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.

Something so affable resists criticism, but provokes occasional footnotes. There are omissions – or perhaps ‘asymmetries’ would be a better word. I find it odd that he writes on science, but not on art; on honest, but not on honour. His entry on let, in the sense of ‘allow to remain’ (from Old English laetan) surely invited a companion entry on let in the sense ‘prevent’, ‘obstruct’ (from lettan), particularly since he has a note on prevent, meaning ‘anticipate’, ‘go before’. (Prince Hamlet cried, ‘By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!’; congregations pray, ‘Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings.’ Once or twice only, he misses what would seem to be an obvious literary reference. For instance, in the entry on wardrobe there is no mention of the passage in Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale’ which tells how the body of a murdered child is disposed of in a wardrobe. The early Wyclifite translations use the same word in the same sense, in rendering the Vulgate latrina (in II Kings x, 27, where the Authorised Version has draught house). Commentators explain that in the 14th century your clothes closet might also contain your privy, so that wardrobe was, one presumes, the socially acceptable word for the necessary house. Present-day cloakroom has much the same meaning in the genteeler sort of provincial hotel; respectable citizens have always had an aversion to calling things by rude names.

Mr Room’s book is an exemplary reminder that the words we use pass through times, places and societies – a theme most instructively developed in The Story of English. This work, a companion to the nine-part television series with the same title, has been well received, and rightly so: details may abide critical scrutiny, but it would indeed be a squint-eyed pedant who would deny the compilers their meed of praise. What they have achieved is a synopsis in two senses. First, they have made a very skilful abstract of current academic research, taking advice from authorities in the fields of linguistic history, dialectology, language variety, sociolinguistics; second, they have used the ‘optic’ of the camera to record the livelihood of speech, as embodied in persons talking from diverse political, social and geographical contexts.

This involves a complex descriptive method which is both ‘linear’ and ‘local’ – ‘linear’ in its account of the world-wide ramifications of English since the 17th century, and ‘local’ in its consideration of relationships between speech-community and society. Consequently the book has two broad lessons to teach. It will tell native Britons that their ancestral claims to the English tongue are of no greater moment than the settlers’ rights of Americans, Australians, Indians, Africans, or indeed any of the speakers of the ‘new Englishes’ which are so competently reviewed in the ninth chapter. It will also reveal, however, that the social levers of language, those defensive and definitive impulses that keep ‘them’ distinct from ‘us’, that hive off the lame and the punter from the righteous man, that breed fashions and changes of fashion, that support hierarchies of rank and class, are diversely alike in all the kingdoms and republics of speech. Between a black jazz musician and a Cockney street trader there are differences in abundance, but they are comparably motivated in the pride and secrecy of their usage, in their perception that the ‘standard’ (whatever that may be) is the outsider’s language.

Within the confines of a standard there is an endless jostle of social dialects. In the rivalries of race, region and class, pronunciation is obviously important, and grammar too, as William Labov has effectively shown in his studies of Black English: but the most visible differentiations are borne by idiom and vocabulary. What you call things raises you up, puts you down, or sets you just where you choose to be. (When I was a boy, we called the front downstairs room of our terraced house the parlour, but former neighbours who had risen to semi-detached affluence on new estates preferred to say lounge.) Your usage is thus in part receptive, in part elective. You may – as Ben Jonson put it a long time ago – ‘boldly nominate a spade a spade’: but given the appropriate social claims or pretensions, you may prefer to call it an agricultural implement.

Up on the north-west coast of the United States, they call a spade a clam gun. This I had until recently as hearsay, and now know for a certainty with the learned voucher of Professor F.G. Cassidy of the University of Wisconsin. Professor Cassidy is the current leader of an enterprise set on foot as long ago as 1889 by the American Dialect Society, founded in emulation of the English Dialect Society which had sponsored the work of Joseph Wright. The English neglect their heroic scholars, and I find I have to tell people about the six word-hoarding tomes of Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, now seemingly derelict and unvisited by all but the occasional distressed PhD student. I do not think America will be so forgetful of the great work that here proclaims itself under the appropriate acronym DARE.

