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The Romance of Words (4th ed.) By Ernest Weekley Characters: 27048

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The bulk of our literary language is Latin, and consists of words either borrowed directly or taken from "learned" French forms. The every-day vocabulary of the less educated is of Old English, commonly called Anglo-Saxon, origin; and from the same source comes what we may call the machinery of the language, i.e., its inflexions, numerals, pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions. Along with Anglo-Saxon, we find a considerable number of words from the related Norse languages, this element being naturally strongest in the dialects of the north and east of England. The third great element of our working vocabulary is furnished by Old French, i.e., the language naturally developed from the spoken Latin of the Roman soldiers and colonists, generally called Vulgar Latin. To its composite character English owes its unequalled richness in expression. For most ideas we have three separate terms, or groups of terms, which, often starting from the same metaphor, serve to express different shades of meaning. Thus a deed done with malice prepense (an Old French compound from Lat. pensare, to weigh), is deliberate or pondered, both Latin words which mean literally "weighed"; but the four words convey four distinct shades of meaning. The Gk. sympathy is Lat. compassion, rendered in English by fellow-feeling.

Sometimes a native word has been completely supplanted by a loan word, e.g., Anglo-Sax. here, army (cf. Ger. Heer), gave way to Old Fr. (h)ost (p. 158). This in its turn was replaced by army, Fr. armée, which, like its Spanish doublet armada, is really a feminine past participle with some word for host, band, etc., understood. Here has survived in Hereford, harbour (p. 164), harbinger (p. 90), etc., and in the verb harry (cf. Ger. verheeren, to harry).

Or a native word may persist in some special sense, e.g., weed, a general term for garment in Shakespeare-

"And there the snake throws her enamel'd skin,

Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in."

(Midsummer Night's Dream, ii. 2.)

survives in "widow's weeds." Chare, a turn of work-

"the maid that milks

And does the meanest chares."

(Antony and Cleopatra, iv. 15.)

has given us charwoman, and persists as American chore-

"Sharlee was ... concluding the post-prandial chores."

(H. S. Harrison, Queed, Ch. 17.)

Sake, cognate with Ger. Sache, thing, cause, and originally meaning a contention at law, has been replaced by cause, except in phrases beginning with the preposition for. See also bead (p. 74). Unkempt, uncombed, and uncouth, unknown, are fossil remains of obsolete verb forms.

In addition to these main constituents of our language, we have borrowed words, sometimes in considerable numbers, sometimes singly and accidentally, from almost every tongue known to mankind, and every year sees new words added to our vocabulary. The following chapters deal especially with words borrowed from Old French and from the other Romance languages, their origins and journeyings, and the various accidents that have befallen them in English. It is in such words as these that the romance of language is best exemplified, because we can usually trace their history from Latin to modern English, while the earlier history of Anglo-Saxon words is a matter for the philologist.


Words borrowed directly from Latin or Greek lack this intermediate experience, though the study of their original meanings is full of surprises. This, however, is merely a question of opening a Latin or Greek dictionary, if we have not time for the moment's reflexion which would serve the same purpose. Thus, to take a dozen examples at random, to abominate[6] is to turn shuddering from the evil omen, a generous man is a man of "race" (genus), an innuendo can be conveyed "by nodding," to insult is to "jump on," a legend is something "to be read," a manual is a "hand-book," an obligation is essentially "binding," to relent is to "go slow," rivals are people living by the same "stream"[7] (rivus), a salary is an allowance for "salt" (sal), a supercilious man is fond of lifting his "eyebrows" (supercilium), and a trivial matter is so commonplace that it can be picked up at the meeting of "three ways" (trivium). Dexterity implies skill with the "right" hand (dexter), while sinister preserves the superstition of the ill-omened "left."

