Category Archives: Etymology

Fancy that! (More words and meanings)

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 pony-1149420_960_720politician 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 enforcersAs 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, Lewis carrol

And argued each case with my wife;

And the muscular strength that it gave to my jaw.

Has lasted the rest of my life.”

 flunkeyBoth 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.

If you have enjoyed this post, you may like to read more of my published work. This is Cast Offavailable from my Amazon author pages.

 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

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Was P.G. Wodehouse a traitor?

PGWodehouseP.G. Wodehouse, creator of Bertie Wooster and the butler, Jeeves,  has been one of the most  popular writers of English comic fiction for decades. His books remain in print and are frequently adapted for television.

But during the Second World War he became deeply unpopular in Britain, owing to his alleged siding with the Nazis, and his work was banned from libraries and the BBC.  In 1940, he was living in Le Touquet, an enclave of Englishness on the French side of the channel complete with golf course and club. Being by all accounts extremely unworldly, Wodehouse appeared not to have noticed the outbreak of war, and the invasion of France. That is, until German troops arrived in Le Touquet and he was interned for a year (spending some of the time in an asylum for the mentally ill).

On his release he agreed to do a series of programmes on the Nazi radio station. Listening to these now, they sound like little more than dotty ramblings, and he utters no word of support for the German cause. But he did not denounce it either, so his broadcasts caused outrage in Britain.

Wodehouse himself says he agreed to do them to re-assure his fans that he was still alive, PGWodehouse.2and it is unlikely that he was a Nazi supporter (his story, Code of the Woosters, suggests he rather disapproved of Nazism). However his actions provoked an enquiry by MI5 after the war. This resulted in a decision that, whilst he could have done more to disassociate himself, he had not consciously assisted the enemy, so should not be prosecuted. The author subsequently went to live in America, where he continued to write. His reputation as a great comic writer was soon restored.

However, what is easily proved by reading his work (and is seen by some English language purists as a heinous treachery) is that he was prsonally responsible for a great number of American words and phrases entering common English usage this side of the pond:

Awol, bender, buckle down, hook line and sinker, on the blink, sitting pretty ... These words and phrases, and many more, first came to the attention of British readers via his books.

If you want to read more about American words used in Britain, a new book has been written by Matthew Engel, That’s the Way it Crumbles . If you want to read more of my work, please go to one of my Amazon Author pages: 

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The Amazon myth.

An Amazon, as we all know, was a member of a tribe of women from classical Greek times. They were famed and feared because of their ferocious fighting techniques. To enhance which, they would cut off their right breast so that they could use their bows and arrows to greater effect.

AmazonVery little is known about their origins. Even the earliest histories had them reputedly living on the eastern shores of the Black Sea (so not in Greece at all). And paintings and sculptures depicting these Amazonian ladies show them with two breasts that, according to the historian Lyn Webster Wilde, “are usually firm and prominent.”

So that’s two myths busted.

But the myth of chief interest in a blog on the meaning of words, is that concerning their name. According to the fifth century BCE historian, Herodotus, the name came from two Greek words: ‘A’ meaning ‘without’; and ‘mastos’ meaning ‘breast.’ A later historian, Philostratus, demurred. He thought it probably meant ‘not breast fed.’ Others have variously suggested the name comes from ‘Ha-mazan’ (fighting together), or ‘Am-azon’ (mother lord).

Disappointingly though, the author of Women in Classical Athens, Susan Blundell, who has spent some time researching the origins and location of the Amazon race, has found no evidence that they ever existed at all. As a consequence, the meaning of their name also remains a mystery.

Yet so famous have they been through the ages that the largest river in South America is named after them (some explorers apparently transferred the search for them to this part of the world, but had to settle for re-naming a river). And Adrienne Mayor, in The Amazons, believes there really is archaeological evidence that there were female fighters, in the area of Europe known as Scythia to the Greeks.

The Amazon story captures the imagination, so no prizes for guessing one reason why this was the name chosen for the biggest online retail business and bookshop in the world. Another reason, of course, was that the CEO didn’t just want a catchy title, but one that came early in the alphabet, so would be quick to find on the Internet.

