Issue 131, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From A Reader:

I remember, only faintly, that as a child (about 70 years ago) we used the phrase I dare you, which was a mild challenge.  I double dog dare you was a challenge you couldn't dismiss since, if you did, you were really "chicken".  Where does this come from?

A Christmas Story, written by Jean Shepard.In your letter you also mentioned that the phrase is used in the movie A Christmas Story, when a triple dog dare results in a boy's tongue sticking to a frozen telephone pole (Melanie remembered that it was a water spigot; no matter, you all get the picture).  Well, we found a book, entitled The Child in Folk-Thought, by Alexander Frances Chamberlain, and he mentions the "dare levels" that you hint upon in your query.  In this book, published in 1896, he discusses American children using I dare you, I dog dare you, I double dog dare you.  He also mentions I dare you, I black dog dare you, I double black dog dare you.  It is the black dog which caught our attention, for while we could not determine precisely how these phrases arose, we were aware of the term black dog.  As early as 1706, it was thieves cant meaning "a bad shilling".  So, we thought it possible (though this is 100% conjecture) that I black dog dare you may have arisen as being equivalent to "I dare you, for a (bad) shilling, to do x".  A great deal more research would be required to draw a less tenuous connection.  We thought that Peter and Iona Opie, authors of several books on British children's games and language, might have dealt with the topic of "dare language", but we could not find such in their works (they did, however, deal with the issue of responding to dares, though no dogs turn up in that discussion).  The American Dialect Society of Alexander Chamberlain's time was doing research on this topic; perhaps we'll find more information in their archives.

From Erik Doughty:

I've heard several things about the word steward.  One traces it back to [pig]sty warden, and one traces it back to sti (hall) warden/guard.  I'd like your expert opinion.

"Expert opinion"?  Oooh, you get extra points for that, Erik!  Well, let's start with the Old English form.  It was stiweard, formed from stig, a word of unclear meaning, and weard "keeper, ward".  This word first turns up in the written record in 1000.  It is thought that stig probably meant "house" or "specific part of a house", because we have the word stigwita "house dweller".  It is therefore thought to be cognate with sty, and that is where the suggestion that it originally meant pigsty warden arose.  That suggestion is incorrect, for sty derives from Old English sti "pen, enclosure", and so by itself has nothing to do with pigs.  Your second suggestion, that it can be traced back to "hall guard", is more correct.

About 1470 we find spelling closest to that of the surname Stewart, which derives from the same source: stwart is how Scotsman Blind Harry spelled it in his poem "Wallace", about William Wallace (Braveheart).  In the 16th century the word's meaning began to change, based on the erroneous belief that it was derived from stede "place" + ward or stow "place" + ward, making a steward "one who stands in the place of another".

Ward derives ultimately from the Indo-European root *wer- "to perceive, watch out for", which also gave us words like aware, ward, lord, warden, award, guard, and maybe even panorama.

Could the surname Stigwood be related to stiweard or stigwita and, ultimately, to Stewart?

From Valerie Segall:

I am searching for the origin of g-string.

Are you planning to wear one?  If so, you would be donning what was originally Native American garb.  The word was initially (1878) geestring, and it referred to what amounted to a loincloth held up by a string and worn by certain Indians.  Most etymologists think that geestringi was probably originally an Indian word which was adopted in a form that was more familiar to English tongues.  The term doesn't appear with reference to showgirl costumes until 1936, but it was likely in use in that sense for some time prior to that date.  It was shortened to g-string, possibly by contamination from the notion of stringed instruments like guitars and violins, by 1891, at which time we find this interesting quotation in Harper's Magazine: "Some of the boys wore only 'G-strings' (as, for some reason, the breech-clout is commonly called on the prairie)."  This suggests that the word may have been of Sioux or other Plains Indian origin.

From Rodney:

My friends and I were discussing the origin of the phrase run amuck.  One person believes that it comes from Fiji, though most of us believe it is rooted in Anglo-Saxon.  Can you shed some light for us, please?

We have to be careful about shedding light here in power-shortage-stricken California, but we'll see what we can manage.  The word, which can be spelled amuck or amok (the latter being preferred), derives from a Malay word, amoq, defined as "engaging furiously in battle, attacking with desperate resolution, rushing in a state of frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder."  It was first borrowed by the Portuguese as amuco, and we find it in a Portuguese work of 1516.  Its first appearance in the English record is in 1663, when the Portuguese form amouco was used.  It was not until 1772, in the writings of the explorer Captain Cook, that we find the English form amock.  The amok spelling appeared in 1849.  The phrase run amok dates back to 1672, when it was run a mucke in the work of Andrew Marvell.  In 1859 Thoreau used it in his Walden Pond: "I might have run 'amok' against society, but I preferred that society should run 'amok' against me.

Many early instances of the word amok alone (without run) are used with reference to Malaysia or Malaysian people. 

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