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      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 50

August 16, 1999
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
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Irish words in English

See how many Irish words you can find in the following: "As I was walking through the glen, a Tory looked at me cock-eyed so I hit him in the puss.  He came back with a whole slew of his hooligan friends who broke my shillelagh into smithereens and threw me in the bog."

Well, I imagine that shillelagh was obvious but did you realize that Tory, glen, cock-eyed, puss, slew, hooligan, smithereens and bog also come from Irish?  Of course, by "Irish" we mean the ancient Gaelic language of Erin, not just English spoken with a thick brogue.

The original meaning of tory was "brigand", from Gaelic tòrachd "pursuing with hostile intent".  (Well, plus ça change...)  A glenA glen is merely an Irish valley (from Irish gleann, "mountain valley") and is equivalent to the Welsh glyn.  When it comes to tracts of land, they don't come much softer than a bog, from the Irish word bogach "a bog", from bog "soft".

The cock in cock-eyed comes from Gaelic caog "wink", and more particularly from caogshuileach "squint-eyed".  Puss is simply the Irish Gaelic pus "lip", "mouth" and slew comes straight from the Irish slua(gh), "crowd", "multitude".

Hooligan is not so straightforward.  It arose in London in the 1890s and is thought to be derived from a rowdy family by the name of Hoolihan.   The American equivalent of hooligan is hoodlum.  Some claim hoodlum to be a reversal of a misspelling of the name Muldoon but this notion is almost certainly fanciful.  In Australia a hooligan is sometiimes called a larrikin. This is frequently stated to have originated in an Irish policeman's mispronunciation of larking but, yet again, this seems to be a fiction. 

Victorian shamrock (click for link)Almost any word that ends with -een can be assumed to be Irish and smithereens is no exception.  The -een suffix represents the Irish diminutive -ín as in colleen "a young girl", boreen "small road" or "lane", kippeen "a small stick". A smithereen is a smidirín in Irish. The only problem with this is that Irish has no word smidir. Smidirín is thought to be the diminutive of the English word smither, a word with no known origin which means just the same as smithereen.

Other good Irish words are shamrock (from seamróg, a diminutive of seamar "clover"), bard (Irish bàrd, from Old Celtic *bardo-s "poet-singer", "minstrel") and brogue (from brog "shoe", "sandal").  The use of brogue (also known as brogan) to mean "shoe" gave rise to its other meaning: an Irish accent.  Presumably it meant the speech of one who wears brogues.

In case you were wondering, the English for shamrock is "lesser yellow trefoil" and shillelaghs (Irish cudgels made of blackthorn or oak) are named after a village in County Wicklow.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Ray:

I'm looking for the etymology of the word f*ck. Earlier tonight a guy in my group said the word was an acronym for some "crude" phrase.  I told him it isn't, although many people believe that story.  I said that the word is derived from (I think) German and has been somewhat taboo since the 13th century. My friend got mad saying he was right and I left it at that. Can you help me?

Yes we can.  However, in order to avoid hitting unsuspecting readers in the face with discussion of this word and its etymology, go here to read it.  There you will also find etymologies of sh*t and d*mn.  If you find these words offensive and would even be offended by reading a scholarly discussion of the words' origins, please do not follow the link.  To be honest, it's a shame that we are forced to censor a scholarly discussion, but we must avoid the wrath of the family-based web-filtering programs.



From Ciril Mocnik:

I'm interested in the origin of the word quiz. I'd read that it was invented in the 18th century as a kind of joke: someone wrote it all over walls in London in the night, and the next day everyone wondered what it meant. Is this true?

