Tag 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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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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Names – again!

I’m still reading What the Dickens! – the collection of words and sayings and where they come from I mentioned in my last blog. Here is a bit about the names of some items of clothing or footwear we take for granted.

The cardigan is seen by others countries as a quintessentially British garment – warm, serviceable, and towards the frumpy end of fashion. It was indeed an English invention, but its origins are quite heroic. The seventh Earl of Cardigan (the one who lead the infamous charge of the light brigade in the Crimean War), was in fact a more benevolent leader than history generally records. He was concerned about the suffering of the soldiers in the extreme cold of a Russian winter and commissioned these knitted garments for them to wear under their uniforms.

The Mackintosh – another unglamorous but essential garment in Britain – is now the term for any coat that keeps out the rain. But the original mackintosh, or mac, was made from a specific material (two layers of cloth bound by India rubber) invented by a chemist, Charles Mackintosh.

Wellingtons are boots named after the first Duke of Wellington, the famous general from the Napoleonic wars, and polititian. Originally the boots were made of leather for military use, but subsequently were made of rubber (or even, these days, plastic). There is no evidence that the duke actually invented this form of boot, but he was such a national hero that many items of clothing were named after him including a hat, a coat, and trousers. It is the boot however that is most universally associated with him.

Before trainers became ubiquitous, people took to the running track or the gym in plimsolls. Not many people know that these are named after a Victorian politician, Samuel Plimsoll, who campaigned for greater safety on cargo ships. Following the passing of the Merchant Shipping Act in 1876, the Plimsoll line was drawn on the side of ships and had to be seen above the waterline to demonstrate that the ship was not overloaded. Later, when a rubber soled shoe was designed to improve safety on wet decks, it was named in honour of him. Subsequently the shoe proved a hit with sportsmen and women.

It is interesting to speculate on the names of these items and how, if these men had switched jobs, we could have been buttoning ourselves into a plimsoll to protect us from the cold, and running round the park in a pair of cardigans.

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A Word about Holly

There is a small holly tree in my garden that has never had berries. Thanks to an article I read recently I now know why. You can have male or female holly trees and only the female has the berries. My rather weedy specimen is obviously a male and its value as an adornment for Christmas wreaths and flower arrangements is thus sadly reduced.

Holly, like ivy, has a particular relationship with Christmas. In some regions it is also known as prickly Christmas, or the Christmas thorn. But it is also associated with other parts of the Christian calendar albeit the seasons are a bit out of kilter: The white flowers in spring represent the purity of the winter virgin birth we are soon to celebrate, whereas the red berries in winter represent Christ’s blood, and the prickly leaves the crown of thorns, from Easter. The bark represents the bitterness of Christ’s suffering.

The Old English word for holly is holegn, which is the origin of holm, as in holm oak – an evergreen oak tree with prickly leaves like the holly. This is not to be confused with the word holm you find in village names such as Holmbury, or Holmdale, or islands such as Gateholm. This holm indicates settlements that have developed on an island or on a stretch of low flat land near a river (from the Old Norse holmr, island, and the Old English holm, sea). Of course there could well have been holly trees there too – even before the birth of Christ – for which the human and other inhabitants would be grateful. Unappetising though it may sound, the leaves are useful cattle fodder in winter, deer browse on them too, and blue tits love the small grub (holly leaf minor) that the tree often hosts.

Just a few things to think about when you prick your finger as you rush to complete those natural’table decorations you decided on this year.

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Is this post a nothingburger?

Last month, the Oxford English Dictionary went through one of its regular updates – this OEDtime adding 350 new words to the English language. Words, that is, that have established themselves in the spoken language for long enough to be used widely, if infrequently, (or regularly among specific groups) but have not featured in the dictionary before.

Many of these words reflect changes in three spheres: music, films, and politics.

First, a new word in musical circles. Fam, which originally appeared in the English language in the sixteenth century as an abbreviation for family. Fam then fell into disuse other than as a colloquialism, had a brief resurgence in the 1990s as a slang term in American hip-hop, and has more recently been adopted in Britain, especially London, by rap and grime artists such as Stormzy and Lethal Bizzle.

New words from the film world include the comparing of a film’s style or acting to an iconic film -maker: Spielbergian, Bergmanesque etc. If a film is described as Tarantinoesque, for example, the critic would be referring to a director’s use of stylised and graphic violence (or maybe the film’s meandering plot).

Nothingburger was first used by a gossip columnist in Hollywood in the 1953, and came back into greater circulation more recently. It is used in politics, or more specifically political commentary, as a term of dismissal – something (or someone?) that seemed sound at first, but turned out to be insubstantial.

Also on the political front the dictionary includes alt-right (short for alternative right, meaning a hard right-wing political view) and idiocracy – a society of idiots; or maybe the actual government that is in power in that society. I’m not making a political point here about the current state of British or American politics. Just drawing your attention to words that have made it into the latest edition of the dictionary because they are now in (relatively) common usage.

But, who knows, they may all turn out to be nothingburgers.

Want to learn an interesting new word every day?

Follow the OED on Twitter: @OED 

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Names As Food For Thought?

What’s in a name? As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” However, the growing number of vegetarians and vegans has given some pubShoulder of lamb and restaurant proprietors a little concern about what to call their establishments. The owners of the Shoulder of Mutton pub in York, for example, felt that name might be deterring non-meat-eaters, so have changed it to Heworth Inn. (I haven’t asked if trade has subsequently picked up or not).

Using that logic Devil’s Beef Tub in Moffat, Scotland (named in reference to the cattle thieves who used to hide their stolen animals in the adjacent hollow in the hills) may want to consider a name change.

Some meaty sounding place names are not what they seem. In the UK there are several villages or districts called Ham (West Ham, East Ham etc.) This has nothing to do with the meat, but derives from the Old English word hamme, meaning a small plot of land / pasture. (Presumably cities like Birmingham and Nottingham started out as hamlets and just kept growing).

Likewise Swineshead, in Lincolnshire, is nothing to do with pigs, but comes from a mix of Svien (Norse) and swin (Old English) meaning tidal creek, and heda, the Old English for dock.

Other names sound wholesomely meat-free – like Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. But this has nothing to do with cheese, as the word cheddar comes from ceador, the Old English word for cavities (Cheddar Gorge is famous for its caves).

leeksI’m not sure whether the town of Leek was named after the vegetable, but it definitely sounds vegan friendly, if nothing else. Unlike Slaughterford in Gloucestershire, which is not, as the name suggests, a location for killing animals (human or otherwise). But it could be rather damp  – the name derives from slough, Old English for wet land.

 

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