NATIVISATIONS, PEJORATIVES, INKHORNS AND MULTISYLLABICS

 

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It seems an apt moment to highlight some of my favourite words: adoptions from other languages that have subsequently become partly or wholly ‘nativised’ – that is, admitted into English usage despite their exotic origins and overtones.

As an unashamed poseur (‘one who puts on airs, affects an attitude or style, usually to impress others’, from French poser, to place or put, first attested in 1869) and a dilettante (‘one who casually cultivates or dabbles in arts and/or literatures, from Italian dilettare, to delight (in), first attested in 1733), I have been accused of being a flâneur to boot, but take this as a compliment, as it uses the French verb flâner, ‘to wander’ or ‘saunter’, to describe a sophisticated, idler, perusing at their leisure the novelties and curiosities of the urban cavalcade*. As you can tell, I have always been drawn to fanciful, colourful terms, particularly when they serve as critiques or slurs (some of them are traditionally gendered as male, but feminine counterparts are now permitted, even in the countries of origin). Here is a small selection of examples, with more to follow shortly…

 

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Mountebank

The word means a swindler, fraud or trickster and comes from the Italian invocation  monta in banco! ‘climb on the bench!’ supposedly directed to a seller of quack remedies, later known as a montambanco (the word which was anglicised in the 16th century), who mounts a platform in a fair or public place to peddle their wares to credulous onlookers.

Charlatan

Almost a synonym for mountebank, the charlatan was a seller of useless remedies, later generalised as a fraud, a fake, a dissembling hypocrite. The word is from Italian ciarlare, to babble, as in blustering, bamboozling sales-talk practised by a ciarlatano, which became French charlatan whence the early 17th-century English borrowing.

Parvenu

A snobbish term of condescension, contempt and dismissal, the French word literally denotes someone who has arrived, ultimately from the Latin verb pervenire, ‘to come to, reach’. Its sense in French and later in the English of the early 19th century is a social climber who has attained or claimed a social position that they do not deserve. It is a near-synonym for arriviste, also French, adopted in the early 1900s to sneer at someone who has recently acquired undeserved and unaccustomed status – but without managing to gain the esteem that would normally accompany such success.

 

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Poltroon

This derogatory description of some who is considered foolish, embarrassing, craven and pitiable, is said to come from the Italian poltro, ‘sluggard’ or ‘coward’ which became poltron in Middle French before being picked up by English speakers who were particularly fond of deploying it during the 18th century. The Italian ancestor possibly derives from Latin pullus, ‘a young chicken’, ultimate origin of the English pullet and poultry.

Rentier

Another more technical French categorisation (normally given its French pronunciation), adopted into English in 1798 and often employed as a pejorative, can refer to an individual or social class or cohort whose income derives from property, a form of capitalism which profits by monopolising access to property, or a state deriving national revenues from the rent of indigenous resources. Rente in French denotes dividend or income and rentier  (first recorded in 1650) referred to persons of ‘independent means’, typically landowners and landlords, thus could be applied to the ‘idle rich’. ‘Rentier capitalism’ describes the collecting of income from rents,  investment or dividends rather than from labour or productive activities and without reinvesting in socially worthwhile schemes.

The unattractive characters listed here are often instrumental in provoking disasters, catastrophes and confusions, for which, again, we have in the past raided our neighbours’ lexicons in search of more sonorous, memorable pejoratives…

 

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Debacle

This word, denoting an utter, often humiliating disaster, is the French débâcle, popularised in the troubles of 1848 and then meaning a collapse, a downfall, an unleashing of chaos. It derives from the verb débâcler, from earlier desbacler meaning to unbar in the sense of removing a river barrier and permitting a damaging outflow of ice and floodwater. The literal sense became a technical geological and engineering term in English in 1802, followed a little later by the figurative use.

Fiasco

The word, of Italian origin, again came to us via French, first attested in 1855 as theatrical slang for a botched performance or flop. By 1862 it was being used outside the theatre for an ignominious failure or embarrassing disaster. It comes via the French phrase faire fiasco ‘result in a failure’ from Italian far fiasco,  literally ‘make a bottle,’ (fiasco is Late Latin flasco, the origin of English flask). Nobody is certain whether the original idea evoked was the accidental or clumsy smashing of a bottle or the loser of a game of chance having to buy the winners a bottle of wine. I should perhaps add that my old friend, the musician F. Robert Lloyd, tells me from Paris that in the French of the 50s and 60s fiasco could refer, in polite speech, to a gentleman’s inability to ‘perform’ in an intimate, non-theatrical context.

 

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Farrago

Now in English denoting a confused mishmash or mess, a jumble of ridiculous notions or disorganised ideas, farrago began as a Latin term for cattle-fodder made up of different ingredients and was borrowed, via Italian, in the 1600s.