Well, you've got pieces of one explanation that has been offered, though no proof of it has ever been found. That explanation, however, is that the word quiz was originally coined in the late 18th century by a Mr. Daly of Dublin, Ireland, who was a theater owner there. The purpose of this was presumably to draw attention to him and his theater. The story has it that Mr. Daly hired dozens of poor children to write the word in chalk on any available wall in the city of Dublin. Many are skeptical about this explanation, though it is first described as early as 1836.  The word did appear in the late 18th century, and it meant "odd person" or, in verb form, "make fun of".  It evolved to mean "peer at questioningly", and that meaning may be the source of today's meaning of "interrogate".  One source attributes the development of the current meaning of quiz to its similarity in form to the words inquisitive and Latin quis? "who?, what?"



From Julia:

Can you tell me the origin of photographer?   "Light writer"?

Photographer derives from photograph, which was supposedly first introduced by Sir John Herschel (Astronomer Royal to George III) in presentation of a paper to the Royal Society on March 14, 1839.  The OED suggests that he derived the word by combining the first half of W.H. Fox Talbot's word photogenic and the second half of Joseph Niepce's word héliographie (French inventor Niepce made the first permanent photographic image in 1826; héliographie is "writing with sunlight").  Talbot is considered by many to be the father of photography.  Unlike the modern photogenic, his word means "caused by light".   Herschel introduced photography and photographic in the same presentation, but photographer did not appear in print until 1847 in the journal Photography (!).

Oh, and yes, photograph is in fact formed from photo-  Greek for "light" and -graph " write or delineate".

Herschel trivia:

In 1781, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel published a treatise "proving" that, owing to theSir John Herschel "perfection" of the number seven, only seven planets could possibly exist.  According to Hegel, the planets  were Mercury, Venus, the Earth, the moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.   (Yes, we know that the moon isn't a planet. No letters, please.)  So, as all seven "planets" were already accounted for, he thought he had proved that no further planets could ever be discovered.  Unfortunately for Georg, in that very same year, Sir John Frederick William Herschel (weird how similar their names are, isn't it?), with scant regard for Hegelian philosophy, went and did just that.  He discovered a new planet.

Herschel wanted to honor his royal patron by calling the new planet George.   That never caught on but for a while it was called Herschel.  Eventually, wiser heads prevailed and it was dubbed Uranus.  (Question: How is George III like Uranus?  ...oh, never mind.)  To this day, the astronomical (and astrological) symbol for Uranus resembles a capital H, for Herschel.

Herschel's observatory was situated in a sleepy little hamlet called Slough (rhymes with cow) near the royal palace at Windsor.  Since becoming home to a large industrial estate, Slough is no longer a hamlet (though some would say it's just as sleepy).  John Betjeman must have had this in mind in 1937 when he wrote a poem which began "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough, it isn't fit for humans now".  Of course, when war broke out in 1939, bombs really did "fall on Slough".  It just goes to show that you should be careful what you wish for.



From Gail Froyen :

After a dinner party the other evening we began discussing words and how they differ from country to country and region to region.   I brought up my understanding of the word antimacassar and then we progressed to similar terms, [such as doily].  I have searched your web site and many of your links and cannot find pertinent information.  Please help.   And I love your web site.

Good job with the praise, Gail!   Doily's etymology is simple:  it comes from the name of a London draper of the late 17th century, a Mr. Doylely.  He must have sold a good lot of the stuff to have his name attached to it - it was originally a lightweight and inexpensive woollen cloth for summer wear.  By Doily (click for link)the early 18th century the fabric was being used for ornamental dessert napkins known as doilies (but with myriad spellings); later it came to apply to crocheted or knitted pieces which resembled the napkins.  Today in the U.S. we sometimes see doilies being used on furniture to protect the arms and headrests from wear.

As you mentioned, some people call a doily used on furniture an antimacassar.  This word arose in the mid-19th century and demonstrates what those ornamental coverings did:  they protected the furniture from macassarMacassar was the name given to a hair oil made very popular in the early 19th century.  It was advertised as containing oil from Macassar, which is the former name of Ujung Pandang,  a district on the island of Celebes in Indonesia.  Apparently exotic hair oil was quite the rage in the first half of the 19th century, another popular hair pomade being made from bear fat!  (This gave rise to the curious practice of placing stuffed bears outside English barber shops.)  The antimacassar is also known as a tidy, which term came into use at about the same time.

