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      the only Weekly Word-origin Webzine

Issue 101   

September 18, 2000
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

words from Romany

English has not borrowed many words from Romany those that it has are colorful and mysterious, rather like the Gypsies themselves.  

The word gypsy, itself, is a misnomer.  In the middle ages, the people who sometimes call themselves Rom migrated into xenophobic, parochial Europe.  In order that they might avoid persecution, a fiction was invented.  The story they told was that they were pious Christians from Egypt, exiled by its Muslim rulers.  It was a beautiful story and some "Gypsy Princes" even carried impressive letters calling upon the princes of Christendom to give aid and succor to these poor refugees.

As we said, it was a beautiful story.  Touching.  Moving, even.  But completely untrue.

After years of linguistic analysis of Romany, their language, it is now thought that the Gypsies came from India.  The curious thing is that Romany has elements of at least four major Indian languages.  Putting the pieces together, it would appear that the Gypsies arose as a response to the Muslim invasion of India.  An army was raised in defense, parts of this army chased some of the Muslims back through the Khyber Pass but then found themselves cut off, surrounded by the invaders.  The remnants of this army then wandered, finding shelter and employment wherever they could.  Support for this version is found in certain Romany words.  For instance, gajjo the word for non-Gypsy is similar to an Indian word meaning "civilian" and rye (or rai) "gentleman" bears a resemblance to raj (Hindi "king").

In the East End of London where the purest Cockney is spoken, one often hears loan-words from Romany and it would not be unusual to hear someone call  "Oy, mush!".  This translates to "Excuse me, sir!" in Standard English as mush is Romany for "man".  Speaking of men, Romany has nothing to do with Rome, it comes from rom, a Gypsy another word for  "a (male) Gypsy".

Yet another word for "man" is bloke.  While some might consider this typically English, it is simply a  Gypsy word from the Romany (and Hindi) loke "man".  Then there is pal, from Romany pal "brother".  Some authorities trace this only as far as the Turkish Gypsy pral, plal and the Transylvanian Gypsy pral but some see it as a distant descendant of the Sanskrit bhratr "brother".

In the U.S. the slang word nark "policeman, informer" is often confused with narc "a narcotics agent".  In fact, it is much older, being the Romany work naak "nose" (i.e. some who pokes their nose where it is not wanted).  The equivalent in Cockney Rhyming Slang is norze, being the local pronunciation of Noah's, as in Noah's Ark.

Many people believe that, posh is an acronym for Port Out, Starboard Home.  While it is certain that this is not the case, the origin of posh is still debated.  Some believe it to be from posh karoon, Romany for "half a crown".

It is apropos of very little but we cannot close this week's Spotlight without mention of the utterly delightful word hotchiwitchu.  It is Romany for "hedgehog".

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Gareth Yates:  UPDATED JANUARY 2006

I just discovered your site after wanting to know more about word origins.  My interest actually came about because I heard a radio DJ give the origin of trivia as dating back to the Greeks' education system which also involved quadria.  I thought seeing as a lot of your site is "trivia, it would be interesting to know if we actually use trivia correctly and how it has developed over the years.  Keep up the great work.  You are educating thousands, more than most people ever get the chance to do. 

Well, we're still stuck at the "a lot of your site is 'trivia'" bit.  We prefer to characterize those tidbits of information that we impart each week as "facts".  However, you did redeem yourself with your closing remarks, so no hard feelings. (heehee)

The word trivia is actually a back formation from trivial, a word which English borrowed from Latin in the early 15th century, but which didn't take on its current meaning until the late 16th century.

English took it from trivialis, the possessive form of the Latin trivium "crossroad" (literally "three roads").  It has often been suggested that, the meeting place of three roads being equivalent to today's street corner, common folk would pass by having common (hence trivial) conversations.  The sense of "commonplace" evolved into "trifling" or "unimportant", and that is where today's sense of the word comes from.  The noun trivia arose at the end of the 19th century.

Although the "crossroad" theory has had wide currency it may not be the truth.  The earliest English use of trivial (1432) says nothing about crossroads or gossip.  It is the adjectival form of an entirely different trivium...

Now, the Greek word for "four" is tetra, so that DJ was a little wide of the mark.  There was, however, something in Medieval English known as the quadrivium, a term taken from Latin and referring to the upper four liberal arts: Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry, and Music.  The lower three were the trivium: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.  These were the "three ways" of knowledge.  And these lower three were more commonly dealt and were thought to be simpler or, more trivial.