Rodomontade

This sonorous multisyllabic word could easily be dismissed as an ‘inkhorn term’, an obscure, little-known and archaic, not to say outrageously pretentious usage (first attested in 1543 – a word imported or used unnecessarily by scholars who dipped their pens in inkwells made of horn), but I like it and try to insert it into my conversations as often as possible. It means boastful, inflated talk and/or behaviour and was based on the name Rodomonte, a King of Algiers and a braggart, in the early 17th-century Italian epic poems Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso. In a similar vein fanfaronade is a nice description of arrogant, boastful talk. It may also denote a military fanfare and comes from fanfarrón, a word still used in Spanish to mean a show-off, blusterer or blowhard. Very rarely used, but surely very useful, and very timely is pasquinade which means a satire or lampoon, typically posted provocatively in a public place. It is inspired by the ‘Pasquino’ statue of a male torso displayed in Rome, on which the learned would attach verses and where wits would stick anonymous barbs and mocking diatribes.

Imbroglio

A confused, chaotic and embarrassing entanglement. The term was adopted into English in the mid 18th century, first in the sense of ‘jumble’, then more specifically in reference to diplomatic or political misunderstandings. The word is Italian for a tangle or muddle from broglio, confusion, intrigue, snarl-up and the derived verb imbrogliare.

Brouhaha

Meaning an agitated hubbub, a confused uproar, an overexcited reaction – especially in cases when a minor incident is exaggerated – the word was borrowed in the late 19th century from 15th century French. It may be imitative of the noise of public clamour, and is thought to have been the sound of the devil laughing as performed in morality plays. Some authorities derive it from a mangling of the Hebrew barukh habba – ‘blessed be the one who comes.’

You may well find my lucubrations (‘archaic – a learned or pedantic piece of writing’) rocambolesque –  far-fetched, fantastic, grotesquely inappropriate, from Ponson du Terrail’s character Rocambole** – and you may detect a hint of persiflage (light irreverent bantering) – but surely you’ll admit they are topical. There are other such expressions in my files which deserve to feature in this list and I will add them shortly – but please feel free, as Twitter acquaintances have already, to donate your own examples, for which I will thank and credit you, as long as you don’t mean them personally…

 

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*cavalcade, by the way, is yet again from Italian, this time from cavalcata, a procession, passing show, from cavalcare ‘to ride’, based on Latin caballus ‘horse’.

** from Spanish ‘carambola’, from Malaysian for Starfruit, meaning also bumping and trickery. Rocambole denotes several types of leek and garlic – and a ‘Brazilian Swiss Roll’ apparently. In today’s French it means ‘unbelievable’ or ‘over-the-top.’

ABSOLUTION? ABSOLUTELY! SHROVE TUESDAY NOW AND THEN

 

And on Shrove Tuesday when the bell does ring

we will go out at hens and cocks to fling

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Today is Shrove Tuesday. A propitious time for hanging laundry according to English tradition, which holds that whites will dry to yield an even brighter white on this day.  There are 46 days between tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, and the Holy Saturday at Easter. If the abstinence required of the faithful is relaxed for each of the coming Sundays then Lent will last for 40 days. Today marks the beginning of Lent and the end of the three-day period of indulgence and revelry known since 1530 as Shrovetide, culminating in the tossing and sharing of pancakes, formerly a way of using up the sinfully fattening contents of the larder prior to fasting.

In old tradition believers were summoned by a bell rung at eleven in the morning to be ‘shriven’, that is given confession by a priest and forgiven for their sins. The verb to shrive, meaning impose a penance, was Middle English shriven, scrīfan in Old English, and is related to modern German schreiben, to write. Old Germanic borrowed the Latin verb scribere, to write, (itself descended from Proto-IndoEuropean *skribh -, to cut) in the form *skrībaną on the basis that, even for an illiterate community, religious proscriptions were written down. The confusion of penitence and indulgence resulted in the old phrase to ‘go a-shroving’ denoting not seeking confession but making merry and misbehaving.

By the 19th century the shriving bell had become the pancake bell, which in Toddington in Bedfordshire brought village children to Conger Hill to put ears to the ground and listen for the sizzling of the local witch’s pan. In Chester the wild communal street games played on Shrove Tuesday were said to have originated when the townsfolk decapitated a Viking prisoner and used his head as a football: in Derby in 1839 the army had to intervene to stop, once and for ever, the mayhem occasioned by this annual festivity. Other communities celebrated with bull-baiting and tugs-of-war, or as in Brighton played variations of ‘cock-in-the-pot’ or ‘cock-squailing’ whereby weighted sticks were thrown at a captive chicken (or in Somerset at a ‘Lenycock’ – not a bird but a daffodil). Cocks and chickens, though, had a hard day of it almost everywhere. In Scotland children could bribe their teachers with a ‘cock-penny’ to abandon lessons in favour of a cock fight – the dominie was allowed to claim and eat or sell any bird that fled from the ring.

The name of the coming period of penitence, Lent, is a shortening of Middle English lenten, from Old English lencten, coming from  *langatinaz,  a ProtoGermanic word for springtime using the prehistoric ancestor of ‘long’ and evoking the arrival of longer days.