Melanie's grandmother used to make doilies from the string used to tie bags of horsefeed!



From William Riddell:

I just discovered your web site. I am interested in the word gossip which means "godson" or "baptism".  I also understand that a gossip wasIndian greeting card (click for link) -- gossip a gathering just before or after a birth, but I have not fully traced it to our present day meaning.   Any thoughts on this?

The Anglo-Saxons' term for a "godparent" was godsibb, a compound formed from god   "God" (just as in modern English godmother, godfather, etc.) and sib "kinsman" (a word of unknown origin from which modern English gets sibling.  There are cognates in several other Germanic languages).  It denotes one's "relative in God", one's "spiritual relative".  By Middle English times, however, the word had lost a bit of prestige and had come to mean simply "close friend", and by the 16th century it was being used for "one who indulges in idle talk", perhaps because "close friends" divulge secrets to each other, and often then divulge those secrets to others. The modern sense "idle talk" developed from the verb in the 19th century.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

It's ET

We're curmudgeons and we admit it.  It drives us mad when we hear people say "eck cetera" instead of "et cetera".  This phrase means, literally, "and the other things" in Latin.  This contrasts with et alia , which means "and the other people".  Eck cetera, however, means nothing.  Well, most people at least know that et cetera is abbreviated as etc.  We'e not sure where the k comes from in the mispronounced version, but if we weren't such darned curmudgeons it might be amusing.

Interesting tidbit:  in older books and manuscripts et cetera is abbreviated as &c, where & of course means "and"... etc.


Sez You...

John L. Haines, Jr., General Counsel for the Panama Canal Commission, writes:

I have read with interest the explanation you gave to Mike Miller concerning the origins of hoosegow in your Words to the Wise column.  It is true that hoosegow derives from a mispronunciation of the Spanish juzgado, the last two syllables of which are sometimes slurred into the diphthong "ao".  In English, hoosegow is synonymous with jail.

While juzgado is indeed the past participle of the infinitive juzgar (to judge), it is important to note that juzgado also means "courtroom" and is usually painted on the doors to such chambers in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.  As the courtroom was simply a first stop on the way to jail for many an unfortunate gringo falling into the hands of the Mexican law-enforcement authorities in the 19th century, and with the detention facility commonly in the same building as the courtroom, it seems more likely that it was in this context - rather than the similar but subtly different one you offer - that the English word hoosegow was born.



Alanna Szemer writes:

Oh wisest web etymologists, I must take you to task on your criticisms of "mispronunciations" of the English language and of grammar. For you must see that what you are truly doing is attempting to deprive etymologists of the future of interesting topics for their websites.  Just think, if those people of the Mexican border failed to  mispronounce juzgado, you would not have the pleasure of explaining hoosegow to some poor grad student. Don't consider it a mispronunciation,  consider it the evolution of a new word and you are Darwin here to witness it live!

But where's the fun in that?



LaVona writes:

Hi. I am glad you folks have high self esteem!  I find that I don't care to read some of the mail you get.  I have a saying about people with inflated false egos: "All talk, small c*ck, no money."  I would like to invite these folks into my self esteem workshops. This makes me sound like I'm inflated but believe me I say the phrase with humility.  Keep up your wonderful, educational work.  It helps me.

We agree, LaVona, that some letters we receive are a bit pompous in attitude, not to mention lacking in grace.  For this week's issue, however, we were fortunate to receive some well-written mail.  We especially liked Mr. Haines' gracious addendum to, or correction of, our etymology of hoosegow.  

We're glad you enjoy the site and thanks for your kind note!  By the way, Mike says the Cockney version of your saying is "All mouth and trousers".

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