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The Romance of Words (4th ed.) By Ernest Weekley Characters: 19541

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

In assigning to a word a foreign origin, it is necessary to show how contact between the two languages has taken place, or the particular reasons which have brought about the borrowing. A Chinese word cannot suddenly make its appearance in Anglo-Saxon, though it may quite well do so in modern English. No nautical terms have reached us from the coast of Bohemia (Winter's Tale, iii. 3), nor is the vocabulary of the wine trade enriched by Icelandic words. Although we have words from all the languages of Europe, our direct borrowings from some of them have been small. The majority of High German words in English have passed through Old French, and we have taken little from modern German. On the other hand, commerce has introduced a great many words from the old Low German dialects of the North Sea and the Baltic.

The Dutch[16] element in English supplies a useful object lesson on the way in which the borrowing of words naturally takes place. As a great naval power, the Dutch have contributed to our nautical vocabulary a number of words, many of which are easily recognised as near relations; such are boom (beam), skipper (shipper), orlop (over leap), the name given to a deck which "over-runs" the ship's hold. Yacht, properly a "hunting" ship, is cognate with Ger. Jagd, hunting, but has no English kin. Hexham has jaght, "zee-roovers schip, pinace, or pirats ship." The modern Dutch spelling is jacht. We should expect to find art terms from the country of Hobbema, Rubens, Vandyke, etc. See easel (p. 39), etch (p. 133), lay-figure (p. 166), sketch (p. 22). Landscape, earlier landskip, has the suffix which in English would be -ship. In the 16th century Camden speaks of "a landskip, as they call it." The Low Countries were for two centuries the cock-pit of Europe, and many military terms were brought back to England by Dugald Dalgetty and the armies which "swore terribly in Flanders." Such are cashier (p. 157), forlorn hope (p. 129), tattoo (p. 162). Other interesting military words are leaguer (lair), recently re-introduced from South Africa as laager, and furlough. The latter word, formerly pronounced to rime with cough, is from Du. verlof (for leave); cf. archaic Ger. Verlaub, now replaced by Urlaub. Knapsack,[17] a food sack, comes from colloquial Du. knap, food, or what the Notts colliers call snap. We also find it called a snapsack. Both knap and snap contain the idea of "crunching"-

"I would she (Report) were as lying a gossip in that as ever knapped ginger."

(Merchant of Venice, iii. 1.)

Roster (roaster) is the Dutch for gridiron, the allusion being to the parallel lines of the list or plan; for a somewhat similar metaphor cf. cancel (p. 88). The pleasant fiction that-

"The children of Holland take pleasure in making

What the children of England take pleasure in breaking,"

confirms the derivation of toy from Du. tuig, implement, thing, stuff, etc., a word, like its German cognate Zeug, with an infinity of meanings. We now limit toy to the special sense represented by Du. speel-tuig, play-thing.


Our vocabulary dealing with war and fortification is chiefly French, but most of the French terms come from Italian. Addison wrote an article in No. 165 of the Spectator ridiculing the Frenchified character of the military language of his time, and, in the 16th century, Henri Estienne, patriot, printer, and philologist, lamented that future historians would believe, from the vocabulary employed, that France had learnt the art of war from Italy. As a matter of fact she did. The earliest writers on the new tactics necessitated by villainous saltpetre were Italians trained in condottiere warfare. They were followed by the great French theorists and engineers of the 16th and 17th centuries, who naturally adopted a large number of Italian terms which thus passed later into English.

A considerable number of Spanish and Portuguese words have reached us in a very roundabout way (see pp. 23-7). This is not surprising when we consider how in the 15th and 16th centuries the world was dotted with settlements due to the Portuguese and Spanish adventurers who had a hundred years' start of our own.

There are very few Celtic words either in English or French. In each country the result of conquest was, from the point of view of language, complete. A few words from the Celtic languages have percolated into English in comparatively recent times, but many terms which we associate with the picturesque Highlanders are not Gaelic at all.[18] Tartan comes through French from the Tartars (see p. 47); kilt is a Scandinavian verb, "to tuck up," and dirk,[19] of unknown origin, first appears about 1600. For trews see p. 117.

A very interesting part of our vocabulary, the canting, or rogues', language, dates mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, and includes contributions from most of the European languages, together with a large Romany element. The early dictionary makers paid great attention to this aspect of the language. Elisha Coles, who published a fairly complete English dictionary in 1676, says in his preface, "'Tis no disparagement to understand the canting terms: it may chance to save your throat from being cut, or (at least), your pocket from being pick'd."