 

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…at last, by the skill of the Cooke, it is transformed into the forme of a Flip-Jack, cal’d a Pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people doe devoure very greedily

-John Taylor c.1642

 

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CHRISTMAS, ON THE CARDS

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‘I am a poor man, but I would gladly give ten shillings
To find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card 
I received this morning.’

George Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody

 

The tradition of sending Christmas cards by post has declined, though in a 2017 survey British respondents said they still preferred paper to texts or emails, while self-styled experts on etiquette dismiss the electronic ‘card’ as vulgar. Most of the cards I receive now come from charities soliciting donations or estate agents promoting retirement homes, nevertheless…

Sole example of a proto-Christmas card, a Rosicrucian manuscript on folded paper, decorated with a rose-sceptre, was presented to King James VI of Scotland and I of England at Christmas in 1611. It was inscribed as follows…

‘…a gesture of joyful celebration of the Birthday of the Lord, in most joy and fortune, we enter into the new auspicious year 1612. Dedicated and consecrated with humble service and submission, from Michael Maier, German, Count Palatine, Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, Knight and Poet Laureate…’

New year cards wishing health and happiness were exchanged in Bohemia in the early 19th century but the invention of the modern Christmas card is usually credited to Sir Henry Cole, Assistant Keeper of the British Public Record Office, who in 1843 collaborated with John Calcott Horsley, a narrative painter, to produce seasonal cards to be sold for one shilling each (then a considerable sum of money) and sent for just a halfpenny through the Post Office which Cole had helped to found three years earlier.

 

 

Though all authorities still credit Cole, in 2018 the TLS announced that a Timothy Larsen of Illinois had discovered an earlier reference to cards much like those with which we are familiar. In the December 7 issue of the Hampshire Chronicle, in 1829, was the following notice:

We learn that the “Olde Winchester” Christmas and New Year’s greetings, designed by Mr A. Clements of Northgate Studio, are receiving a most cordial welcome from Christmas card buyers, sales already nearing the 2,000 mark.

19th century cards introduced motifs invoking celebration, family assemblies and compassion and charity, together with stock phrases which we are still familiar with. Queen Victoria’s family adopted the custom almost immediately and by the 1860s cards were being produced and sold in large numbers by printing companies.

 

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Though Victorian cards in particular might feature surprisingly morbid or unsettling images, and more modern examples sometimes favour humour (cheeky messages appeared in the USA from the 1940s) and wordplay (puns being a British speciality) messages have typically relied on a small repertoire of words and expressions intended to inspire and cheer…

Joy comes via Middle English from Old French joie, which could mean joy or jewel, itself from Latin gaudia, gaudium, from Proto-IndoEuropean *geh₂widéh₁yeti, from the verb *geh₂u , to rejoice.

Glad tidings combines the Old English word for bright or cheerful, from an Old Germanic term for smooth, with the Old English and Old Norse words for happenings, occurrences, tidung and  tiðendi , which derive ultimately from the IndoEuropean root *di-ti, meaning divide, as into time-frames. The -tide of Christmastide or Yuletide has the same source.

Noel was nowel in Middle English, an anglicisation of French noël, from Latin natalis, shorthand for birthday. Latin nātīvitās, birth, became Old English Nātiuiteð, one of the earliest names for Christmas, and gives us modern nativity.

Yule, yole in Middle English, is from Old English ġéol or ġéohol, names for the Christmas or midwinter period, but related to words in Old Norse (jol) and 4th century Old Gothic (jiuleis) which denoted pagan winter festivals and feasting.

The word Christmas first appears in written records as late as 1038 in the form of Old English Crīstesmæsse – ‘Christ’s mass.’

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A particular favourite, thought for several centuries to describe an essence of Englishness, is of course

Merry /mɛri/ adj

  1. joyous, cheery, gleeful, of good spirit
  2. mirthful, convivial, affected by gaiety, as by festive spirit
  3. Colloq tiddly, squiffy, somewhat inebriated, as if by seasonal spirits

ME merye, from OE myrige, delightful, pleasing, sweet, from Proto-Germanic *murg(i)jaz, fleeting, from Proto-IndoEuropean *mreg(h)us,short

  • make merry behave in a frolicsome, boisterous, unconstrained manner, eg dad-dancing, shattering wine-glasses during toasts, communal bellowing of sentimental songs, flirting at the office party (syn: ‘attempting to pull a cracker’) etc.
  • Slang merry-bout an act of copulation (1780) merry-got a bastard (1785) merry-legs a harlot (19C) merry old soul an arsehole (20C rhyming)

 

 

The first evidence we have for the phrase ‘mery Christmas’ is from 1565; coupled with ‘..and a happy New Year’ from 1699.