It may be remarked here that the number of Latin words used in their unaltered form in every-day English is larger than is generally realised. Besides such phrases as bona-fide, post-mortem, viva-voce, or such abbreviations as A.M., ante meridiem, D.V., Deo volente, and L. s. d., for libr?, solidi, denarii, we have, without including scientific terms, many Latin nouns, e.g., animal, genius, index, odium, omen, premium, radius, scintilla, stimulus, tribunal, and adjectives, e.g., complex, lucifer, miser, pauper, maximum, senior, and the ungrammatical bonus. The Lat. veto, I forbid, has been worked hard of late. The stage has given us exit, he goes out, and the Universities exeat, let him go out, while law language contains a number of Latin verb forms, e.g., affidavit (late Latin), he has testified, caveat, let him beware, cognovit, he has recognised-

"You gave them a cognovit for the amount of your costs after the trial, I'm told."

(Pickwick, Ch. 46.)

due to the initial words of certain documents. Similarly item, also, is the first word in each paragraph of an inventory. With this we may compare the purview of a statute, from the Old Fr. pourveu (pourvu), provided, with which it used to begin. A tenet is what one "holds." Fiat means "let it be done." When Mr Weller lamented-

"Oh, Sammy, Sammy, vy worn't there a alleybi?"

(Pickwick, Ch. 34.)

it is safe to say that he was not consciously using the Latin adverb alibi, elsewhere, nor is the printer who puts in a viz. always aware that this is an old abbreviation for videlicet, i.e., videre licet, it is permissible to see. A nostrum is "our" unfailing remedy, and tandem, at length, instead of side by side, is a university joke.


Sometimes we have inflected forms of Latin words. A rebus[8] is a word or phrase represented "by things." Requiem, accusative of requies, rest, is the first word of the introit used in the mass for the dead-

"Requiem ?ternam dona eis, Domine,"

while dirge is the Latin imperative dirige, from the antiphon in the same service-

"Dirige, Domine meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam."

The spelling dirige was once common-

"Also I byqwethe to eche of the paryshe prystys beying at my dyryge and masse xiid."

(Will of John Perfay, of Bury St. Edmunds, 1509.)

Query was formerly written qu?re, seek, and plaudit is for plaudite, clap your hands, the appeal of the Roman actors to the audience at the conclusion of the play-

"Nunc, spectatores, Iovis summi causa clare plaudite."

(Plautus, Amphitruo.)

Debenture is for debentur, there are owing. Dominie is the Latin vocative domine, formerly used by schoolboys in addressing their master, while pandy, a stroke on the hand with a cane, is from pande palmam, hold out your hand. Parse is the Lat. pars, occurring in the question Qu? pars orationis? What part of speech? Omnibus, for all, is a dative plural. Limbo is the ablative of Lat. limbus, an edge, hem, in the phrase "in limbo patrum," where limbus is used for the abode of the Old Testament saints on the verge of Hades. It is already jocular in Shakespeare-

"I have some of 'em in limbo patrum, and there they are like to dance these three days."

(Henry VIII., v. 3.)

Folio, quarto, etc., are ablatives, from the phrases in folio, in quarto, etc., still used in French. Premises, earlier premisses, is a slightly disguised Lat. pr?missas, the aforesaid, lit. sent before, used in deeds to avoid repeating the full description of a property. It is thus the same word as logical premisses, or assumptions. Quorum is from a legal formula giving a list of persons "of whom" a certain number must be present. A teetotum is so called because it has, or once had, on one of its sides, a T standing for totum, all. It was also called simply a totum. The other three sides also bore letters to indicate what share, if any, of the stake they represented. Cotgrave has totum (toton), "a kind of game with a whirle-bone." In spite of the interesting anecdote about the temperance orator with an impediment in his speech, it was probably teetotum that suggested teetotaller.

We have also a few words straight from Greek, e.g., analysis, aroma, atlas, the world-sustaining demi-god whose picture used to decorate map-books, colon, comma, dogma, epitome, miasma, nausea, Gk. ναυσ?α, lit. sea-sickness, nectar, whence the fruit called a nectarine-

"Nectarine fruits which the compliant boughs

Yielded them, sidelong as they sat recline."

