In 1882, Mark Twain gave a short speech titled “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,” not his best or wittiest. I assume that Oscar Wilde did not miss the published text of that speech, for seven years later, he brought out a kind of treatise in the form of a dialogue with a similar title, namely, “The Decay of Lying—An Observation,” one of his most powerful and brilliant (as always, too brilliant) essays.
It would be unwise to leave the topic of emotions (see the posts on anger, dread, and fear), without saying something about hate and hatred. Although hate refers to intense dislike, it is curious to observe how diluted the word has become: today we can hate orange juice, a noisy neighbor, even our own close relative, and of course we hate not finding the objects we have mislaid. For some reason, to dislike, have little regard for, and resent are not enough for expressing our dissatisfaction.
Work on a project for reformed spelling is underway (under way). Three comments and letters have come to my notice. Masha Bell called our attention to useful and useless double letters. No doubt, account and arrive do not need their cc and rr, and I am all for abolishing them. I won’t live long enough to see acquire spelled as akwire, but perhaps aquire will satisfy future generations?
There is a feeling that idioms resist interference. A red herring cannot change its color any more than the leopard can change its spots. And yet variation here is common. For instance, talk a blue streak coexists with swear (curse) a blue streak. One even finds to swear like blue blazes (only the color remains intact). A drop in the bucket means the same as a drop in the ocean. We can cut something to bits or to pieces, and so forth.
There will be no revelations below. I owe all I have to say to my database and especially to the papers by Ian F. Hancock (1979) and Dingxu Shi (1992). But surprisingly, my folders contain an opinion that even those two most knowledgeable researchers have missed, and I’ll mention it below for what it is worth. Several important dictionaries tell us that pidgin is a “corruption” of Engl. business, and I am not in a position to confirm or question their opinion.
My discussion of idioms does not rest on a solid foundation. In examining the etymology of a word, I can rely on the evidence of numerous dictionaries and on my rich database. The linguists interested in the origin of idiomatic phrases wade through a swamp. My database of such phrases is rather rich, but the notes I have amassed are usually “opinions,” whose value is hard to assess. Sometimes the origin of a word is at stake.
The post on pilgarlic appeared on 13 June 2018. I knew nothing of the story mentioned in the comment by Stephen Goranson, but he always manages to discover the sources of which I am unaware. The existence of Pilgarlic River adds, as serious people might say, a new dimension to the whole business of pilgarlic. Who named the river? Is the hydronym fictitious? If so, what was the impulse behind the coinage? If genuine, how old is it, and why so called? What happened in 1883 that aroused people’s interest in that seemingly useless word?
Fear is a basic emotion in all living creatures, because it makes them recognize and avoid danger. It is therefore no wonder that so many words for it have been coined. Language can describe fear by registering the physical reaction to it, for instance, shaking and trembling (quite a few words for “fear” in the Indo-European languages belong here) or trying to flee from the source of danger, as in Greek phobós, known from the suffix -phobe and all kinds of phobias (phébomai “I fear; I flee from”; its Russian cognate beg- designates only “running”).
It is well-known that words for abstract concepts at one time designated concrete things or actions. “Love,” “hatred,” “fear,” and the rest developed from much more tangible notions. The words anger, anguish, and anxious provide convincing examples of this trend. All three are borrowings in English: the first from Scandinavian, the second from French, and the third from Latin. In Old Norse (that is, in Old Icelandic), angr and angra meant “to grieve” and “grief” respectively.
The word pilgarlic (or pilgarlik and pilgarlick) may not be worthy of a post, but a hundred and fifty years ago and some time later, people discussed it with great interest and dug up so many curious examples of its use that only the OED has more. (Just how many citations the archive of the OED contains we have no way of knowing, for the printed text includes only a small portion of the examples James A. H. Murray and his successors received.) There is not much to add to what is known about the origin of this odd word, but I have my own etymology of the curious word and am eager to publicize it.
With one exception, I’ll take care of the most recent comments in due time. For today I have two items from the merry month of May. The exception concerns Italian becco “cuckold.” I don’t think the association is with the word for “beak; nose.” Becco “cuckold” is probably from becco “male goat.” If so, the reference must be to the horns, as discussed in the previous post.
Still with the herd: Man, as they say, is a gregarious animal, and wearing horns could become the male of our species, but etymology sometimes makes unpredictable leaps. I of course knew that Italian becco means “cuckold” (the image is the same in all or most of the Romance languages, and not only in them), but would not have addressed this sensitive subject, had a comment on becco not served as a provocation. So here are some notes on cuckoldry from a linguistic point of view.
Etymology is a peaceful area of study. But read the following: “Spick and Span.—These words have been sadly tortured by our etymologists—we shall, therefore, do our best to deliver them from further persecution. Tooke is here more than usually abusive of his predecessors; however, Nemesis, always on the watch, has permitted him to give a lumbering, half Dutch, half German, etymology; of ‘shining new from the warehouse’—as if such simple colloquial terms were formed in this clumsy round-about way.
A story that keeps recycling the same episodes tends to become boring. So today I’ll say goodbye to my horned friends, though there is so much left that is of interest. In dealing with cows, bulls, bucks, and the rest, an etymologist is constantly made to choose among three possibilities: an ancient root with a transparent etymology (a rare case), a migratory word, or a sound-imitative formation. Like cattle breeders, words are nomads, but some are more sedentary than the others.
The buck stops nowhere: it has conquered nearly all of Eurasia. The Modern English word refers to the stag. At one time, it was a synonym of he-goat, or Billy goat. But Old Engl. buc “stag” seems to have coexisted with bucca “Billy goat.” Perhaps later they merged. German Bock is a rather general designation of “male animal,” such as “ram” (or “wether”; wether is a nearly forgotten word, though still recognizable in bellwether), “stag,” and others; it is a common second element of compounds like Schafbock (Schaf “sheep”).
When people began to domesticate the cow, what could or would they have called the animal? Ideally, a moo. This is what children do when they, Adam-like, begin to invent names for the objects around them. However, the Old English for “cow” was cū, that is, coo, if we write it the modern way, not mū. Obviously, cows don’t say coo. Pigeons do. Therefore, we are obliged to treat this word in the traditional way, that is, to look for the cognates, reconstruct the most ancient form, and so on.