Finally, a little puzzle. Instead of inscriptions I used these images on the Christmas card I sent a few years ago in the hope that recipients would decode them, Almost nobody did…

 

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POOR GUY – a Fawkesian miscellany

Tonight is Bonfire Night, Firework Night, nowadays usurped by Hallowe’en as the most popular celebration of autumn-to-winter transition, but still a folk festival of note. Many people are aware that the fires and fireworks commemorate the failed gunpowder plot of 1605, but few know more than the name of the terrorist whose effigy we burn on Guy Fawkes night.

 

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The catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes, who came from from Yorkshire, spoke French when captured and signed himself  ‘Guido’, using the Italian or Spanish form of the name (his autograph, before and after torture had been applied, is below). He may have begun the practice when fighting in the Spanish army in the Low Countries, although Italian names were considered fashionable and were sometimes adopted by English gallants. Guy is the French form of old Germanic Wido, either meaning ‘dweller at the forest margin’ or a nickname from ‘wide’ as bodily description or location (an open, flat region).

 

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The English surname Fawkes, also archaically spelled Fauks, Faukes and Fakes, derives from the German name or nickname Falco which probably originally referred to a person thought to resemble a falcon. Falco became Faulques in Norman French and was adopted after the Conquest, the first attestation coming from 1221.

 

While in London preparing to blow up parliament, Fawkes posed as a servant in the entourage of Thomas Percy, a fellow conspirator who had access to the parliamentary precincts. Fawkes’ less than imaginative choice of alias was ‘John Johnson.’

 

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Guy’s wide-brimmed headgear, crudely imitated on effigies and now caricatured as a ‘V for Vendetta’ hat, is correctly termed a ‘sugarloaf hat’, since its high, flat-topped crown resembled the sugarloafs imported from the colonies in the Stuart period.

 

Isla Guy Fawkes, or Guy Fawkes Island is actually two small uninhabited islands and two smaller rocks lying in the Pacific Ocean off the Galápagos Islands which are owned by Ecuador. The name might have been given after a fiery volcanic event had been witnessed, but was more probably bestowed by buccaneers who viewed Guy as a hero and one of their own.

 

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Fireworks did not just take off (pun intended) in England after the Gunpowder Plot. They first became popular in the reign of Henry VII. Queen Elizabeth I loved them and appointed a ‘Firemaster of England’ to arrange displays.

 

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Bonfire (first recorded in 1483) is not, as Dr Johnson and others have claimed, French ‘bon feu’, (French would be ‘feu de joie’, ‘grand feu’) but ‘bone-fire’, a collection of burning bones or an open fireplace or outdoor pyre into which bones were thrown, after feasting for instance. By 1581 the word was also being used to refer to a fire in which heretics were burnt.

 

Guy himself was not executed by burning, a fate reserved for those found guilty of heresy.  He and the other condemned plotters were indeed Catholic dissidents, but the state wanted to avoid civil disturbances so accused them of treason, for which the punishment was hanging, drawing and quartering. Fawkes managed to cheat the hangman by falling or throwing himself from the ladder leading to the scaffold, breaking his neck.

 

Guy Fawkes’s first name lived on, coming to mean by 1806 his effigy, then a grotesquely or poorly dressed person or eccentric. By extension a verb form arose (first attested in 1872) meaning to hold (someone) to ridicule. At the end of the 19th century in American colloquial usage the word had come to mean simply ‘a fellow’, from which we get our modern all-purpose, sometimes gender-neutral ‘guy’.

 

Illustration from 'Mischeefes mysterie London'

THE VAMPIRE AND ITS LINEAGE

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The history of the Vampire – the being and the word that names it – is fascinatingly convoluted. We know that the word came to us in the 18th century via German from Serbian vampir (вампир) but its ultimate origins and meaning are complex. Here, in fragments from a quite old – if not truly ancient –  publication are some thoughts on the enduring legend of the thirsty undead…

 

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In fact the figure of the bloodsucking or life-draining revenant is recurrent and attested in almost all prehistoric and most early modern cultures. There are examples from China (so-called ‘hungry ghosts’), Malaysia, the Americas, and, most interestingly from a linguistic point-of-view, the Kipchaks and Karachays of Caucasia and their relatives, the Tatars, and other Turkic-speaking peoples of Anatolia. Their languages give us yet another possible ancestor for the many names, culminating in today’s ‘vampire’, listed above. In modern Turkish obur denotes a glutton or greedy person, but in older folklore the Obur (Tatar Ubyr) was a bloodsucking night-demon that could shapeshift into a cat or dog or a beautiful woman. Here, then, is another possible – and rather plausible – antecedent for later slavonic upirs or vampirs.

