Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Unscheduled gleanings and a few idioms

I receive questions about the origin of words and idioms with some regularity. If the subjects are trivial, I respond privately, but this week a correspondent asked me about the etymology of the verb loiter, and I thought it might be a good idea to devote some space to it and to its closest synonyms.

Words for worthless activities tend to emerge in slang and seldom have “respectable” ancient roots. Some of the synonyms of loiter belong to that “plebian” group. Such, for instance, is the verb to gad about, which surfaced in English in the fifteenth century. According to some authorities, it looks like a borrowing of Scandinavian gadda “to goad,” while others connect it with the obsolete noun gadling “companion,” later “wanderer.” Even though the second derivation looks more promising, the specific sense “to wander idly” suggests that perhaps we are dealing with an item of scamps’ self-characterization. The origin of even less mysterious monosyllabic words (dig, put, and kick among them) is no less problematic: they are easy to coin, easy to borrow, and hard to trace.

Dawdle is another synonym of loiter. Unlike gad, it was recorded only in the 1660s. It has such synonyms (or variants?) as daddle, diddle and doddle—thus, a frequentative verb with the suffix –le, as in babble, giggle, fiddlefaddle, and their likes. One of course also remembers doodle. Some such verbs have a curious history. Ramble is one of them. Rams are famous for their sexual power, and German rammeln does mean “to copulate.” In Dutch, the same verb was used about cats, rabbits, and other animals. English ramble looks like a variant of rammeln, but its meaning is quite innocent: “to wander about”—thus, another synonym of loiter. Is such a development (from copulate to wander) probable?

Loiter, a fourteenth-century verb, sounds quite unlike the monosyllables mentioned above. It appeared in Middle English in the form lotere and then in a 1440 English-Latin dictionary as loytre. Still later, the spelling leutere ~ leutre turned up. It is not improbable that “loiterers” (vagabonds) from the Low Countries were the originators of the verb (another case of self-characterization?). However, Leo Spitzer (1887-1960) thought otherwise. I often refer to that outstanding and prolific philologist, but usually with a mild caveat. He wrote dozens of short etymological etudes. A Romance scholar (journalist, literary critic, and dialectologist, among other things), he fled to Turkey and then to the United States from Hitler’s Germany (Spitzer was a Jew), and as of 1936, Baltimore (John Hopkins University) became his home.

In his lifetime, Spitzer was more notorious than famous, but in the literature on him I could not find an explanation for where he, a native speaker of German and a Romance philologist, learned such faultless English. His notes on English etymology are numerous and always inspiring. However, they display a noticeable bias: for every hard word Spitzer invariably found a French etymon. This bias is typical. I have more than once observed that linguists’ expertise tends not only to guide but to determine their conclusions. (At one time, I researched the life and work of the outstanding Icelandic philologist Stefán Einarsson. He always found the root of everything in Icelandic.)

Anjou, France.
Image by Ty’s Commons via Wikimedia Commons, CC4.0

Not unexpectedly, Spitzer thought that the etymon of loiter was not a Middle Dutch but an Old French word. He cited the verb loitroner, current in Anjou “to walk slowly, etc.” and identified it with French lutiner “to behave impishly,” from lutin “imp who visits people at night.” The word goes back to the name of the god Neptunus, who, along with the other pagan divinities, was reduced in the Middle Ages to a demon or devil, or imp. Spitzer went on to account for the difference between the initial n in Neptunus and l- in the verband added many details to his reconstruction, all of which I’ll skip. One thing is clear: the French verb lutiner is not of Dutch origin. Though the semantic match between lutiner and loiter is perfect and the problem of the diphthong in the root finds a solution, Spitzer did not trace the path of the French verb to England. The question remains open, but in dealing with a word of dubious origin, the more information the researcher has, the better, so that a dissenting view cannot harm anyone. The French hypothesis does not seem to have been noticed. Long before Spitzer, Ernest Weekley, another first-rate French etymologist, supported the Dutch derivation, and so did Skeat before him. If loiter is indeed a borrowing from Dutch, the English adjective little may be related to it.

A postscript on toad

I have once again consulted the most authoritative sources on the etymology of the Greek word for “toad.” Unlike the English noun typewriter, the Greek word is, most certainly, not a compound, and its origin is unclear. The other comment on the same post was from a reader who stated that the Old Chinese name of the toad looks remarkably like the English one. I won’t venture any hypotheses. Words, seemingly related in Indo-European and Chinese, are known. Whether toad is one of them is not for me to decide. The problem is that toad is limited to Germanic. If, however, toad is sound-imitative, as I suggested, its Chinese counterpart may have the same origin.

A few phrases

More than a month ago, I began publicizing some curious idioms from my database that were not included in my recent book Take My Word for It. Today, I will cite a few more in the hope that our readers may have heard them or can say something about their use and origin.

A crow’s age. Crows do not live too long: just eight or twelve years. Why then did even Horace say to Lyce that he may live as long a crow’s age (IV Od. xiii: 24-25). And in 1887, a man from Nottinghamshire (England, the East Midlands) said: “Why, Bill, it’s a crow’s age sin’ I seen ya.” The wording surprised the correspondent of Notes and Queries, who had never heard the idiom. The American phrase I have not seen you in a coon’s age is known very well. Coon is of course “racoon” (no offensive connotations). But why were the crow and the racoon, two rather short-lived creatures, chosen as the best examples of longevity? No alliteration, no rhyme—nothing to endear those similes to native speakers of English.

Two dubious symbols of longevity.
Image 1 by Rhododendrites via, Wikimedia Commons, CC4.0 and Image 2 by Cary Bass-Deschênes via Wikimedia Commons, CC4.0.

Paws off, Pompey. Many phrases exist only as part of adults addressing children. Has anyone heard paws off, Pompey, said to children when they put arms on the table? (asked in England in 1907). Who is Pompey? A dog? The phrase is slightly reminiscent of to make a long arm “to help oneself to something far from the place where one is sitting.” It was once known to many people in England and on the East Coast in the United States. Perhaps it still is.

 Paws off, Pompey.
Image by Yaroslav Shuraev via Pexels.

He fell heavy “he died rich.” I wish all our readers many years of excellent health and prosperity. Live heavy, as it were!

Feature image by Kgbo, via Wikimedia Commons. CC4.0.

Recent Comments

  1. Peter Warne

    Crows, like sparrows, may live 20 years, but very rarely do in the wild, where their lifespan is considerably shorter due to predators like us and cats, and the difficulties of food supply. Perhaps they were regarded as long-lived because they were hard to tell apart? Racoons are similarly long-lived in the protective custody of captivity, but fare even worse in the wild.

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Pompey, in addition to being the name of a Roman, and of some dogs, and invoked in sailor’s “dodge Pompey,” is the nickname of the seaport Portsmouth, England, especially its football (soccer) team, as in the chant, “play up Pompey!”

  3. Stephen Goranson

    “Paws off Pompey” can be interpreted, and has been interpreted, as “hands off Pompey,”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *