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The Romance of Words (4th ed.) By Ernest Weekley Characters: 24198

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

We have all noticed the fantastic way in which ideas are linked together in our thoughts. One thing suggests another with which it is accidentally associated in memory, the second suggests a third, and, in the course even of a few seconds, we find that we have travelled from one subject to another so remote that it requires an effort to reconstruct the series of links which connects them. The same thing happens with words. A large number of words, despite great changes of sense, retain the fundamental meaning of the original, but in many cases this is quite lost. A truer image than that of the linked chain would be that of a sphere giving off in various directions a number of rays each of which may form the nucleus of a fresh sphere. Or we may say that at each link of the chain there is a possibility of another chain branching off in a direction of its own. In Cotgrave's time to garble (see p. 21) and to canvass, i.e. sift through canvas, meant the same thing. Yet how different is their later sense development.


There is a word ban, found in Old High German and Anglo-Saxon, and meaning, as far back as it can be traced, a proclamation containing a threat, hence a command or prohibition. We have it in banish, to put under the ban. The proclamation idea survives in the banns of marriage and in Fr. arrière-ban, "a proclamation, whereby those that hold authority of the king in mesne tenure, are summoned to assemble, and serve him in his warres" (Cotgrave). This is folk-etymology for Old Fr. arban, Old High Ger. hari-ban, army summons. Slanting off from the primitive idea of proclamation is that of rule or authority. The French for outskirts is banlieue, properly the "circuit of a league, or thereabouts" (Cotgrave) over which the local authority extended. All public institutions within such a radius were associated with ban, e.g., un four, un moulin à ban, "a comon oven or mill whereat all men may, and every tenant and vassall must, bake, and grind" (Cotgrave). The French adjective banal, used in this connection, gradually developed from the meaning of "common" that of "common-place," in which sense it is now familiar in English.[52]

Bureau, a desk, was borrowed from French in the 17th century. In modern French it means not only the desk, but also the office itself and the authority exercised by the office. Hence our familiar bureaucracy, likely to become increasingly familiar. The desk was so called because covered with bureau, Old Fr. burel, "a thicke course cloath, of a brown russet, or darke mingled, colour" (Cotgrave), whence Mid. Eng. borel, rustic, clownish, lit. roughly clad, which occurs as late as Spenser-

"How be I am but rude and borrel,

Yet nearer ways I know."

(Shepherd's Calendar, July, l. 95.)

With this we may compare the metaphorical use of home-spun-

"What hempen home-spuns have we swaggering here,

So near the cradle of the fairy queen?"

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

The source of Old Fr. burel is perhaps Lat. burrus, fiery, from Gk. π?ρ, fire.

Romance was originally an adverb. To write in the vulgar tongue, instead of in classical Latin, was called romanice scribere, Old Fr. romanz escrire. When romanz became felt as a noun, it developed a "singular" roman or romant, the latter of which gave the archaic Eng. romaunt. The most famous of Old French romances are the epic poems called Chansons de geste, songs of exploits, geste coming from the Lat. gesta, deeds. Eng. gest or jest is common in the 16th and 17th centuries in the sense of act, deed, and jest-book meant a story-book. As the favourite story-books were merry tales, the word gradually acquired its present meaning.

A part of our Anglo-Saxon church vocabulary was supplanted by Latin or French words. Thus Anglo-Sax. ge-bed, prayer, was gradually expelled by Old Fr. preiere (prière), Lat. precaria. It has survived in beadsman-

"The beadsman, after thousand aves told,

For aye unsought-for slept among his ashes cold."

(Keats, Eve of St Agnes.)

beadroll, and bead, now applied only to the humble device employed in counting prayers.

Not only the Romance languages, but also German and Dutch, adopted, with the Roman character, Lat. scribere, to write. English, on the contrary, preserved the native to write, i.e. to scratch (runes), giving to scribere only a limited sense, to shrive. The curious change of meaning was perhaps due to the fact that the priestly absolution was felt as having the validity of a "written" law or enactment.


The meaning which we generally give to pudding is comparatively modern. The older sense appears in black pudding, a sausage made of pig's blood. This is also the meaning of Fr. boudin, whence pudding comes. A still older meaning of both words is intestine, a sense still common in dialect. The derivation of the word is obscure, but it is probably related to Fr. bouder, to pout, whence boudoir, lit. a sulking-room.

A hearse, now the vehicle in which a coffin is carried, is used by Shakespeare for a coffin or tomb. Its earlier meaning is a framework to support candles, usually put round the coffin at a funeral. This framework was so named from some resemblance to a harrow,[53] Fr. herse, Lat. hirpex, hirpic-, a rake.