 

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Vampire-like creatures were described, too, in classical writings, as Sententiae Antiquae relates here:

Ancient Greek Vampires 1: Empousa

 

The ‘old book’ extracts above are from my own 1999 title, Children of the Night:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Children-Night-HB-Vampires-Vampirism/dp/0575402725

AUTUMN FALLS TODAY

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
Bound up at length for harvesting,

 

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Today, the 23rd day of September (beginning, strictly speaking, at 2.54 am), is for us the Autumn or Autumnal Equinox. For our ancestors, speaking Old English, or ‘Anglo-Saxon,’ the time of emniht or efenniht ‘even-night’, occurs while Hāligmonath, the ‘holy month’ of September, so called because thanksgiving ceremonies for the grain harvest were held, is giving way way to Winterfylleth, the ‘winter full-moon’. In dark-age chronology the new month and the new season began with the first full moon of October. Around this time daylight and darkness are of roughly the same duration (Latin aequi, equal; nox, night), though only exactly at ‘Equilux’ (lux is light in Latin) which falls this year on September 28.

 

 

The christian church ignores the equinox, although Michaelmas, held on September 29th, may have been intended to wean pagans from their late-Summer and early-Autumn fertility rites. Modern Wiccans and new age pagans celebrate the feast of Mabon, or Second Harvest, at the Autumn equinox. Some prefer the Irish Gaelic name for this month, Mea’n Fo’mhair, which translates literally as ‘middle harvest’. Festivities may last for a week and involve the venerating and eating of fruits such as apples, blackberries, and nuts. Though derived from supposedly ancient Celtic myth, the acorn and chestnut-strewn altars, the overflowing horns-of-plenty and the russet-coloured robes on display are almost certainly modern inventions, never associated for sure with any historical or supernatural ‘Mabon.’

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There was indeed a god of youth in the Celtic pantheon whose name Maponos derived from mapos, a Gaulish word for son or boy, the root mab also denoting son in Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Both come from Proto-Indo European makʷos, son, (which gives us the Mac and Mc used in Scottish and Irish surnames). The figure of Maponos was worshipped by Gallo-Romans on the continent and in Britain who identified him with the Roman god Apollo. Under the name of Mabon the same mythical youth appears in the Welsh Mabinogion legends and the Arthurian romances, but it is not known when in the year Maponos or Mabon were worshipped (there are two inscriptions on record from the end of August) or what rituals were involved.

Autumn, as is well attested, comes to us via Middle English autumpne, from Old French autompne, itself from Latin autumnus which is said to be adapted from a lost Etruscan or Venetic root autu-, but could equally be formed from Italic au(ct)- meaning dry (the notion of drying leaves and grass, in John Clare’s words; The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread…the greensward all wracked...) or Latin auctus, increase (the opposing notion of late fruition and abundance, Blake’s laden with fruit, and stainèd
With the blood of the grape). As a seasonal name Autumn, first heard in England from the 12th century, was only rarely used here before the 16th century, ‘Harvest’ being the term preferred. ‘Fall’, probably a contraction of ‘fall-of-the-leaf’ was an alternative also used in former times in Britain and it was exported to America with settlers in the 17th century.

 

 

Above is Keats’ famous ode, with its first, endlessly quoted, line. But let a later author, Emily Dickinson, have the last word…

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze

 

OF THE EASTER EGG: ANECDOTES AND ETYMOLOGIES

Once a ‘heathen’ token of fertility and (re)birth (or so we are told – speculations by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century or Jacob Grimm in the 19th, now taken as gospel, may indeed be no more than speculation) appropriated by Christianity as a symbol of resurrection, nothing could be more familiar than an egg at Easter-time. More obscure are the early history of egg-giving and the very ancient origins of the word itself… 

 

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 Long ago it was a custom in northern England and Scotland to give decorated hardboiled eggs as presents for Easter, just as folk still do in Catholic and Orthodox Europe and elsewhere. These little gifts, typically hand-painted in vivid colours, were known variously as ‘paste-eggs’, ‘pace-eggs’ or ‘past-eggs’, the first component being a corruption of Latin paschalis, relating to Passover or Easter, rendered in earlier Englishes by the  adjectives ‘paschal’ or ‘pasch’. The terms might alternatively have been borrowed from just across the channel, perhaps from Dutch paasche eyren or Frisian peaske aaien. Dyeing or painting eggs, however, is a custom that predates ‘western’ or Christian practice. Very ancient traditions from many parts of the world involve the communal decoration of eggs at different times of the year, in Persia for example at the Nowruz (‘new day’) festival, marking the spring equinox and celebrated for the last two thousand years.

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Old Easter traditions, some true, some perhaps true and many almost certainly embellished (pun intended), were described by John Brand in his Popular Antiquity of 1841:

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=WJM9AAAAcAAJ&pg=PA97&lpg=PA97&dq=brands+popular+antiquity+easter+eggs&source=bl&ots=ya4uX85_0D&sig=MSw3N9LT_uN5LoSNPcf8-8U4MzQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjhnqigmYraAhVJ6xQKHedmACkQ6AEIRjAH#v=onepage&q=brands%20popular%20antiquity%20easter%20eggs&f=false

The first reference specifically to ‘Easter eggs’ is by John Knox in his 1572 History of the Reformation in Scotland. This tells of ‘gifts’ bestowed in a very different sense, when in Edinburgh a Catholic priest was captured and tormented: ‘Himself fast tyed to the said Crosse, where he tarried the space of one hour; During which time, the boyes served him [i.e pelted him] with his Easter egges.’

