There are a several words or phrases that I know well, but have never known how they have come to mean what they now do. Last week, however, I picked up Forgotten English by Jeffrey Kacirk, in a second-hand book sale, and found some answers. Here are a few:
Take stalking horse. When I hear this term on the radio, I understand it to mean a politician who runs for senior office against the current post holder (often, in the UK, a back bench member of parliament running against the sitting prime minister). They have no realistic expectation of winning, but are setting the stage for a stronger candidate to come forward. Now I know that in the fifteenth century, a stalking horse was literally a horse that had been trained to approach birds or other wild game slowly, with the rider hiding under its belly. Once close enough, the rider would step out and shoot the intended prey. By the sixteenth century the term had come to mean a sneaky type of military manoeuvre, and by the seventeenth century it could mean an accomplice who, often unwittingly, assisted in underhand ventures. So it’s easy to see how its modern use has come about.
Petty-fogging now denotes unnecessary bureaucracy, usually imposed by lawyers or other rule enforcers. As far as I can see, petty-fogging has never had any positive connotations. A petty-fogger was a term first in use in the sixteenth century for a lawyer who, for a fee, would quibble over the smallest detail in order to win a case. Such a person is depicted by Lewis Carroll (the author of Alice in Wonderland):
“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength that it gave to my jaw.
Has lasted the rest of my life.”
Both flunkey and lackey are now used dismissively about one person’s subservience to another. But flunkey (from the French verb flanquer – to flank) started out in the eighteenth century as a neutral noun for a servant in livery who stood alongside his master to provide help as needed. Only in the mid-nineteenth century did it start to acquire its negative connotations, such as slavishly obeying orders, or ‘flunking’ (dropping out of) a difficult task / test.
The older term, lackey (also from old French – laquay), described a servant with similar role to the flunkey. It was not a derogatory term – it was, for example, used by Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew, to describe, without malice, a man-servant. But lackey too has degenerated into a term of derision.
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My latest collection of 13 short stories, CAST OFF – based around female characters from plays by Shakespeare was released by Solstice Publishing on the 14th July.
Cast Off: myBook.to/CastOff