Issue 144, page 2

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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

As last week and part of this week were holidays (U.S.), this week's Words to the Wise column is shorter than usual.

From Angus McPherr:

My father and I would like to know the origins of the terms haw and gee. Dad used these terms as a young man on the farm when driving a team of horses or oxen. Haw, to go to the left; gee, to go to the right.

Your question is timely, because we recently did some research on this topic for an individual (see our Rush Queries page for more information on individual research projects).   The answer to your query goes back to early Modern English. As early as 1548 we have record of the term ree, which was a call to a horse to turn right. Ree is, in fact, simply a corruption of right. In 1599 we find this quotation: "Whipstaff in his hand, Who with a hey and ree the beasts command." Hey or hayte was the word for "left" at the time, and it was eventually transformed into haw (mostly in the U.S., 19th century) or heck, so that the phrase neither heck nor ree arose, meaning "to go neither left nor right" or, metaphorically, "to be intractable or obstinate".  Hey was probably simply our word hey, an interjection used to get one's (or in this case one's horse's) attention.  You may be surprised to learn that the interjection hey dates in writing from about 1225 (when it was hei)!

Well, that is all well and good, but what about gee? We first find it in the written record about 1628: "He expostulates with his Oxen very vnderstandingly, and speaks Gee and Ree better then English" (from A Country Fellow, by Earle). Gee had arisen, with influence from ree, as a corrupted form of "go". It eventually came to replace ree to mean "right", but it also continued to retain its "go" meaning, as well.

We hear the term gee used in the city as well as the country today, in the form gee-gee, a hypochoristic (baby talk) term for a horse.  Now that we have discussed the word gee, it is probably not difficult to see whence gee-gee came.  The word used to direct a horse simply came to apply to the horse. Children in the early 19th century saw horses on a daily basis, in many cases. The youngest children, just learning to speak, would hear men shouting "Gee!" to their horses, and so they, very logically for children, applied that word to the animal. It became gee-gee after the pattern of other children's words for animals, such as bow-wow for dog and kitty cat for cat, though it was still found as gee alone, as well. The earliest record of the gee-gee usage is 1869, and this one is from 1886: "To carry two heavy boys... on his back, pretending that he was a gee-gee." It was certainly being used as early as the first part of the 19th century, however; it usually takes some time for slang or children's words to find their way into written form.

So when a farmer calls haw and gee to his horses, he is etymologically saying hey and go!

From Noreen:

I cannot seem to find the origin of the word trauma.

This word comes directly from Greek trauma "wound".  It dates from the late 17th century with that meaning.  It was not until the advent of psychoanalysis in the 19th century that the word came to be applied to psychic injury.  The Indo-European root from which this word derives is ter~- (where ~ is the vowel called "schwa") "to rub, to pierce" or "to turn".  Some other descendants of that root are throw (from an Old English word meaning "to turn, to twist"), thread ("twisted yarn"), and thresh ("to rub the husk from grain").  (See Words to the Wise, Issue 126, for other *ter~- words).


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