Uncomplimentary Words for an Old Man

Walter Nash

  • The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology edited by T.F. Hoad
    Oxford, 552 pp, £12.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 19 861182 X
  • Dictionary of Changes in Meaning by Adrian Room
    Routledge, 292 pp, £14.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 7102 0341 1
  • The Story of English by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert McNeil
    Faber/BBC, 384 pp, £14.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 563 20247 5
  • Dictionary of American Regional English. Vol. I: Introduction and A-C edited by Frederic Cassidy
    Harvard, 903 pp, $60.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 674 20511 1

Thomas Hardy once told Robert Graves how he had gone to the Oxford English Dictionary to confirm the existence of a dialect word he proposed to use in a poem, and came to a standstill because the only authority quoted for it was his own Under the Greenwood Tree. This is an acute case of our dependence on dictionaries, and illustrates the commonest reason for resorting to them. What do you look for in a dictionary, after all? Lucid definitions? The citations that examplify usage? Etymologies? Spellings? Or do you, like Hardy, simply seek assurance that the word exists? I strongly suspect that the warrant of the lexicon is one of the writer’s deep securities; no one feels really confident about using an unattested word.

Supplying a historical voucher for words is part of the business of the lexicographer, and indeed is the principal business of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. If this volume has nothing to add (as far as I am able to check) to what is abundantly said in the larger works of which it is an epigone, it at least has the advantage that Samuel Johnson commended in handbooks, of allowing you to go to the fireside and read in comfort. Given this convenience, a pursuit of etymologies is a pleasurable, skipping business, with much to reveal waywardly, not only about the quarry, the word, but also about the hunter, the etymologist, now expertly tracking, now brought to the blind check of an ‘etym.dub.’, the wild cast of a ‘perh.’, the resignation of a ‘prob.imit.’ when the scent goes cold.

The hardest words to run down seem to be those of the everyday, monosyllabic sort. Any reasonably well-informed person can come to grips with infralapsarian or autochthonous, but it takes a scholar to tackle something as stubbornly fugitive as boy. Boy is a brute. Thirty years ago, the Concise Oxford would have referred it to East Frisian boi, a relative of Middle High German buobe and Dutch boef. Current wisdom, however, concisely expounded by Dr Hoad, deems it probably an aphetic form (aphesis is what makes esquire into squire, or because into ’cause) of a conjectural past participle of an Old French verb embuier, ‘to fetter’; from an unattested Latin imboiare, based on boia, ‘a fetter’, derived from the Greek phrase boeiai dorai, ‘ox hides’, from bous, ‘ox’. Boy therefore signifies ‘fettered fellow’, or ‘man in leather manacles’ – in other words, a slave, or at least a servant. The wondering layman may think that if you believe that, you will believe anything, but etymology somewhat resembles theology: given the initial act of faith, the logic of the argument is irresistible. In this case the philological reasoning is indeed quite sound, but the pleasure of it is the backward leaping from boy to fetter to ox-hide to servitude, from English to French to Latin to Greek, the riffle through times and cultures. Rightly considered, etymologies are snapshots from other people’s lives.

The shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, finding a baby on the beach, asks, ‘A boy or a child I wonder?’ and audiences smile at the quaint rustic lapse, not realising that the laugh may be on them, because in Elizabethan English child could bear the specific sense of ‘female infant’. This semantic shift is not mentioned in Adrian Room’s Dictionary of Changes in Meaning, but it seems to be one of the few things that have escaped his notice. There are books that please you greatly by telling you what you know already, and almost as much by telling you what you do not know. This, for me, is such a book. I find Mr Room particularly enlightening on changes that have taken place in 20th-century English; his entry on tabloid, for example, informatively documents the modern history of that word in its shift from earlier tablet, with references I had not previously come across. But he is in all instances, ancient or modern, an admirable expositor with a pleasant aptitude for the telling literary allusion.

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