Issue 172, page 1

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intestinal fortitude

We have just been reading a book on food history (In the Devils' Garden, a sinful history of forbidden food, by Stewart Lee Allen) which is very entertaining and informative. There was one passage, though, which had us diving into our dictionaries and it was this:

Organ meats fetched significantly higher prices than chops in the markets of seventeenth-century Paris. The French called these delicacies partiesA 17th century French hunting scene nobles, and every hunter carried a ritual set of knives with which to remove them. He would then present them, on a forked stick, called la fourchie, to the most powerful person present and they would be grilled on the spot in a little ceremony meant to honor the nobleman's bravery. We still say a brave man has "guts" or "pluck" (a kind of intestine). Cowards, of course, are "gutless" or "lily-livered".

We do not doubt the accuracy of Mr. Allen's descriptions of culinary preferences and aristocratic hunting etiquette but we find no evidence for his assertions about guts. If he were correct, then we would expect to find a French word which means both "intestines" and "bravery" as guts does. Unfortunately, no such word exists. There is a French phrase: il a cran  which translates as "he has guts" but, literally, it means "he has groove". Just to muddy the waters, the similar French word crâne means "gallant" or, indeed, "plucky" and, entaille, a synonym of cran, is only one letter away from entraille, "intestine".

There was an old dialect expression to have neither gut nor gall but, as far as we can determine, guts (plural), did not denote a character trait until the end of the 19th century. As late as 1893, a dictionary of slang considered guts unfamiliar enough to require explanation. Even so, neither of the two definitions given quite fit the modern usage:

Put your guts into it... = Row the very best you can. 
He has no guts in him = He is a common rotter. [i.e., cad - M&M]

Here, guts seems equivalent to "energy" in the first example and "integrity" in the latter. [We could have said "heart" and "backbone" - M&M]  It is not until the 1920s that we find novels using the phrase you don't have the guts to mean "you don't have the courage". Even then, it is more American than British; the word gutsy means "courageous" in the U.S. but "gluttonous" in the U.K.

Stewart Lee Allen's second attempt at etymology concerns plucky. Does this word indeed come from the pluck which means "a kind of intestine"? Well, first off, pluck is certainly "organ meat" but, rather than being "a kind of intestine", it is the collective name given to the heart, liver and lungs.* 

Jonathan Swift used pluck metaphorically (in 1710) to refer to his innermost being when he said "It vexes me to the pluck..." Around the same time, boxers were using pluck to refer to the heart as the seat of courage and by 1785, Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue explains he wants pluck as "he is a coward". 

The liver is suffused with blood and it is the blood which which provides this organ with pigment. A lily-livered (literally "white-livered") person is, presumably, deficient in this vital fluid. Far from deriving from French 17th century hunting customs, lily-livered had been in use in English at least a century earlier:

Go prick thy face, and over-red thy fear, Thou Lily-liver’d boy

- Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1605

Well, we don't know about you but all this has made us hungry. We're off to fry up some black pudding...

*Not for the squeamish. (Honestly, don't read this or you'll squeam.)

According to one 18th century author: "The pluck contains the heart, liver, lights, melt, and skirt". [Lights is another word for "lungs", melt is the collected blood and the skirt is the diaphragm. - M&M]

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Last Updated 10/06/02 08:18 PM