We can perfectly understand the word Knox uses, but students of the history of the English language will be familiar with another anecdote, recounted by the printer William Caxton in his Eneydos (a translation of Virgil’s Aeneids) of 1490. He described a group of northern English merchants en route to Holland whose ship was becalmed on the Thames.  One of them went ashore to buy a meal from a local woman: ‘And specially he aksyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she understood hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue ‘eyren’. Then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym well.’

 

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Northern English dialect had adopted the word egges from Old Norse, while southern and eastern dialects used Old English eyren. Both are descendants of the Proto-Germanic *ajją which itself comes from Proto-IndoEuropean*h₂ōwyóm. This may be formed from a root-word for bird,*awi-, so settling once and for all the question of which came first. It is of course also the ancestor of Latin ovum and its derivations in Italian (uovo), Spanish (huevo) and French (oeuf) as well as in Greek ōión, Old Church Slavonic aja, Russian jajco, Breton ui and Welsh wy. Our modern egg is cognate with modern Icelandic and Norwegian egg, Swedish ägg and Danish æg. Modern German ei is closer to the Old English version.

Amusingly, there have been folk etymologies (that is, fake etymologies) for egg put forward by mischievous or deluded ‘experts’ in the past. One silly claim is that our word is related to ‘ego’ – and that this is somehow a theory endorsed by Sigmund Freud. The dramatist John Lyly in his Galatea comedy of 1588 plays with the notion that eggs are enticingly golden in colour and are ‘tried in the fire’ just like gold, for which they could be a symbol or synonym. Like gold, too, they are incentives ‘to frolic’ as they ‘are a thing that doth egg on’.

That jaunty phrase to ‘egg someone on’ (first attested in1566) in the sense of urging someone to do something, especially something risky or offensive, in fact has a different history, deriving from the Middle English verb eggen, from Old Norse eggja (to incite). The base is again a noun, egg, but this time meaning the edge, of, for example a blade or a cliff, from Proto-Germanic *agjō, from Proto-IndoEuropean *h₂eḱ- (sharp, pointed), so the goading or provoking here involves pushing someone nearer or over a boundary (though some think it’s pushing with the figurative or literal edge of a sword). Lexicographers all insist that the expression ‘over-egg the pudding’ comes from this sense, supposedly referring to excessive mixing or beating, rather than – more logically – from the idea of adding too many eggs to the mixture and ruining its texture.

 

 

In the 18th and 19th centuries darning eggs (made of stone or wood and used to fill out a garment being mended) and egg-shaped trinket or needle boxes for adults became popular; the egg-shaped toy containers which were given to children at Easter were usually made of tin, sometimes of cardboard covered with velvet and satin, and filled with miniature gifts or sweets. The first chocolate Easter eggs were created in France and Germany in the early 19th century and were solid, as the technology required for hollow shells was not yet in place. The first (dark) chocolate egg produced in the UK was sold by J.S Fry of Bristol in 1873: John Cadbury followed in 1875 and by 1905 was mass-producing hollow milk chocolate eggs, often filled with sugared almonds. In a reversal in 2017 The Solid Chocolate Company boasted – erroneously – that they had produced the world’s very first solid (Belgian) chocolate egg, weighing 750gm and retailing at £24.99.

 

Image result for Fry's chocolate  eggs

 

For more European translations of ‘egg’ and their etymologies:

https://www.reddit.com/r/etymologymaps/comments/5umohl/etymology_map_for_the_word_egg_in_european/

 

 

 

 

IN ONE BASKET – OF THE EGG, AT EASTER

 

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I have been, all too predictably, seasonally, thinking about the egg, its role in the imminent Easter festivities which will be the subject of the next post, but also reexamining the little word itself, so commonplace, so rarely considered.

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I’ll look at its etymology in the next post, too, but not surprisingly the egg has featured in English slang, at least since the first recorded attestations in the 16th century, but its various slang senses, until very recently, have been disappointingly obvious and unengaging.

The main senses and sub-senses of slang egg can be listed as follows, roughly in order of chronological record, and also in rough order of frequency of use (examples of these usages are listed by my fellow slang specialist and sometime collaborator, Jonathon Green, in his monumental Green’s Dictionary of Slang)

1.

  • From its physical resemblance, (ovoid, containing viscous fluid, a seed of life): Testicle 
  • From its resemblance, (ovoid, hard surface, hollow, precious content): Head
  • From resemblance, (hollow container): Bomb
  • From resemblance, (hollow container or roughly oval pellet): Capsule, Tablet (of an illicit substance)

2.

