Category Archives: Etymology

What is an ‘Easy Rider’?

Peter Fonda died last week so, not unnaturally, most newspapers carried articles about him and his most iconic film Easy Rider. Both he and his co-star explained that they chose the title because ‘an easy rider is a person that is not a pimp, but lives off a woman,’ (Hopper). Fonda went further, saying it was a comment on the state of America at the end of the 1960s. The film was hugely popular, but not with the Hollywood moguls, and Fonda struggled to find films and roles that would bring him equal fame. But were they right about the meaning of easy rider?

Originally the term meant an expert horse rider, or horse that was easy to ride. (Transfer this to a motorbike and the film title seems apt for Fonda, a skilled motorcyclist, if not for Hopper). By the 1900s the term had become slang for a free-loader (again could be relevant to the film), or a woman with a liberal, not to say generous, approach to sex. A decade or so later, during the Depression, the term was applied to the slow moving freight trains that criss-crossed America. These were magnets for hobos and bums (slang terms from the era) who lived and travelled on these trains. One such train company was the Colorado Central, abbreviated to CC. The hobos were sometimes referred to as CC riders. It wasn’t a big step, the story goes, to start referring to them as easy riders, especially as the term had already acquired some pretty down-market connotations. (The film also deals with a lengthy trip across America, albeit by road, not train.)

Easy rider developed a slightly different meaning during the Second World War, when some American soldiers serving abroad unofficially employed local youths to do mundane tasks for them, such as cleaning their boots. They were said to be getting an easy ride. Later, some of these ‘easy riders’ started employing local women for domestic help, which often extended to sexual services.

Getting nearer to the production of the film and the term went mildly up market with the arrival of hippies and free love in the 1960s. Many of the more liberated young women intended to enjoy this era of free love and equality, but ended up with all the domestic chores and child care responsibilities – giving their hippie lovers an easy ride. However it seems the term easy rider was coined as the term for the women who put up with this state of affairs, not the men who took advantage of it. It wasn’t long before it went down-market again to become a term for a gullible prostitute who provided sexual services for a pittance – maybe a few cigarettes or a small amount of drugs. More recently the term has evolved again, according to Merriam-Webster, and is used to describe a hanger-on or a pimp.

After the success of the film, easy rider also became intrinsically associated with motor bikes, in particular, the Harley-Davidson. Ironic really, as the one thing Peter Honda’s bike in the film was noted for was being difficult to ride. So difficult that Hopper never managed to make riding such a model look easy, and ended up doing the film on a bike with more modestly raked handlebars.

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Pet names and Hypocorisms

You might not have heard the term hypocorism before, but I suspect you’ve committed a few when writing. And quite a few more when speaking. The word is Greek in origin, but the practice goes back thousands of years and can be found in all the Indo – European languages.

The hypocoristic principle is basically to take a single syllable word, double the consonants and add an open vowel. You can see this at work in family and pet names:

Grandmother – Gran – Granny

Mother – Mum/Mom – Mummy /Mommy

Father – Dad – Daddy.

Sarah – Sal – Sally

Thomas – Tom – Tommy

Ann – Nan – Nanny.

This last one is interesting as in the nineteenth century Ann was used as a pet name for a female goat, now known as a nanny goat. But the origins of nanny go back much further and has links beyond the English speaking countries. Nonna is aunt in ancient Greek and nanni is Indian for grandmother. And now we have nanny as an alternative to granny, as well as for a child minder (a granny substitute?)

We also use hypocorisms as euphemisms without thinking, especially if we do not want to seem crude (or rude), or when talking to infants:

Bottom – bot – botty

Stomach – tum – tummy.

If you are feeling coy you may prefer to talk about your ‘doodda’ (use your imagination) and people will usually know what you mean from the context. Whether they appreciate your hypocoristic skills in using such a term is another matter!

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The French are in the mood for love!