(Paradise Lost, iv. 332.)

pathos, python, pyx, synopsis, etc.; but most of our Greek words have passed through French via Latin, or are newly manufactured scientific terms, often most unscientifically constructed.

Gamut contains the Gk. gamma and the Latin conjunction ut. Guy d'Arezzo, who flourished in the 11th century, is said to have introduced the method of indicating the notes by the letters a to g. For the note below a he used the Gk. gamma. To him is attributed also the series of monosyllables by which the notes are also indicated. They are supposed to be taken from a Latin hymn to St John-

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris

Mira gestorum famuli tuorum

Solve polluti labii reatum

Sancte Iohannes.

Do is sometimes substituted for ut in French, and always in modern English.


In considering the Old French element in English, one has to bear in mind a few elementary philological facts. Nearly all French nouns and adjectives are derived from the accusative. I give, for simplicity, the nominative, adding the stem in the case of imparisyllabic words. The foundation of French is Vulgar Latin, which differs considerably from that we study at school. I only give Vulgar Latin forms where it cannot be avoided. For instance, in dealing with culverin (p. 38), I connect Fr. couleuvre, adder, with Lat. cól?ber, a snake. Every Romance philologist knows that it must represent Vulgar Lat. *colóbra; but this form, which, being conjectural, is marked with an asterisk, had better be forgotten by the general reader.

Our modern English words often preserve a French form which no longer exists, or they are taken from dialects, especially those of Normandy and Picardy, which differ greatly from that of Paris. The word caudle illustrates both these points. It is the same word as modern Fr. chaudeau, "a caudle; or, warme broth" (Cotgrave), but it preserves the Old French[9] -el for -eau, and the Picard c- for ch-. An uncomfortable bridle which used to be employed to silence scolds was called the branks. It is a Scottish word, originally applied to a bridle improvised from a halter with a wooden "cheek" each side to prevent it from slipping-

"And then its shanks,

They were as thin, as sharp and sma'

As cheeks o' branks."

(Burns, Death and Doctor Hornbook, vii. 4.)

These cheeks correspond to the two parallel levers called the "branches" of a bridle, and brank is the Norman branque, branch. All the meanings of patch answer to those of Fr. pièce. It comes from the Old French dialect form peche, as match comes from mèche, and cratch, a manger, from crèche, of German origin, and ultimately the same word as crib. Cratch is now replaced, except in dialect, by manger, Fr. mangeoire, from manger, to eat, but it was the regular word in Mid. English-

"Sche childide her firste born sone, and wlappide him in clothis, and puttide in a cracche."

(Wyclif, Luke, ii. 7.)

Pew is from Old Fr. puy, a stage, eminence, Lat. podium, which survives in Puy de D?me, the mountain in Auvergne on which Pascal made his experiments with the barometer. Dupuy is a common family name in France, but the Depews of the West Indies have kept the older pronunciation.

Many Old French words which live on in England are obsolete in France. Chime is Old Fr. chimbe from Greco-Lat. cymbalum. Minsheu (1617) derived dismal from Lat. dies mali, evil days. This, says Trench, "is exactly one of those plausible etymologies which one learns after a while to reject with contempt." But Minsheu is substantially right, if we substitute Old Fr. dis mal, which is found as early as 1256. Old Fr. di, a day, also survives in the names of the days of the week, lundi, etc. In remainder and remnant we have the infinitive and present participle of an obsolete Old French verb derived from Lat. remanēre. Manor and power are also Old French infinitives, the first now only used as a noun (manoir), the second represented by pouvoir. Misnomer is the Anglo-French infinitive, "to misname."


In some cases we have preserved meanings now obsolete in French. Trump, in cards, is Fr. triomphe, "the card game called ruffe, or trump; also, the ruffe, or trump at it" (Cotgrave), but the modern French word for trump is atout, to all. Rappee is for obsolete Fr. (tabac) rapé, pulverised, rasped. Fr. talon, heel, from Vulgar Lat. *talo, talon-, for talus, was applied by falconers to the heel claw of the hawk. This meaning, obsolete in French, has persisted in English. The mizen mast is the rearmost of three, but the Fr. mat de misaine is the fore-mast, and both come from Ital. mezza

na middle, "also the poop or mizensail[10] in a ship" (Torriano).