  • By extension, from the notion of a unit, organism (heard in the obsolescent expressions in ‘posh’ British English ‘a good egg/bad egg’): Person
  • Specified, perhaps with reference to simple form (in New Zealand slang this is a common insult, though some claim it is inspired by d. below): Fool
  • Further specified, perhaps with added reference to fragility: Dupe
  • Clipped form of the colloquial expression denoting an individual with overdeveloped brain-function/intellectual prowess: Egghead

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So far, so unexciting. More recently, though, the same word has been adopted for new purposes, encoding fresh and interesting ideas. These, in no particular order, are:

  1. A transgender person who hasn’t yet embraced or revealed their identity. The usage plays on the notion of ‘a chick or a cock on the inside’. In August 2017 ‘happycookie’ posted the following on the Urban Dictionary website:

     ‘…If they’re unsure whether they want to transition they’re a scrambled egg. If they                    supposedly really dislike transgender people but still constantly talk about them                    they’re a hard-boiled egg’

          The term can also apply to someone who has newly acknowledged their identity,                or recently transgendered, by analogy with ‘newly hatched’.

 

  1. A white person who wishes to be or pretends to be ‘Asian’ (in the American sense of Japanese, Chinese, etc., formerly denoted by ‘oriental’). Urban Dictionary has a first and only mention from 2003, explaining that such a person is ‘white on the outside, yellow on the inside’. But there’s more here:

 

  1. An anonymous online troll, typically using the Twitter social network. In April 2017 Twitter stopped using the egg-shaped blank as its default avatar and substituted a gender-neutral silhouette, saying that it wished to ‘prompt more self-expression’ but more probably as the word egg had come to signify a malicious, anonymous user, typically male, who harassed other accounts, typically not anonymous and female. Twitter egg had also been used since 2010 as an insult directed at users who retained the egg default because they were too inept to create their own profile picture.

 

  1. In texting abbreviation and acronyms capitalised EGG has been used for ‘Enlightened Grammar Geek’, ‘Exceedingly Great Grooves’, and by gamers for ‘Elemental Gimmick Gear’

 

  1. An Easter egg in the jargon of computing, videogaming and video production is an intentional inside joke, hidden message or image, or a secret feature, planted inside a computer program, video game, menu screen or electronic device, for instance, or only accessible by secret commands. The usage derives from having to search for hidden prizes on a traditional Easter egg hunt.

 

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  1. To egg (someone) as a verb is not really slang, but an informal term, originating in British usage, for flinging eggs at a victim, typically as a way of expressing contempt for a public figure. (I’ll deal with the phrase ‘to egg (someone) on’ in the next post.)

 

  1. The adjective eggy, sometimes eggsy, meaning nervous, agitated or moody, or peculiar, irritating or hostile, heard in US and British slang since the 1980s, is of uncertain origin. It may not be related to eggs, but be an adaptation of the colloquial ‘edgy’ or (putting someone) ‘on edge’.

 

  1. As adjective eggy can mean also excellent, of which it may be a playful distortion, in UK playground slang, since the 1990s.

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  1. In multiethnic British street slang eggs-up can mean intrusive, too curious or nosy. It probably comes from Jamaican ‘patois’ where it can also describe showing off or taking advantage of another person. The connection with actual eggs, if there is one, is unclear.

 

  1. While on the same subject, Jamaican English often pronounces the word as ‘hegg’, while in Irish slang a yoke is an unnamed object. There must be other senses of the e-word in popular conversation and online use, as yet unrecorded. If you know of any, please do send them to me (and you will be thanked and credited in any future writings).

 

 

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YULETIDE EMBLEMS

Christmas is almost upon us, with its more-than-familiar seasonal decorations and traditions. Here are some brief etymologies…

 

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Mistletoe (Viscum album: Latin for ‘sticky white’) is from Old English mistel (mistletoe, birdlime – in modern German Mist means dung or ‘crap) and Old English tan (twig): the ‘toe’ component came about in the Middle English period, probably as a result of scholars misreading the –an of tan as a plural ending.

Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder reported that the Druid shamans encountered in 1st century AD Britain revered the parasitic plant. They used it in sacrificial rituals and ‘believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons’. Later Norse mythology describes the beloved god Baldur being killed by a shaft of mistletoe, the only living thing that had, because of its innocent insignificance, not been sworn to protect him.

The bird known in English as the mistle thrush doesn’t kiss under but snacks upon mistletoe berries. Its Latin name is turdus (thrush) viscivorus from the noun viscum (mistletoe) and the verb devorare (to devour).