By the way, the Indo-European root from which the tri- part of these words come is *trei- "three", which gave most Indo-European languages words related to "three".  The -via portion is descended from the root *wegh- "to go, transport in a vehicle" the subject of last week's Spotlight.

Read about other words in our bookstore.

From Eric Henline:

I am trying to ascertain the origin of the phrase be there with bells on.  Is it a reference to olden days when they would put bells on the dead just to make sure they were dead, or does it have something to do with court jesters in the middle centuries?

First, you need to read our Issue 39 where we discuss the silly belief that people were commonly buried with strings tied to bells so that they could ring them if they happened to awaken in the grave.  So that does away with the idea that your phrase derives from such a practice.  Second, while your guess about jesters seems plausible, it is not the source of the phrase, either.  To be there with bells on means "eagerly, ready to enjoy oneself."  One source suggests that this phrase arose when horses and carriages were the primary mode of transportation.  On special occasions, say on the way to a party, the horses would be fitted with bells for a festive sound, echoing the carriage passengers' plans to enjoy themselves.

From Tonya Gale:

What is the origin of the word France?

If you are a Francophile (pronounced FRANK-o-file), you love the French and things French.  That word reveals the source of the country name - the Franks.  They were a Germanic tribe that settled in present day France (then Gaul, hence the adjective Gallic) in the 4th century A.D.

Some etymologists think that hte tribe name erives from Old German franka "brave", or from a personal name.  Other scholars, however, have recently suggested that it derives from the Germanic word wrang, a form of wringen "to wring or wrench", perhaps a reference to the Franks having been uprooted from their own lands.  That would make it related, via the Indo-European root *wer-, to English wring, wrangle, wrinkle, and wrong, among several others.

Related placenames are Franconia and Frankfurt, the latter being the "ford of the Franks".

From Paul:

Hey, guys - I truly dig your site! I'm doing some research on the "library profession" and would like to find the origin and true definition of the word "profession".

This word comes directly from Latin professionem, "a public declaration, or a business or profession that one publicly avows".  It is a noun of action from profiter "to profess", formed from pro- "forth (in public)" and fateri "acknowledge, confess".  Relatives are fable, fame and fate, as well as confess. A professor is one who "professes" his knowledge in a specific field.  The Indo-European root is *bhat- "to speak", source also of ineffable, prophet, and the -phone family of words.  Profession entered English in the early 13th century.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Resident curmudgeon Malcolm Tent says it anyway

Anyways?  I hear this not infrequently used to mean "in any case" and it bugs me to pieces. Anyway is the proper word.  Maybe the construction is not completely illogical, as one could say "Do you know any ways to get to town other than the main road?" but most people would probably say way.  The Yorkshire, England equivalent of anyway is any road.  I don't hear Yorkshire natives saying "any roads".  So just drop the s!  The OED calls those who use that s illiterate!  I don't necessarily agree with that but it still gets on my sensitive, curmudgeonly nerves.

Another not dissimilar yet incorrect usage is to say, "I sure wished I was home" when speaking in the present tense.  If you were speaking in the past tense, would you say, "I sure wisheded I was home"?  That's tantamount to saying spaded for spayed.  Stop it!!

Sez You...
From Pandora Fitzpatrick:

I enjoy reading your site every week, and thought I'd send you one of my pet peeves...  I can't even begin to tell you how much it irritates me to see business' signs with spelling or grammatical errors (the incorrect use of the possessive apostrophe is the most common), but what really gets my goat is the use of Ks where Cs, CKs, or Qs ought to be (e.g. KwikKopy), or -ite endings where -ight ought to be (e.g. Nite Lite), norwest for northwest, 'n for and, u for you, thru, dawg, foto, biz, pak, Shurgard, and other similar affronts to the English language (whether the American or British incarnation!).   I was astonished to read in Issue 100 that some of these "simplifications" were instigated by the Chicago Times (I'm curious now about what other suggestions they made).  Just think if all words were "simplified" so that their spellings matched pronunciation - how would the increasingly poorly-educated public distinguish between all those homonymic words?!  But then, YOU'd be more busy than ever because such simplifications would eradicate the many etymological clues of the "archaic" spellings of words.