Words often go long journeys. Boss is in English a comparatively modern Americanism. But, like many American words, it belongs to the language of the Dutch settlers who founded New Amsterdam (New York). It is Du. baas, master, which has thus crossed the Atlantic twice on its way from Holland to England. A number of Dutch words became familiar to us about the year 1900 in consequence of the South African war. One of them, slim, 'cute, seems to have been definitely adopted. It is cognate with Ger. schlimm, bad, and Eng. slim, slender, and the latter word has for centuries been used in the Eastern counties in the very sense in which it has now been re-introduced.

Apricot is a much travelled word. It comes to us from Fr. abricot, while the Shakespearean apricock-

"Feed him with apricocks and dewberries."

(Midsummer Night's Dream, iii. 1.)

represents the Spanish or Portuguese form. Ger. Aprikose comes, via Dutch, from the French plural. The word was adopted into the Romance languages from Arab. al-barquq, where al is the definite article (cf. examples on p. 115), while barquq comes, through medieval Greek, from Vulgar Lat. pr?coquum, for pr?cox, early-ripe. Thus the word first crossed the Adriatic, passed on to Asia Minor or the North coast of Africa, and then travelling along the Mediterranean re-entered Southern Europe.


Many other Arabic trade words have a similar history. Carat comes to us, through French, from Italian carato, "a waight or degree called a caract" (Florio). The Italian word is from Arabic, but the Arabic form is a corruption of Gk. κερ?τιον, fruit of the locust tree, lit. little horn, also used of a small weight. The verb to garble, now used only of confusing or falsifying,[20] meant originally to sort or sift, especially spices-

"Garbler of spices is an officer of great antiquity in the city of London, who may enter into any shop, warehouse, etc., to view and search drugs, spices, etc., and to garble the same and make them clean."

(Cowel's Interpreter.)

It represents Span. garbellar, from garbello, a sieve. This comes from Arab. ghirbāl, a sieve, borrowed from Lat. cribellum, diminutive of cribrum. Quintal, an old word for hundred-weight, looks as if it had something to do with five. Fr. and Span. quintal are from Arab. qintar, hundred-weight, which is Lat. centenarium (whence directly Ger. Zentner, hundred-weight). The French word passed into Dutch, and gave, with a diminutive ending, kindekijn, now replaced by kinnetje, a firkin.[21] We have adopted it as kilderkin, but have doubled its capacity. With these examples of words that have passed through Arabic may be mentioned talisman, not a very old word in Europe, from Arab. tilsam, magic picture, ultimately from Gk. τελε?ν, to initiate into mysteries, lit. to accomplish, and effendi, a Turkish corruption of Gk. α?θ?ντη?, a master, whence Lat. authentic.

Hussar seems to be a late Latin word which passed into Greece and then entered Central Europe via the Balkans. It comes into 16th-century German from Hungar. huszar, freebooter. This is from a Serbian word which means also pirate. It represents medieval Gk. κουρσ?ριο?, a transliteration of Vulgar Lat. cursarius, from currere, to run, which occurs also with the sense of pirate in medieval Latin. Hussar is thus a doublet of corsair. The immediate source of sketch is Du. schets, "draught of any picture" (Hexham), from Ital. schizzo, "an ingrosement or first rough draught of anything" (Florio), whence also Fr. esquisse and Ger. Skizze. The Italian word represents Greco-Lat. schedium, an extempore effort.

Assassin and slave are of historic interest. Assassin, though not very old in English, dates from the Crusades. Its oldest European form is Ital. assassino, and it was adopted into French in the 16th century. Henri Estienne, whose fiery patriotism entered even into philological questions, reproaches his countrymen for using foreign terms. They should only adopt, he says, Italian words which express Italian qualities hitherto unknown to the French, such as assassin, charlatan, poltron! Assassin is really a plural, from the hachaschin, eaters of the drug haschish, who executed the decrees of the Old Man of the Mountains. It was one of these who stabbed Edward Longshanks at Acre. The first slaves were captive Slavonians. We find the word in most of the European languages. The fact that none of the Western tribes of the race called them

selves Slavs or Slavonians shows that the word could not have entered Europe via Germany, where the Slavs were called Wends. It must have come from the Byzantine empire via Italy.