 

 

Holly is from Middle English ‘holi’, from Old English hole(g)n, itself from Proto-Germanic *hulin from a posited Proto-IndoEuropean root *kel- meaning prick or cut. We can compare modern Cornish kelynn, Welsh celyn. Holly was once thought to be immune to lightning strikes and legend held that its berries had been white until the blood of Christ dyed them. The plant’s vigour in winter, when most other vegetation had withered or died, led pagans and Christians alike to take it as a sacred token, blending notions of immortality with the suffering symbolised by its prickly leaves. As late as the 1950s there were many different local versions of its name…

 

 

Holly’s fellow evergreen, Ivy, is from Middle English ‘ivi’, Old English īfiġ, from Proto-Germanic *ibahs, originating in Proto-IndoEuropean *(h₁)ebʰ-, a word used for several different plants with pointed leaves. Ivy was in mediaeval times believed to be female, and then and later was also thought to ward off the effects of alcohol (tavern drinks were sometimes served in cups made of its wood) and to protect against evil when used as a wreath or garland.

One of the best-known Christmas carols, first published in 1710 but certainly older, memorably unites the two plants…

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly bears a bark
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 

The holly and the ivy
Now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir 
 

Image result for images of christmas ivy

 

Carol was adopted from the Old French carole, from Old Italian carola, Latin choraula, a borrowing of Greek χοραυλής (khoraulḗs),  the word designating a flute player accompanying a chorus, from χορός (khorós), choir, dance. In French the verb caroler was used in the 14th century of dancing in a circle, while the English noun had come to mean a Christmas ‘hymn of joy’ by 1500.

STILL BEWITCHED

In my last post I looked at the names of a range of Hallowe’en creatures and investigated their origins. Let’s now consider, too, the practitioners of magic – whether supernatural or real –  impersonated in today’s festivities.

 

Image result for halloween vintage postcards

 

The most familiar of these, the witch, derives its modern name, in use since the 16th century,  from the Old English wicce (the feminine form) or wicca (the masculine), first attested as long ago as 890 CE, or perhaps was coined later from the verb to bewitch, descending from Old English wiccian. Many commentators have proposed a prehistoric origin for the English terms, but have not managed to agree on what that origin might be. Middle Low German, the nearest neighbouring language to ours, had wicken and wicheln for bewitch, but there are no other contemporary cognates (provably related words) recorded elsewhere in mediaeval Europe.

 

Image result for manuscript witch

 

Attempts have been made to connect the Germanic witch-words with Indo-European roots denoting contorting (as when shamans are performing incantations), waking (the dead for instance) or casting lots (to determine destiny), but these are unconvincing. There is an unproven but more plausible link with Slav words derived from the Old Slavonic verbs meaning ‘to know’ which use the root ved- or wied-. Female witches were, in English too, described as ‘wise’ women, as in the equivalent Slovenian vedomec, or Polish wiedźma. The modern German name for witch, hexe, is probably, but again not provably, related to English hag, (Old English haegtesse) an ancient word which persisted in use among the superstitious in the United States, who also adopted ‘hex’ in the 19th century from Pennsylvanian German as a synonym for curse.

(Our relatively innocent domestic companion, the cat, could also double as a witch’s evil familiar, and nowadays as a Hallowe’en character in its own right. Its name, catte in Old English, is obviously related to Dutch kat and German Katze and more distantly to the earlier Latin cattus and Greek catta. Intriguingly, though, the word’s origin might not be Indo-European at all but Afro-Asiatic; in the Nubian language it is kadis, for Berbers kaddîska, and in Arabic qitt.)

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The witch’s male counterpart, the wizard, certainly does derive his name from wisdom or knowing. Wisard, from Old English wys, wise and the suffix (originally French) -ard meaning person, first described a sage or a philosopher before mutating in the 16th century into the practitioner of magic we nowadays caricature in pointed hat and robe. The synonyms sorcerer or sorceress come from French sorcier, enchanter or magician, itself from Latin sors meaning fate, oracular pronouncement, from an Indo-European root denoting binding and sorting.

 

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I’m personally highly resistant to clowns in any form, but particularly the grotesque killer clowns that have been running amok in popular literature, cinema and even public places for the last couple of years. Forgive me, then, if I limit myself to etymology. The noun clowne (cloyne was a variant that has since disappeared) appeared in English in the 1560s, the verb form in 1600. The word originally signified a rustic, a clumsy peasant or simpleton. It is not clear exactly where it came from – some eminent authorities have tried to link it to the Latin colonnus, a farmer or settler, but it seems to others – and to me – that it’s no coincidence that similar-sounding words existed in Scandinavian and Low German usage, all related to our own ‘clod’ and ‘clump’ and evoking something lumpy, dense and crude. English dialects and the English of the tavern often adopted colloquialisms from other parts of Northwest Europe in the Early Modern period. Clown was first used to describe a costumed and painted circus performer in the 1720s and other languages including Welsh, French, Swedish and Slovenian subsequently borrowed the English word in this sense.

 

...for last year’s festival, Marketing Week gave us a snapshot of the commercial implications:

https://www.marketingweek.com/2017/10/27/why-halloween-is-now-crucial-to-some-uk-brands/?cmpid=em~newsletter~weekly_news~n~n&utm_medium=em&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=weekly_news&eid=4232955&sid=MW0001&adg=E5AE84A1-4595-4F7C-B654-36202215BA19