Daring it is, and laborious too, for though Professor Cassidy has at his command the facilities of the word processor to marshal his text, the computer to prepare distributional maps, and trained field-workers – 80in all – to go forth and gather information, the sheer slow-budging burden of such a work is almost as cumbersome as it would have been in Joseph Wright’s day. The central corpus of data has been furnished by informants responding to a questionnaire, consisting of 1847 items, in reference to topics starting with the weather and moving along to houses, furniture, utensils, food and drink, religion, children’s games, emotions, attitudes, relationships, whatever talk may touch on in common life: ‘What do you call the time in the early morning before the sun comes into sight?’ ‘What do you call a deceiving person, or someone you can’t trust?’ ‘What if children spread their arms and turn over sideways?’ ‘When food is hard on the stomach you say that it —’ ‘Uncomplimentary words for an old man’. In all, there were 2477 informants (1368 men and 1409 women), ranging in age from 18 to over ninety, and located in communities large and small throughout the United States. ‘The racial distribution,’ we learn, ‘was Whites 92.7 per cent, Blacks 6.7 per cent, American Indians .3 per cent, Orientals .3 per cent.’ Educational levels varied from grade school (in some cases lower than the fifth grade) through high school and college.

These, the summarised facts, reduce to arid numerical precision the hubbub of a nation talking. Storekeepers, farmers, teachers, students, housewives (called ‘homemakers’), nurses, doctors, lawyers, journalists, soldiers, policemen, beauticians and barbers, clerks and librarians, museum keepers and social workers, truckers and loggers and rangers, surveyors and miners, managers, labourers; in Ontanogon and Battle Creek, in Council Bluffs and Calumet and Cashmere, in Red Wing and Pipestone, in mountain-girt Skykomish and apple-rich Wenatchee; in Chagrin Falls and What Cheer, in Old Mystic and Medicine Lodge, in Steamboat Springs and Bowling Green and Upper Jay and Chateaugay; in Athens, Rome, Carthage, Memphis, Cairo; in Honeybee and Dime Box; in Napoleon, in Snowflake, in Blue Cane, Punxsutawney and Walla Walla; lodged among the perennial old-glorified certainties – the white steeple, the beflagged schoolhouse, the bank, the filling station, the store, the voluble (‘hi, how’re you doin’?’) diner; uttering for the benefit of a scholarly posterity the syllables that have gobbled up an empire of experience, the times and weathers of an ebullient, restless, many-mouthed people. This book is too big, too awesomely big, to take to the fireside, but it is worth clearing your desk – and your imagination – to study it.

The sheer entertainment of it, the lovely warm lallygagging wallow of lingo, threatens to distract attention from the sober purposes of DARE. Its particular aim is not to tell us that when we are bumwizzled we are also more or less hornswoggled, leaving us to fret over what that might mean, as this volume stops at C; or to inform us that bloodynoun, otherwise bloodenhound, bloodymenoun, is what they call a bullfrog in South Carolina (‘prob. imit’ of the creature’s utterance, which some have fancifully likened to ‘blood’ and ‘ounds’); or to explain the occurrence in Black English of a noun and a verb bogart, meaning ‘bully’, derived from the tough-guy screen performances of the admirable Humphrey. Undoubtedly our existence will be all the cheerier for knowing these things, but that is not exactly what the lexicographers had in mind. A major principle of their work is to plot the distribution of popular usages. It is important to know not only what people say, but where they have said it and continue to say it; and one of the great services Professor Cassidy and his associates have performed is to demonstrate the verbal lie of the land.

You may thus discover, that creek, in the sense of ‘freshwater stream’, is general throughout the United States, except in New England, where the usual word is brook. The noun clook, meaning a broody hen, you will find to be chiefly used in Pennysylvania, in north-central USA, and in the upper Midwest; chaparral, meaning ‘any of numerous thicket-forming shrubs or shrubby trees ... also the thicket itself’, occurs in Texas, New Mexico, and the South West generally; and in each case the word speaks for a demographic fact, clook as an adaptation from German or Norwegian, chaparral as a borrowing from Mexican Spanish. The words survive the tongues and travails of the first settlers. Sometimes they outlive their origins by adapting the old form to a new fact. Thus civet cat (‘an ounce of civet, good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination!’) turns up in the Ozarks, and then west of the Mississipi, as civet kitty, civvy cat, ciffy cat, civic cat – meaning a skunk.