Every so often, the French throw a wobbly about the number of English words creeping into their language. I remember as a school girl being told about the dangers of Franglais and that, while the French might say le weekend, we should talk about the fin de la semaine in our oral exam, if the conversation turned on what we might be doing at the weekend. Then there was the joke (or perhaps it wasn’t) that the French, having cottoned onto the English liking for tea and cake at 5pm, and themselves enjoying a mid-afternoon snack before the more substantial main meal in the evening, had brought the whole thing forward an hour, so that A quatre heures, nous five o’clockerons. (At four o’clock, we have a light snack). More recently, my French friend pointed out that the graffiti in English on the walls near her house had not been daubed by drunken visitors from my side of the Channel, but by local youths.

Such linguistic antics have regularly upset the Académie Française (well, maybe not the graffiti). The academy was set up in the seventeenth century to maintain the purity of the French language. It has been fighting a losing battle ever since. Samuel Johnson, when asked to support the creation of an equivalent academy in England, wisely cautioned against it on the grounds that ‘the edicts of an English Academy would probably be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them.’

Language evolves; the English Johnson spoke was already a mixture of the tongues spoken by the peoples who had invaded us up to the eleventh century (including the French from Normandy). It has carried on evolving, with many Americanisms so well entrenched we don’t always know we’re using them (diarise), relics of our colonial past (pyjamas), and words from more recent waves of immigration, especially relating to food (chicken tikka masala is now reported to be more popular than fish and chips).

By and large, the British treat such additions to their language with sangfroid, and see the French Government’s proposal to strengthen their 25 year old law requiring advertisers etc. to use French, or at least provide a translation in large letters, as a bit of déjà-vu all over again. What has upset the French ministers this time, is the preference for English slogans on social media. A florist using the hashtag #love, for example, instead of #l’amour. Or a supermarket urging customers to act for food. Or an advertisement for a fast food restaurant, rather than a restovite. English is also the go-to language for sport (penalty instead of tir de reparation), and acronyms: DIY, BFF

Not all French bureaucrats want to be seen as nationalistic in their efforts to preserve the purity of the country’s linguistic heritage.  As one professor of linguistics argues, unconvincingly, if they don’t impose the linguistic laws in France, the upshot will be “bad English, which casts a shadow over the great and beautiful English language.” Hmm!  

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Unmarried and on the shelf – or not?

I recently went to an open day at the local medieval weaver’s cottage that has been restored to close to its original design. It was a fascinating step back in time – the smallness of the house for a family, let alone the only upstairs space being put aside for the loom; and the damp and smokey living conditions, with the only source of heat a fire in the middle of the living room floor and no chimney. It’s no wonder, when you add the fragments of fibre escaping from the yarn as the weaver worked his loom, that most of the inhabitants suffered with chronic chest problems.

The guide was a mine of information about the the last man who had lived there as a weaver, Apparently he needed twelve local women – spinsters – to spin enough yarn for him to keep his loom going full time in order to sell enough cloth to keep his family (and pay the spinsters). The spinsters were not necessarily unmarried. In the fourteenth century, the term merely described a woman’s occupation. It was not until the seventeenth century that it came to mean a woman who was not married and, by inference, past the age for marriage – on the shelf, so to speak.

The guide pointed out a large shelf in the main room, about six feet up from the floor. It was here, she said, that the children of the family slept (the weaver and his wife had a tiny bedroom for themselves). This would also include the older daughters who had not found husbands. I have heard of the term ‘on the shelf’ for women who were past the age to find husbands, so this seemed like a convincing origin for the phrase.

However I thought I’d best check before passing it on as fact. Unfortunately no dictionary or Google search, or phrase book, that I have looked up gives this as the meaning. Whilst it is true that since the nineteenth century unmarried women over a certain age were often rather unkindly referred to as being on the shelf, as if they were unsold and unwanted shop goods, or long forgotten records in an office store-room, I could find no reference to a literal shelf where these unfortunate women would be left gathering dust.

I would love to be wrong about this. So if anyone out there has an an actual source that can confirm that some of our long forgotten maiden aunts used to sleep on shelves, do please get in touch.

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Plain – or Plane – Sailing?

Last month there was an article in The Times titled Turning a boat into artwork isn’t plain sailing. This prompted a curt letter to the editor from a retired merchant naval captain who said that the term was plane sailing not plain sailing. Plane sailing, he explained was ‘a simple method of sailing short distances, assuming the earth is flat.’

