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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Amanda Bentley:

I am desperate to know where the phrase taking the mickey out of someone comes from.  It has been driving me crazy for a couple of weeks now!

It's rhyming slang. The original was to take the piss which means "to deride, to make fun of".  Mike (or Mickey) Bliss is rhyming slang for "piss" so, applying the usual rhyming slang rules, we substitute Mickey Bliss for piss then drop the rhyming portion. Hence, to take the Mickey

Just who Mike Bliss was we don't know though we assume that, like most people mentioned in rhyming slang, he was a real person.  The phrase first shows up in the late 1800s so perhaps he was a music hall performer.  [Readers?]

How did the phrase to take the piss arise?  It was originally to take the piss out of [someone] but that's about as far as we can trace it.

From Heather Garten:

A question arose at work yesterday as to the origination of the phrase whipping boy.  Someone thought it had something to do with the old fox hunts in England.

They may be thinking of the whipper-in, the person in charge of the pack of hounds. He controls his charges with a vocabulary of bizarre calls and alien noises that are unintelligible to speakers of English.  (Personally, we think they sound like they are invoking the "elder gods" of H. P. Lovecraft's horror novels.)

The concept of a whipping boy has its roots in the philosophy of James I of England. James I (and) VI) which, on average, makes him James 3.5 He was also James VI of Scotland, a circumstance which seems to have gone to his head. He propounded a notion called "the divine right of kings" which claimed that all kings (at least, all Christian kings) hold their thrones by the will of God. "The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth; for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself are called gods", said James I of England (and VI of Scotland). From this, he deduced that any objection to the way he ruled was blasphemy, a line of reasoning which won him few friends in Parliament. Also, as the king's son was destined to be king (in this case, Charles I), he was also considered to be divinely ordained. Consequently, no tutor could chastise the prince for misbehavior but some semblance of discipline was maintained by employing a princely playmate who was whipped in the prince's stead. The companion appointed to young Prince Charles was one William Murray and whenever Charles misbehaved, William was beaten for it. There is, of course, no longer a post of whipping boy in the royal household but it is unclear when the practice died out.  The term first made an appearance in the written record in 1647.

Another thing that has died out is James as a royal name.  There was a brief experiment in the late 17th century with a "James II of England (and VII of Scotland)" but he went and became a Catholic so James was added to the list of names which will never be used by the English royal family.  Other such names are Stephen, because King Stephen caused a civil war, and Richard because the last King Dick (Richard III) was such a naughty man (and traditionally held as deformed, too).   

Finally, there is an obscure connection between whipping boy and whipper-in. In the late 19th century, both were slang terms for the last horse in a race.

From Linda Echols:

I am driven up the wall when I see a restaurant menu item or recipe termed as Welsh rarebit.  I submit that the term is correctly Welsh rabbit. To support my claim, I repeat this bit of lore passed to me by a friend many years ago. "There are no rabbits in Wales. When the hungry Welsh hunter comes home empty handed, his wife prepares a dish called Welsh rabbit." This dish consists of cheese melted with ale and poured over stale, or toasted bread. Welsh rarebit, so called, is the same dish." Who's right? The truth will make me free.

Great story, dodgy facts. 

Of course there are rabbits in Wales! The Welsh word is cwningen (feminine gender, plural is cwningod) but we don't expect many English rabbits would stop at the border just because they can't speak Welsh.

In the 1950s, there was an attempt to find a biological agent which would eradicate rabbits.  Naturally, the desire was to kill only those rabbits which were a pest, not pets. Testing a disease called myxomatosis on the Welsh island of Skomer, scientists discovered that its effects were confined to a single warren. They thought they had found the answer but when they tried it on the mainland it raged throughout the whole rabbit population of Wales, England and Scotland. What went wrong? The rabbit flea is a vector of myxomatosis and, for some reason, the (Welsh) rabbits of Skomer were (and still are) flea-free.

Welsh rarebit/rabbit.  Click for a recipe.But to get back to the phrase... Welsh rabbit (1725) is certainly older than Welsh rarebit (1785) and was probably an ethnic slur based on the prevalence of cheese in the Welsh diet. Construing rabbit as rarebit (which makes more sense to Americans if you remember that the second r in rarebit is not really pronounced in standard British English) seems to be an attempt by the Welsh to deflect this slur. Thus we rarely find Welsh rabbit on Welsh menus while Welsh rarebit is commonplace. 

There is a sign on the wall of "The King Ludd", a very old pub at Ludgate in the City of London, which identifies it as the site where Welsh rabbit was invented.  ["Hah!" says Mike, the Welshman.]

From Bob:

I have long wondered about the origin of the term seven seas.  I would be especially interested in learning which are the seven seas.  I have long assumed that these were the oceans, but there are only six of them (North and South Atlantic, North and south Pacific, Indian and Arctic).

The seven seas are actually held to be the Arctic, Antarctic, North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Oceans.  You simply left out the Antarctic.  The term is first recorded in 1872.

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