So the name lives on, and plays a big part in many people’s shopping habits. Quite a feat for a race of single breasted female warriors that probably never existed.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog, and would like the read more of my work, please go to my Amazon (that word again!) book page: 

N.B. Festive Treats, an anthology in which my story – Mary’s Christmas – appears, is currently free to download.

 

 

The Art of Rhetoric

What am I like, writing a blog on rhetoric?

Don’t worry, that is a rhetorical question, as is your possible answer to the question (if you’d decided to provide one after all) ‘Who cares?’

Rhetoric had its origins in Mesopotamia, but is largely associated with ancient Greece where, alongside grammar and logic, it was regarded as one of the three ancient arts of discourse. Rhetor is the ancient Greek for a public speaker.

Cicero

Cicero

Rhetoric was part of a scholar’s education from the time of the ancient Greeks, through ancient Rome (Cicero being perhaps the most famous of the Roman practitioners) and into the twentieth century. One could argue that modern university courses in ‘communication studies’ are continuing the tradition.

 

Aristotle

Aristotle

Rhetoric – the fine art of constructing sound arguments – according to Aristotle, was largely  seen as a good subject to teach. However, even all those centuries ago, Plato could see that, in the wrong hands, it could be used to justify bad actions. He likened the specious rhetoric used by the Sophists to justify murdering Socrates, to cooking – which he saw as the means of masking unhealthy food by making it taste good.

 

Today, the word sounds old fashioned and pompous, and we often associate it with bombastic speakers and empty arguments (the image of a tub-thumping rabble-rouser springs to mind). But its first two meanings in my latest Collins dictionary are:

  • The study of the technique of using language effectively
  • The art of using speech to persuade, influence, or please …

Such aims are not a million miles away from what a writer tries to do, when sitting down to write a story that they want someone to read, be moved by, and sufficiently motivated to go out and buy their next book.

And in case you are still wondering what exactly a rhetorical question is, it is a question to which no answer is required. Who knew?

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, and would like to read more of my work, please go to my Amazon author page: 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

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Whose language is it anyway?

Last week, BBC Radio 4 had a short feature on American words that have come into common usage on this side of the pond. Although it is not quite that simple! It would flagsseem that many of us Brits are using American words without being aware we are doing it. Or believing a term is American when in fact it has a long and noble record of usage in England.

Here are some of the points made in the programme (program?) along with a few of my own

  1. Words we know are American, but like anyway: Movie, cool, cookie. A lot of words came to England in the last century via films (movies), popular music and books: concrete overcoats, taken for a ride, bump off.  Somehow the American terms seemed more glamorous, especially to teenagers, who found them ‘cool.’

2. Words we know are American and tend to dislike, often because they are verbs that started out as nouns: to diarise, to reach out, to impact. Many of these terms were associated with business, so rather ‘uncool,’ as well as being less acceptable to an older, more conservative age-group.

3. Words that are in such common usage, we never think of as being American: hangover, commuter, double-decker. (So, if you commute into work on a double-decker bus suffering from a hangover – can you fool yourself that you are living the American dream?)

4. Words we are sure, wrongly, are American: gotten, trash, wow. In fact the first two appear in Shakespeare plays, and ‘wow’ is sixteenth century Scottish. The words probably travelled to America with the Pilgrim Fathers, got forgotten in the UK, and then travelled back to the old country in the twentieth century.

5. Words that appear both sides of the Atlantic, but mean something different: baby (UK – girlfriend/ darling), pants (UK – underpants), pavement (UK – where the pedestrians go, not the cars).

6. Words that mean the same, but are spelt differently: color, honor, program. It is commonly understood that Webster (of dictionary fame) pioneered this form of spelling as he wanted to standardise written American, and thought he’d simplify it whilst he was at it. True, but a lot of such words started out in English minus the ‘u’ etc. centuries ago, and just got embellished over time.

imagesThe Oxford English Dictionary lists 26.000 Americanisms in English. These, along with all the words we’ve adopted from the Greeks and Romans, India and beyond, just add to the richness of the language (and the confusion of foreigners and natives alike).