Yes, names like KwikKopy are rather irritating, aren't they.  Of course, such ludicrous spellings may well have arisen because the properly spelled version of the name had already been taken by another business.

Norwest is perfectly acceptable in certain circumstances.  Compass readings, for instance.  Hitchcock may have called his movie "North By Northwest" but any mariner would say nor' by norwest.

Was it the Chicago Times, though...

From George Kimble:


I enjoy the your column, and I always hope to be the first one to spot one of your rare errors. Maybe this time I've done it!

You stated that the Chicago Times decided to change (simplify) spelling.  This was actually done by the Chicago Tribune.  I know because as a youngster just learning how to read and spell, it caused me a great deal of trouble. 

We humbly accept your erudite correction.

From Oded Dagan:

Congratulations on the 100th edition of the wonderful TOWFI!  Many, many happy returns!

Thank you!  We're tickled pea-green about it! ;-)

From A Reader:

I'm sure others will have told you about this by now, but just in case: the home page of issue 100 actually links to issue 99.  If you've got a serious problem then I won't expect a reply, as you'll be pretty busy. But the withdrawal symptoms are getting worse ...!

Thanks for your e-mail.  Actually, Issue 100 was there.  Your browser just didn't know it.  We are publishing this e-mail to let readers know that if you arrive at the site on a Tuesday morning and the page doesn't seem to have been updated, click on your "refresh" or "reload" button in your browser and look again.  Even we have fallen victim to that little trick!

From Desiree Patterson:

First of all, I love your website. I love the "aha!" insights I get from it. I have a languages background, but unfortunately at my work I am surrounded by number-crunchers without interest in languages.  

I was interested in your discussion of hokey pokey.  Here in New Zealand hokey pokey is a confection made from boiling sugar and golden syrup together, and then stirring in baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) which makes it froth.  The frothy mass is left to set and go hard, and becomes a hazard to teeth! Kids love it.  Hokey pokey is also the name of the most popular flavour of ice cream in New Zealand.  Basically it is vanilla ice cream laced with "bullets" of hokey pokey. 

Earlier this century (yes, we're still in the 20th century) Italian gelato was sold as hokey pokey in the streets of Britain.  At the same time, an ice cream confection known as a hokey pokey was sold in the U.S.  The same thing?  We used to think so but, considering how different New Zealand hokey pokey is, we are now reconsidering.

The (mostly Italian) street vendors who sold hokey pokey in Britain would often cry "Hokey pokey, pokey ho!"  The most likely origin of the phrase is hocus pocus (but why?) and not, as one wag suggested, the Italian "O, che poco!" ("Oh, how little!")

Thanks for your gracious comments, Desiree!

From James Hebert:

Melanie, don't feel bad, I have thought that many of our words in Texas are perfectly correct, only to find out from college friends from out-of-state that we in Texas maintain a totally absurd dialect. One friend was especially annoyed that I claimed tumped was a word. Of course, to me, it was natural that the boat tumped over. he assured me it was either tipped or dumped. Oh, well.

Tump is a great Texas word!  Thanks for bringing back more language memories!  Of course, tump could have arisen as a cross between tip and dump.  Such words are called portmanteau words.  For example brunch - a combination of breakfast and lunch.

Mike says that, in Wales, a tump is a hillock.  It is an Anglicization of the Welsh twmp.

From Lee Sorenson:

It's only because your column sets such a formidable standard for precise use of language that I must tweak you for a line in this week's email regarding your quiz: This quiz had the best response of any previous quiz.  Does this mean it was the best of a category to which it did not belong?  Perhaps best response of all quizzes to date ,or better response than any previous quiz would have been more appropriate?  Kudos for a great column, or as is said here in the West Indies, "nuff respect!"

[The quiz was distributed in our companion newsletter, for which you can sign up on our sign-up page.  It's free and fairly unobtrusive!]  You caught us, Lee.  That's what happens when we write the newsletter at 11:00 p.m. - both the writer and the editor are pooped!  We're working on something that might allow us to devote more time to research and writing for this site without stealing from sleep time.  Watch for updates here or through our newsletter.

Thank you for your kind words.  Dem mek we blush an' ting, y'kno.

Laughing Stock

No waiting...

A sign found in rural South Africa.

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Last Updated 01/08/06 05:58 PM