Some Spanish words have also come to us by the indirect route. The cocoa which is grateful and comforting was formerly spelt cacao, as in French and German. It is a Mexican word. The cocoa of cocoa-nut is for coco, a Spanish baby-word for an ugly face or bogie-man. The black marks at one end of the nut give it, especially before the removal of the fibrous husk, some resemblance to a ferocious face. Stevens (1706) explains coco as "the word us'd to fright children; as we say the Bulbeggar."


Mustang seems to represent two words, mestengo y mostrenco, "a straier" (Percyvall). The first appears to be connected with mesta, "a monthly fair among herdsmen; also, the laws to be observed by all that keep or deal in cattle" (Stevens), and the second with mostrar, to show, the finder being expected to advertise a stray. The original mustangs were of course descended from the strayed horses of the Spanish conquistadors. Ranch, Span. rancho, a row (of huts), is a doublet of rank, from Fr. rang, Old Fr. reng, Old High Ger. hring, a ring. Thus what is now usually straight was once circular, the ground idea of arrangement surviving. Another doublet is Fr. harangue, due to the French inability to pronounce hr- (see p. 55), a speech delivered in the ring. Cf. also Ital. aringo, "a riding or carreering place, a liste for horses, or feates of armes: a declamation, an oration, a noise, a common loud speech" (Florio), in which the "ring" idea is also prominent.

Other "cow-boy" words of Spanish origin are the less familiar cinch, girth of a horse, Span. cincha, from Lat. cingula, also used metaphorically-

"The state of the elements enabled Mother Nature 'to get a cinch' on an honourable ?stheticism."

(Snaith, Mrs Fitz, Ch. 1.)

and the formidable riding-whip called a quirt, Span. cuerda, cord-

"Whooping and swearing as they plied the quirt."

(Masefield, Rosas.)

Stories of Californian life often mention Span. reata, a tethering rope, from the verb reatar, to bind together, Lat. re-aptare. Combined with the definite article (la reata) it has given lariat, a familiar word in literature of the Buffalo Bill character. Lasso, Span. lazo, Lat. laqueus, snare, is a doublet of Eng. lace.

When, in the Song of Hiawatha-

"Gitche Manito, the mighty,

Smoked the calumet, the Peace-pipe,

As a signal to the nations,"

he was using an implement with a French name. Calumet is an Old Norman word for chalumeau, reed, pipe, a diminutive from Lat. calamus. It was naturally applied by early French voyagers to the "long reed for a pipe-stem." Eng. shawm is the same word without the diminutive ending. Another Old French word, once common in English, but now found only in dialect, is felon, a whitlow. It is used more than once by Mr Hardy-

"I've been visiting to Bath because I had a felon on my thumb."

(Far from the Madding Crowd, Ch. 33.)

This is still an every-day word in Canada and the United States. It is a metaphorical use of felon, a fell villain. A whitlow was called in Latin furunculus, "a little theefe; a sore in the bodie called a fellon" (Cooper), whence Fr. furoncle, or froncle, "the hot and hard bumpe, or swelling, tearmed, a fellon" (Cotgrave). Another Latin name for it was tagax, "a felon on a man's finger" (Cooper), lit. thievish. One of its Spanish names is padrastro, lit. step-father. I am told that an "agnail" was formerly called a "step-mother" in Yorkshire. This is a good example of the semantic method in etymology (see pp. 99-104).


Some of the above instances show how near to home we can often track a word which at first sight appears to belong to another continent. This is still more strikingly exemplified in the case of Portuguese words, which have an almost uncanny way of pretending to be African or Indian. Some readers will, I think, be surprised to hear that assegai occurs in Chaucer, though in a form not easily recognisable. It is a Berber word which passed through Spanish and Portuguese into French and English. We find Fr. archegaie in the 14th century, azagaie in Rabelais, and the modern form zagaie in Cotgrave, who describes it as "a fashion of slender, long, and long-headed pike, used by the Moorish horsemen." In Mid. English l'archegaie was corrupted by folk-etymology (see p. 115) into lancegay, launcegay, the form used by Chaucer-

"He worth upon his stede gray,

And in his hond a launcegay,

A long swerd by his syde."

(Sir Thopas, l. 40.)

The use of this weapon was prohibited by statute in 1406, hence the early disappearance of the word.