As in the case of Latin, we have some inflected French forms in English. Lampoon is from the archaic Fr. lampon, "a drunken song" (Miège, French Dict., 1688). This is coined from the imperative lampons, let us drink, regularly used as a refrain in seditious and satirical songs. For the formation we may compare American vamose, to skedaddle, from Span. vamos, let us go. The military revelly is the French imperative réveillez, wake up, but in the French army it is called the diane. The gist of a matter is the point in which its importance really "lies." Ci-g?t, for Old Fr. ci-gist, Lat. jacet, here lies, is seen on old tombstones. Tennis, says Minsheu, is so called from Fr. tenez, hold, "which word the Frenchmen, the onely tennis-players, use to speake when they strike the ball." This etymology, for a long time regarded as a wild guess, has been shewn by recent research to be most probably correct. The game is of French origin, and it was played by French knights in Italy a century before we find it alluded to by Gower (c. 1400). Erasmus tells us that the server called out accipe, to which his opponent replied mitte, and as French, and not Latin, was certainly the language of the earliest tennis-players, we may infer that the spectators named the game from the foreign word with which each service began. In French the game is called paume, palm of the hand; cf. fives, also a slang name for the hand. The archaic assoil-

"And the holy man he assoil'd us, and sadly we sail'd away."

(Tennyson, Voyage of Maeldune, xi. 12.)

is the present subjunctive of the Old Fr. asoldre (absoudre), to absolve, used in the stereotyped phrase Dieus asoile, may God absolve.

A linguistic invasion such as that of English by Old French is almost unparalleled. We have instances of the expulsion of one tongue by another, e.g., of the Celtic dialects of Gaul by Latin and of those of Britain by Anglo-Saxon. But a real blending of two languages can only occur when a large section of the population is bilingual for centuries. This, as we know, was the case in England. The Norman dialect, already familiar through inevitable intercourse, was transplanted to England in 1066. It developed further on its own lines into Anglo-Norman, and then, mixed with other French dialects, for not all the invaders were Normans, and political events brought various French provinces into relation with England, it produced Anglo-French, a somewhat barbarous tongue which was the official language till 1362, and with which our legal jargon is saturated. We find in Anglo-French many words which are unrecorded in continental Old French, among them one which we like to think of as essentially English, viz., dueté, duty, an abstract formed from the past participle of Fr. devoir. This verb has also given us endeavour, due to the phrase se mettre en devoir-

"Je me suis en debvoir mis pour moderer sa cholere tyrannicque."[11]

(Rabelais, i. 29.)


No dictionary can keep up with the growth of a language. The New English Dictionary had done the letter C before the cinematograph arrived, but got it in under K. Words of this kind are manufactured in such numbers that the lexicographer is inclined to wait and see whether they will catch on. In such cases it is hard to prophesy. The population of this country may be divided into those people who have been operated for appendicitis and those who are going to be. Yet this word was considered too rare and obscure for insertion in the first volume of the New English Dictionary (1888), the greatest word-book that has ever been projected. Sabotage looks, unfortunately, as if it had come to stay. It is a derivative of saboter, to scamp work, from sabot, a wooden shoe, used contemptuously of an inferior article. The great French dictionaries do not know it in its latest sense of malicious damage done by strikers, and the New English Dictionary, which finished Sa- in the year 1912, just missed it. Hooligan is not recorded by the New English Dictionary. The original Hooligans were a spirited Irish family of that name whose proceedings enlivened the drab monotony of life in Southwark towards the end of the 19th century. The word is younger than the Australian larrikin, of doubtful origin (see p. 190), but older than Fr. apache. The adoption of the Red Indian name Apache for a modern Parisian bravo is a curious parallel to the 18th-century use of Mohock (Mohawk) for an aristocratic London ruffler.