He’s right that this is the correct definition of plane sailing – I looked it up. But what, therefore, does plain sailing mean? I turned back a page in the dictionary and discovered that the most commonly understood meaning of plain sailing these days is ‘smooth or easy progress.’ It also means ‘sailing in a body of water that is unobstructed.’

The Times is a daily newspaper, not a nautical magazine, so I think their heading, conveying a lack of smooth progress, is perfectly acceptable. But to avoid getting into choppy waters and risking a fleet of irate sailors tacking towards my front door, cutlasses at the ready, I may play safe, choose to avoid any nautical reference, and just say that ‘turning a boat into an artwork isn’t easy.’

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The Queen’s (or her heir’s) English?

The Prince of Wales was in the news last week. As he is often written about, that fact is not, in itself, newsworthy – at least not for a blog about writing and writers. What drew literary minded people’s interest was his letter to President Macron after the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in which he used a number of Americanised spellings, namely –ize instead of –ise. The prince’s fuddy-duddy reputation as a traditionalist was under threat – had he fallen under the influence of his new American daughter-in-law? Was he trying too hard to be ‘down with the kidz? Was ‘Western civilization’ (as he wrote) under threat from his expressions of sympathy for the French in this ‘most agonizing of times’? As one British woman living in France tweeted, ‘Lovely sentiments, but not impressed by the Americanisation of spelling here. Are we British or what?’

Well she, monarchists at home and abroad, and pedants everywhere can relax. The prince was being both British and traditionalist. He has been a longstanding user of –ize rather than –ise, and has the full support of established lexicographers. An article on the website of the Oxford Dictionary points out that while it is now believed that –ize is only correct in American English, it has been in use in Standard English since the fifteenth century, when there was no such thing as American English. The prince’s writing style, in fact, is traditional with knobs on.

Some publishing houses in the UK still use –ize as their preferred house style (the Oxford University Press, for example, who prefer it because of its origins in ancient Greek.) So, we Brits can choose which way to spell words like realise or organize. But it is best to be consistent and, of course, adhere to the recommended house style if you are lucky enough to get a publisher.

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Viking Talk

The Vikings were an energetic and ruthless bunch of pagans, who travelled from Norway (Norge) in the late eighth to late eleventh centuries to raid the North of England, amongst other places, and indulge in a spot of rape and pillage, before sailing back home with their loot, or deciding to settle in the balmier English climate.

There have been attempts during the last few decades to portray the Vikings as misunderstood, peaceable, immigrants, who liked nothing better than sharing their art and poetry and settling down with a local girl. But in reality they had a well-deserved reputation for savagery, and were more than just the ‘long-haired tourists who occasionally roughed up the locals,’ as one academic described dismissively the arguments of the pro-peace lobby.

That said, transcriptions of Viking poetry show a complex array of stylistic conventions, and many words used regularly these days are Viking (Norse) in origin. That includes the word viking – Norse for pirate / sea traveller; and the name of the settlement that became their main town – York, which the Vikings originally called Jorvik (pronounced Your-Vick). Other places whose names end in –thorpe (e.g. Mapplethorpe), or –by (Derby), were originally Viking settlements, and at least two days of the week are named after Norse gods (Thor’s day and Tiw’s day). We talk about Yule-tide as synonymous with Christmas, but it is a Norse word, referring to a pagan feast, Jol, celebrated around the winter solstice.

Given their savage reputation, it is not surprising that some of the words that have endured have a rough or violent meaning: slaughter, from slatra – butchery; and ransack – to search a house, none too gently.

Other words are of a more domestic nature, such as husband (hus (house) and bandi (occupier), and wife (vif – veiled one. This suggests the wife was very much the second citizen, though in fact the Viking wife had more independence than most of her European counterparts, including equal rights to divorce and a favourable financial settlement.)

Window comes from vindauga (wind-eye), loft / aloft from lopt (sky), and happy from happ (good fortune). And weighing scales come from skal, drinking bowl, also a drinking toast.

So the Vikings, whilst being a pretty destructive bunch, were not all bad? I’ll drink to that. Skal!

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