Another "Zulu" word which has travelled a long way is kraal. This is a contracted Dutch form from Port. curral, a sheepfold (cf. Span. corral, a pen, enclosure). Both assegai and kraal were taken to South East Africa by the Portuguese and then adopted by the Boers and Kafirs.[22] Sjambok occurs in 17th-century accounts of India in the form chawbuck. It is a Persian word, spelt chabouk by Moore, in Lalla Rookh. It was adopted by the Portuguese as chabuco, "in the Portuguese India, a whip or scourge"[23] (Vieyra, Port. Dict., 1794). Fetish, an African idol, first occurs in the records of the early navigators, collected and published by Hakluyt and Purchas. It is the Port. feiti?o, Lat. factitius, artificial, applied by the Portuguese explorers to the graven images of the heathen. The corresponding Old Fr. faitis is rather a complimentary adjective, and everyone remembers the lady in Chaucer who spoke French fairly and fetousli. Palaver, also a travellers' word from the African coast, is Port. palavra, word, speech, Greco-Lat. parabola. It is thus a doublet of parole and parable, and is related to parley. Ayah, an Indian nurse, is Port. aia, nurse, of unknown origin. Caste is Port. casta, pure, and a doublet of chaste. Tank, an Anglo-Indian word of which the meaning has narrowed in this country, is Port. tanque, a pool or cistern, Lat. stagnum, whence Old Fr. estang (étang) and provincial Eng. stank, a dam, or a pond banked round. Cobra is the Portuguese for snake, cognate with Fr. couleuvre, Lat. coluber (see p. 7). We use it as an abbreviation for cobra de capello, hooded snake, the second part of which is identical with Fr. chapeau and cognate with cape, chapel (p. 152), chaplet, a garland, and chaperon, a "protecting" hood. From still further afield than India comes joss, a Chinese god, a corruption of Port. deos, Lat. deus. Even mandarin comes from Portuguese, and not Chinese, but it is an Eastern word, ultimately of Sanskrit origin.


The word gorilla is perhaps African, but more than two thousand years separate its first appearance from its present use. In the 5th or 6th century, B.C., a Carthaginian navigator named Hanno sailed beyond the Pillars of Hercules along the west coast of Africa. He probably followed very much the same route as Sir Richard Dalyngridge and Saxon Hugh when they voyaged with Witta the Viking. He wrote in Punic a record of his adventures, which was received with the incredulity usually accorded to travellers' tales. Among the wonders he encountered were some hairy savages called gorillas. His work was translated into Greek and later on into several European languages, so that the word became familiar to naturalists. In 1847 it was applied to the giant ape, which had recently been described by explorers.

The origin of the word silk is a curious problem. It is usually explained as from Greco-Lat. sericum, a name derived from an Eastern people called the Seres, presumably the Chinese. It appears in Anglo-Saxon as seolc. Now, at that early period, words of Latin origin came to us by the overland route and left traces of their passage. But all the Romance languages use for silk a name derived from Lat. s?ta, bristle, and this name has penetrated even into German (Seide) and Dutch (zijde). The derivatives of sericum stand for another material, serge. Nor can it be assumed that the r of the Latin word would have become in English always l and never r. There are races which cannot sound the letter r, but we are not one of them. As the word silk is found also in Old Norse, Swedish, Danish, and Old Slavonian, the natural inference is that it must have reached us along the north of Europe, and, if derived from sericum, it must, in the course of its travels, have passed through a dialect which had no r.


[16] This includes Flemish, spoken in a large part of Belgium and in the North East of France.

[17] Haversack, oat-sack, comes through French from German.

[18] This applies also to some of the clan names, e.g., Macpherson, son of the parson, Macnab, son of the abbot.

[19] My own conviction is that it is identical with Dan. dirik, dirk, a pick-lock. See Dietrich (p. 42). An implement used for opening an enemy may well have been named in this way. Cf. Du. opsteeker (up sticker), "a pick-lock, a great knife, or a dagger" (Sewel, 1727).

[20] "It was a wholly garbled version of what never took place" (Mr Birrell, in the House, 26th Oct. 1911). The bull appears to be a laudable concession to Irish national feeling.

[21] Formerly ferdekin, a derivative of Du. vierde, fourth; cf. farthing, a little fourth.

[22] Kafir (Arab.) means infidel.

[23] Eng. chawbuck is used in connection with the punishment we call the bastinado. This is a corruption of Span. bastonada, "a stroke with a club or staff" (Stevens, 1706). On the other hand, we extend the meaning of drub, the Arabic word for bastinado, to a beating of any kind.

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