Heckle is first recorded in its political sense for 1880. The New English Dictionary quotes it from Punch in connection with the Fourth Party. In Scottish, however, it is old in this sense, so that it is an example of a dialect word that has risen late in life. Its southern form hatchell is common in Mid. English in its proper sense of "teasing" hemp or flax, and the metaphor is exactly the same. Tease, earlier toose, means to pluck or pull to pieces, hence the name teasel for the thistle used by wool-carders. The older form is seen in the derivative tousle, the family name Tozer, and the dog's name Towser. Feckless, a common Scottish word, was hardly literary English before Carlyle. It is now quite familiar-

"Thriftless, shiftless, feckless."

(Mr Lloyd George, 1st Nov. 1911.)

There is a certain appropriateness in the fact that almost the first writer to use it was James I. It is for effectless. I never heard of a week-end till I paid a visit to Lancashire in 1883. It has long since invaded the whole island. An old geezer has a modern sound, but it is the medieval guiser, guisard, mummer, which has persisted in dialect and re-entered the language.


The fortunes of a word are sometimes determined by accident. Glamour (see p. 145) was popularised by Scott, who found it in old ballad literature. Grail, the holy dish at the Last Supper, would be much less familiar but for Tennyson. Mascot, from a Proven?al word meaning sorcerer, dates from Audran's operetta La Mascotte (1880). Jingo first appears in conjurors' jargon of the 17th century. It has been conjectured to represent Basque jinko, God, picked up by sailors. If this is the case, it is probably the only pure Basque word in English. The Ingoldsby derivation from St Gengulphus-

"Sometimes styled 'The Living Jingo,' from the great tenaciousness of vitality exhibited by his severed members,"

is of course a joke. In 1878, when war with Russia seemed imminent, a music-hall singer, the Great Macdermott, delighted large audiences with-

"We don't want to fight, but, by Jingo, if we do,

We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too."

Hence the name jingo applied to that ultra-patriotic section of the population which, in war-time, attends to the shouting.[12] Fr. chauvin, a jingo, is the name of a real Napoleonic veteran introduced into Scribe's play Le Soldat Laboureur. Barracking is known to us only through the visits of English cricket teams to Australia. It is said to come from a native Australian word meaning derision. The American caucus was first applied (1878) by Lord Beaconsfield to the Birmingham Six Hundred. In 18th-century American it means meeting or discussion. It is probably connected with a North American Indian (Algonkin) word meaning counsellor, an etymology supported by that of pow-wow, a palaver or confab, which is the Algonkin for a medicine-man. With these words may be mentioned Tammany, now used of a famous political body, but, in the 18th century, of a society named after the "tutelar saint" of Pennsylvania. The original Tammany was an Indian chief with whom William Penn negotiated for grants of land about the end of the 17th century. Littoral first became familiar in connection with Italy's ill-starred Abyssinian adventure, and hinterland marked the appearance of Germany as a colonial power-

"'Let us glance a moment,' said Mr Queed, 'at Man, as we see him first emerging from the dark hinterlands of history.'"

(H. S. Harrison, Queed, Ch. 17.)


Sometimes the blunder of a great writer has enriched the language. Scott's bartisan-

"Its varying circle did combine

Bulwark, and bartisan, and line

And bastion, tower ..."

(Marmion, vi. 2.)

is a mistake for bratticing, timber-work, a word of obscure origin of which several corruptions are found in early Scottish. It is rather a favourite with writers of "sword and feather" novels. Other sham antiques are slug-horn, Chatterton's absurd perversion of the Gaelic slogan, war-cry, copied by Browning-

"Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,

And blew 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.'"

and Scott's extraordinary misuse of warison, security, a doublet of garrison, as though it meant "war sound"-

"Or straight they sound their warison,

And storm and spoil thy garrison."

(Lay, iv. 21.)

Scott also gave currency to niddering, a coward-

"Faithless, mansworn,[13] and niddering."

