interesting butter connections in etymology is through the word butterfly (see my old post Wilhelm Oehl and the Butterfly for August 22, 2007). But here is a more exotic example. (1907, from Somersetshire; the West Midlands on the Welsh border): “They were as thick as butter, as the sayin’ is, but now they don’t speak.” Thick as butter is reminiscent of thick as thieves, but, unfortunately, it does not alliterate.

Unless our idioms go back to some phrases in Greek, Latin, and the Bible, they are usually not particularly old. In the days of Sigurd, Beowulf, and Roland, people understood similes but had not yet mastered figurative meanings, so that no one would have said to kick the can down the road or it blew my socks off unless one really did so or witnessed such a scene. The art of speaking in unborrowed metaphors came to the Europeans only with the Renaissance. Today, sayings of this type are the veritable sand of the sea, and I am not sure that even all such phrases as surfaced in print have found their way into collections. The phrase I’ll now cite is a proverbial saying, rather than an idiom.

The examples below go back to 1921, and, like thick as butter, were recorded in Notes and Queries. There seems to be or to have been the saying “Butter goes mad twice a year.” It occurred in the speech of a native of Hertford (southeast-central England) and was followed by the suggestion that the allusion might be to the tendency of butter to melt in summer and harden in winter. Jonathan Swift knew the phrase. This is an exchange in his A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation: “Miss, the weather is so hot, that my Butter melts on my Bread.” “Why, Butter, I’ve heard ‘em say, is mad twice a Year.” Before Swift, it occurred in the 1607 collection of English proverbs by John Ray, one of the most famous books of its kind.

Look at the udder but don’t neglect the horn. Image from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public Domain.

Ray also included a rather obscure saying in his Proverbial Observations Concerning Husbandry: “Butter’s once a year in the cow’s horn.” The following explanation may perhaps shed some light on that pronouncement: “…in the late autumn, when cows were milked in the open, it happened that the hands of the dairy-maids were dry and cold when milking-time came. They used then to lubricate their hands. In my youth I have seen the milkers use some fatty ingredient, probably inferior butter, for that purpose. It was procured out of a cow’s horn hanging on to one of the milk pails.” See the entire exchange, referred to above, in Notes and Queries, Series 12, No. IX, 1921, pp. 331, 375, and 415.

Feature image: Edinburgh, Sciennes House Place, Jewish Burial Ground. CC4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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