If you have enjoyed this blog, and would like to read more of my work, go to one of my Amazon author pages. Watch out for my collection of short, Shakespeare themed, stories due out shortly.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00RVO1BHO

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Where has your ‘taxi’ come from?

The word, taxi, is commonly regarded as an abbreviation of taxicab. Various dictionaries will explain that the word derives from the Latin word, taxa, meaning charge, Taxi germanassessment or tax; and taxare, meaning to assess or to tax.  Fast forward to the nineteenth century, when a German entrepreneur named Friedrich Bruhn and associates invented a device, originally referred to as a ‘taxameter,’ that could be put into cabs to monitor various aspects of any journey undertaken, including tracking cost.

It wasn’t long before ‘taximeters’ were being fitted into cabs used commercially. Originally these were horse drawn cabs, but the device was proving popular, and the idea was transferred to the new-fangled motorised taxicabs. These soon became known as taxis. Which all sounds very rational, and a good illustration of how useful words get adopted, adapted, and abbreviated.

But Robert Winston, in his book about how some of our creative ideas for improving lifeTaxi Italian don’t always work out as planned (Bad Ideas?), puts forward another suggestion and gives the credit to Italy. According to him, there was a Lombard family called Tassis. In around 1450, Ruggiero de Tassis, devised a courier system between Bergamo and Verona. This proved very successful and, throughout the rest of the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth century, his descendants expanded the system across large chunks of Europe. It was, in Winston’s version, a small step from ‘tassis’ to ‘taxi.’ And taxis, as you know, whilst we usually associate them with taking people from A to B, are still sometimes used to ferry goods about

TaxiSo, when you hail a taxi in Thailand, England, America, France, Spain, Italy, Germany wherever …, climb in and watch the meter ticking over as you speed (or crawl) towards your destination, should you be mindful of the German inventiveness that is monitoring what you will owe at the end of your journey? Or the Italian development of a convenient means of transport, tailored to the individual customer’s needs?

 

If you have enjoyed this blog, and would like to read one of my novels or short stories, please go to my Amazon Author page:

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http://www.solsticepublishing.com

 

Time to slay your shibboleths?

Do you have any shibboleths it might be wise to get rid of?

A shibboleth is a long-standing belief or principle that all your friends and family would regard as wrong, out-dated, or no longer important. Like BBC news readers having to read any news bulletin after 8pm wearing a dinner jacket – on the radio! This practice has long gone, and even wearing a tie on TV has started to look a bit old fashioned.

Shibboleths abound in English grammar, although many are falling by the wayside. Who now worries about the split infinitive in ‘to boldly go…’? And who writes letters to the newspapers (or bloggers) if they spot a sentence starting with an ‘and’ or a ‘but’?

Shibboleth can also mean a phrase or use of language that distinguishes one group of people from another. In fact it first came into use in the English language to mean a word that a foreigner finds difficult to pronounce, such as ‘naphthalene’ (the stuff that goes into mothballs), or the French word for you, ‘tu,’ which flummoxes most non-native French speakers

cornLike many words in the English language it is foreign in origin, being Hebrew for an ear of corn. According to the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, when the Ephraimites were beaten in battle by the Gileadites, the Gileadites set up blockades by the river to stop their defeated enemies escaping. (Judges X11, 6)

Members of the two tribes looked similar and Israel tribethe only way to tell them apart was to get anyone crossing the river to say ‘shibboleth.’ Apparently no Ephraimite was able to make the ‘sh’ sound, so was promptly put to death.

To me, the link between the meaning for shibboleth in Hebrew, and its original meaning in English is obvious. But if anyone can tell me how it came to mean an out-dated belief, please get in touch!

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, and would like to read more of my work*, please try the links below:

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*April 23rd being Shakespeare’s birthday (and the anniversary of his death), you may like to try one of my Shakespeare themed short stories:  A Midsummer Day’s Dream, Journey to the Fair Mountain, Chains of Magic, The Ghost Queen. All published by http://www.solsticepublishing.com, and available on Amazon Books for about £1/ $1.