(Ivanhoe, Ch. 42.)

which has been copied by Lytton and Kingsley, and elaborated into nidderling by Mr Crockett. It is a misprint in an early edition of William of Malmesbury for niding or nithing, cognate with Ger. Neid, envy. This word, says Camden, is mightier than Abracadabra,[14] since-

"It hath levied armies and subdued rebellious enemies. For when there was a dangerous rebellion against King William Rufus, and Rochester Castle, then the most important and strongest fort of this realm, was stoutly kept against him, after that he had but proclaimed that his subjects should repair thither to his camp, upon no other penalty, but that whosoever should refuse to come should be reputed a niding, they swarmed to him immediately from all sides in such numbers that he had in a few days an infinite army, and the rebels therewith were so terrified that they forthwith yielded."

(Remains concerning Britain.)

Derring-do is used several times by Spenser, who explains it as "manhood and chevalrie." It is due to his misunderstanding of a passage in Lidgate, in which it is an imitation of Chaucer, complicated by a misprint. Scott took it from Spenser-

"'Singular,' he again muttered to himself, 'if there be two who can do a deed of such derring-do.'"

(Ivanhoe, Ch. 29.)

and from him it passed to Bulwer Lytton and later writers.

Such words as these, the illegitimate offspring of genius, are to be distinguished from the "ghost-words" which dimly haunt the dictionaries without ever having lived (see p. 201). Speaking generally, we may say that no word is ever created de novo. The names invented for commercial purposes are not exceptions to this law. Bovril is compounded of Lat. bos, ox, and vril,[15] the mysterious power which plays so important a part in Lytton's Coming Race, while Tono-Bungay suggests tonic. The only exception to this is gas, the arbitrary coinage of the Belgian chemist Van Helmont in the 17th century. But even this is hardly a new creation, because we have Van Helmont's own statement that the word chaos was vaguely present to his mind. Chortle has, however, secured a limited currency, and is admitted by the New English Dictionary-

"O frabjous day! Callooh! callay!

He chortled in his joy."

(Through the Looking-Glass.)

and, though an accurate account of the boojum is lacking, most people know it to be a dangerous variety of snark.


[6] Abominable is regularly spelt abhominable in late Old French and Mid. English, as though meaning "inhuman," Lat. homo, homin-, a man.

[7] This etymology is doubted by some authorities.

[8] But the word comes to us from French. In the 16th century such puzzles were called rébus de Picardie, because of their popularity in that province.

[9] For simplicity the term Old French is used here to include all words not in modern use. Where a modern form exists it is given in parentheses.

[10] The name was thus applied to a sail before it was given to a mast. Although the Italian word means "middle," it is perhaps, in this particular sense, a popular corruption of an Arabic word of quite different meaning. The discussion of so difficult a problem is rather out of place in a book intended for the general reader, but I cannot refrain from giving a most interesting note which I owe to Mr W. B. Whall, Master Mariner, the author of Shakespeare's Sea Terms Explained-"The sail was (until c. 1780) lateen, i.e., triangular, like the sail of a galley. The Saracens, or Moors, were the great galley sailors of the Mediterranean, and mizen comes from Arab., miezên, balance. The mizen is, even now, a sail that 'balances,' and the reef in a mizen is still called the 'balance' reef."

[11] "I have endeavoured to moderate his tyrannical choler" (Urquhart's Translation, 1653).

[12] The credit of first using the word in the political sense is claimed both for George Jacob Holyoake and Professor Minto.

[13] From Anglo-Sax. mān, deceit, cognate with the first syllable of Ger. Meineid, perjury.

[14] This word, which looks like an unsuccessful palindrome, belongs to the language of medieval magic. It seems to be artificially elaborated from ?βραξ??, a word of Persian origin used by a sect of Greek gnostics. Its letters make up the magic number 365, supposed to represent the number of spirits subject to the supreme being.

[15] In coining vril Lytton probably had in mind Lat. vis, vires, power, or the adjective virilis.

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