Look up Canuck, and you will draw a blank in the swathe of southern states from Texas over to South Carolina, but further north, the responses begin to crackle. A Vermonter says, ‘I can call myself a Canuck, but you’d better not call me one,’ and a writer observes that ‘over the years, as Canuck took on an objectionable tone, the word has been superseded somewhat by Kaybecker ...’ Look up chitterlings (always pronounced chitlins) and you will find yourself exclusively south of the old Mason-Dixon line. Hans Kurath comments: ‘Chitlins is the name of the small intestines of a pig in the Southern area, where they are eaten by the simple folk.’ ‘Simple folk’, presumably means blacks and poor whites, but the author of a book entitled Hog Meat disputes the black monopoly of the socially-definitive chitterling: ‘Chitterlins (the large intestine), reputedly treasured only by Negroes, were relished by whites as well, and the traditional “chittlin supper” came to be an annual epicurean delight.’ Look up a word, look up a political or social history. Some items, however, elude ready analysis. Why should cream cheese, in the sense of ‘cottage cheese’, be a usage seemingly concentrated in Louisiana, with only random occurrences elsewhere? And why does chifforobe (chiffonier + wardrobe, a fine upstanding portmanteau word that also appears in the guises chiffarobe, chifferobe, chifrobe, sifferobe, chiffing robe) occur with particular frequency in the south and south midlands? Would the circulation of the old illustrated mail-order catalogues, with their pictured splendours, have any bearing on this? One of the many delightful things about the dictionary is that it gives you questions to ask, as well as answers to rejoice in.

There are, indeed, answers to questions one might never have thought of asking. When is a bull not a bull? The answer is, when he is a beast, a brute, a critter, a male cow, a gentleman cow, a cow’s brother, a cow’s boy-friend, a cow’s husband, or a cow’s spouse. These responses, and others, were elicited by the request for Words used by women or in mixed company for a bull’. One of the citations under brute explains that ‘a bull or a boar is not to be mentioned in mixed company,’ and a Kentuckian is reported as saying: ‘I allus say “brute” at school in class, but ... th’ agriculture book it says “bull”.’ Allowing for the possibility that the users themselves might regard some of these expressions as just good country fun, and given that many of the informants were of the older generation (60 per cent over sixty, according to the Introduction), there is nonetheless something remarkable about such an outbreak of locutory primness in a normally frank and free-spoken people. Euphemisms crop up in other connections: for instance, in the extraordinary modesty of boo-docks for buttocks, or buns, bunky, bungkajeenis (perhaps a spoof word) for your mere quotidian bum – which is admittedly not a word for ladies or well-bred infants. But why are women – farm women, after all, no Pre-Raphaelite moated lilies, but capable, self-reliant persons, hard realists not unacquainted with the facts of life – forbidden to mention the bull or the boar? Could there be reasons that go deeper than mere delicacy? This is another fascinating aspect of folk-speech: it brings you within a hoot and a holler of ancient lore, myth, vaguely-remembered magics.

If, however, you prefer to remain in the rational land of linguistics, there is territory enough for you to explore in DARE. As a source of material for studies in semantics, in word-formation, in articulatory phonetics, it is almost unfathomably rich. Professor Cassidy has written a prefatory essay on ‘Language Changes in American Folk Speech’, and James Hartman has provided a substantial ‘Guide to Pronunciation’ which must be helpful to all users of the book, but particularly to scholars outside the United States. Thus prepared, all you have to do is step in and look around, and you can do that until you spread your arms and turn over sideways for the luck of it and the love of it and the sheer munificent size of it.

Adverse criticism is hardly to be contemplated; we do it wrong, being so majestical, to offer it the show of violence. I record three puzzlements. The first is that the proportion of black to white informants (6.7 per cent against 92.7 per cent) seems unaccountably low. The second is that, in lexicography as in other matters, you only get what you ask for, and that consequently some things have gone unrecorded for want of questions to elicit them. The third is that even after reading Professor Cassidy’s explanation of the term, I am not sure what ‘regional’ includes or excludes. (Cool it, for example, seems to have originated in Black English, with no particular regional connection.) But these are dwarfish mutterings against a work that spills the incomparable poetry of facts and pours knowledge, good sound knowledge, quaint knowledge, happy, idle knowledge, knowledge to make getting up bearable, knowledge to cosset sleeplessness, a posset for the mind’s cold griefs. I am very glad of this book. I am only sorry that my fancy may have to subsist on A-C, for these things are very slow in the making and I could be laid low and sempiternally coldcocked before the next volume comes out. Coldcocked? Oh yes, it exists. It’s in the dictionary. Look it up.