This week Jonathon faces the lexicographer’s greatest fear: popular etymology…
Humankind cannot bear too much reality.
T.S. Eliot Four Quartets
The word coiner, in the sense of counterfeiter, is first recorded in 1578. No doubt the result of an oversight (perhaps mine, I may have missed it) the current OED, source of this date, offers no direct mention of coin as a root verb meaning counterfeit, noting only that coin, which had meant the stamping out of legitimate money since c.1330, could from 1589 also mean ‘To frame or invent (a new word or phrase); usually implying deliberate purpose; and occasionally used depreciatively, as if the process were analogous to that of the counterfeiter.’ Slang meanwhile had bene-feaker, literally ‘good-maker’, which, like coin/coin, can be seen as simply extending a standard use into an criminal one. To coin a phrase, i.e. to invent one, arrives around 1810. It seems restricted to the positive inference; to make up something both new and, faut perhaps de mieux, trustworthy.
Which trust may be misplaced. Not so much in the words or phrases themselves – there they are, this is what they mean – but in the legends of their creation. The lexicographer aims at accuracy, but there remain two words that strike fear into the professional: popular etymology.
I cannot boast Eric Partridge’s voluminous correspondence – the modern world lacks, I suggest, a sufficiency of ageing gentlemen with inquiring minds and time on their hands; and in any case, in a world of instantly available blogs, why suggest, let alone ask when one can pontificate. But I get a trickle of mails. These do ask, but even more they suggest. Etymologies, stories behind words. As often as not these stories run counter to the canon, which in etymology as published one hopes is the product of informed research. I do not wish to belittle my correspondents, I am grateful for their contact and in a world of relativism, many might ask why should my etymologies, or indeed those of the OED be any ‘better’ than anyone else’s. But better is not the point, ‘as correct as one can manage’ surely is.
Etymology seems particularly prey to speculation and it has afflicted professionals as much as amateurs. The author of 1689’s Gazophyllacium (lit. ‘strong-box’ or ‘treasure-chest’ and as such synonymous with thesaurus) believed among other propositions that ‘Hasle-nut [comes] perhaps from our word haste, because it is ripe before wall-nuts and chestnuts’ and ‘Hassock, from the Teut. Hase, an hare, and Socks; because hair-skins are sometimes worn instead of socks, to keep the feet warm in winter.’ This was certainly published – it may even have been believed. America’s Noah Webster believed quite firmly that there had been a single ur-language, from which all the rest had emerged: ‘before the dispersion; the whole earth was of one language and of one or the same speech.’ This language he christened Chaldee, ‘the primitive language of man,’ and it was spoken by ‘the descendants of Noah.’ Webster knew what was happening in German philology, fuelled by Sir William Jones’ researches into a real ur-language, Sanskrit, but an American, dead-set on promoting a national tongue, had no time for ‘old Europe’. He blundered on and was mercifully dead when in 1864 a major revision of his work stripped out his Bible-based egregia.
More immediately, and back to slang, researchers have to contend with the beliefs of the French writer Alice Becker-Ho, former partner of Situationist Guy Debord, who is determined to shoehorn the entirety of European slang into Romani origins, and of the late Daniel Cassidy, an Irish-American of fiercely nationalist bent, whose book How the Irish Invented Slang attempted the same task on the basis of his own predilections. I enjoy Ms Becker-Ho, whose introductions see off her opponents in fine style. I wrote to Mr Cassidy. I could understand, if not agree with his suggestions based on 19th century New York City, but had a problem with those that took unto his fellow-countrymen the London cant of the 16th century. He seemed to lack the time to reply.
And of course, far, far from academe, the flow of reinterpretations of such eternal delights as OK, jazz, posh, and the whole nine yards can never be dammed. (In fairness, the last of these still defeats all-comers.) So too the obscenities. No Virginia, there was never an ordinance regarding ‘Fornication Under the Command of the King’; and while you’re at it, forget that Agincourt stuff about ‘pluck yew’. Nor were sailors ever instructed to ‘Ship High In Transit’ such materials as might produce explosive methane gas and Thomas Crapper was merely blessed with a job-specific surname. One may gain a momentary amusement from the ingenuity, but not the persistence of such absurdities.
It should be shooting fish in a barrel, but on occasion such fish are living in aquaria and lovingly nurtured therein. And backed by a mix of seemingly wilful misinterpretation and definitely self-serving agendas, these otherwise blatant errors seem no longer susceptible to the derision they deserve, But I am sorry, ignorance is still not bliss, however politically correct. Picnic does not come from a plantation-era command to ‘pick a nigger’; nitty-gritty does not refer to the detritus of a slave ship’s hold, nor does niggardly have the slightest link to negritude. (And no, I would never exclude Jew, whether down or out of from my dictionary.)
In the end, of course, the big question is: why? Why do we remain so dissatisfied with what dictionaries, supposedly founts of knowledge, have to offer. It isn’t simply the relativist thing, so much encouraged by digital life, because these arguments are age-old. Maybe it’s the belief something’s always better than nothing: especially as regards slang which, in the OED, so often faces the chilly realism of ‘etymology unknown’. These are only words, ferchrissake, we need to know whence they came. I notice just over a thousand ‘ety. unknown’ in my own work. No more than 2% of the headwords. Perhaps I’m over-enthusiastic too.
Anyway, did you know that golf comes from ‘gentleman only, ladies forbidden’. Yes, really…