Treacle is a stock example of great change of meaning. It is used in Coverdale's Bible (1535) for the "balm in Gilead" of the Authorised Version-

"There is no more triacle at Galaad."[54]

(Jeremiah, vii. 22.)

Old Fr. triacle is from Greco-Lat. theriaca, a remedy against poison or snake-bite (θ?ρ, a wild beast). In Mid. English and later it was used of a sovereign remedy. It has, like sirup (p. 146), acquired its present meaning via the apothecary's shop.

A stickler is now a man who is fussy about small points of etiquette or procedure. In Shakespeare he is one who parts combatants-

"The dragon wing of night o'erspreads the earth,

And, stickler-like, the armies separates."

(Troilus and Cressida, v. 8.)

An earlier sense is that of seeing fair-play. The word has been popularly associated with the stick, or staff, used by the umpires in duels, and Torriano gives stickler as one of the meanings of bastoniere, a verger or mace-bearer. But it probably comes from Mid. Eng. stightlen, to arrange, keep order (see p. 172, n. 2).

Infantry comes, through French, from Italian. It means a collection of "infants" or juniors, so called by contrast with the proved veterans who composed the cavalry.

The pastern of a horse, defined by Dr Johnson as the knee, from "ignorance, madam, pure ignorance," still means in Cotgrave and Florio "shackle." Florio even recognises a verb to pastern, e.g., pastoiare, "to fetter, to clog, to shackle, to pastern, to give (gyve)." It comes from Old Fr. pasturon (paturon), a derivative of pasture, such shackles being used to prevent grazing horses from straying. Pester (p. 167) is connected with it. The modern Fr. paturon has changed its meaning in the same way.

To rummage means in the Elizabethan navigators to stow goods in a hold. A rummager was what we call a stevedore.[55] Rummage is Old Fr. arrumage (arrimage), from arrumer, to stow, the middle syllable of which is probably cognate with English room; cf. arranger, to put in "rank."

The Christmas waits were originally watchmen, Anglo-Fr. waite, Old Fr. gaite, from the Old High German form of modern Ger. Wacht, watch. Modern French still has the verb guetter, to lie in wait for, and guet, the watch. Minstrel comes from an Old French derivative of Lat. minister, servant. Modern Fr. ménétrier is only used of a country fiddler who attends village weddings.

The lumber-room is supposed to be for Lombard room, i.e., the room in which pawnbrokers used to store pledged property. The Lombards introduced into this country the three balls, said to be taken from the arms of the Medici family.


Livery is correctly explained by the poet Spenser-

"What livery is, we by common use in England know well enough, namely, that it is allowance of horse-meat, as they commonly use the word in stabling; as, to keep horses at livery; the which word, I guess, is derived of livering or delivering forth their nightly food. So in great houses, the livery is said to be served up for all night, that is, their evening allowance for drink; and livery is also called the upper weed (see p. 2) which a serving-man wears; so called, as I suppose, for that it was delivered and taken from him at pleasure."

(View of the State of Ireland.)

This passage explains also livery stable.[56] Our word comes from Fr. livrée, the feminine past participle of livrer, from Lat. liberare, to deliver.

Pedigree was in Mid. English pedegrew, petigrew, etc. It represents Old Fr. pie (pied) de grue, crane's foot, from the shape of a sign used in showing lines of descent in genealogical charts. The older form survives in the family name Pettigrew. Here it is a nickname, like Pettifer (pied de fer), iron-foot; cf. Sheepshanks.

Fairy is a collective, Fr. féerie, its modern use being perhaps due to its occurrence in such phrases as Faerie Queen, i.e., Queen of Fairyland. Cf. paynim, used by some poets for pagan, but really a doublet of paganism, occurring in paynim host, paynim knight, etc. The correct name for the individual fairy is fay, Fr. fée, Vulgar Lat. *fata, connected with fatum, fate. This appears in Ital. fata, "a fairie, a witch, an enchantres, an elfe" (Florio). The fata morgana, the mirage sometimes seen in the Strait of Messina, is attributed to the fairy Morgana of Tasso, the Morgan le Fay of our own Arthurian legends.

Many people must have wondered at some time why the clubs and spades on cards are so called. The latter figure, it is true, bears some resemblance to a spade, but no giant of fiction is depicted with a club with a triple head. The explanation is that we have adopted the French pattern, carreau (see p. 161), diamond, c?ur, heart, pique, pike, spear-head, trèfle, trefoil, clover-leaf, but have given to the two latter the names used in the Italian and Spanish pattern, which, instead of the pike and trefoil, has the sword (Ital. spada) and mace (Ital. bastone). Etymologically both spades are identical, the origin being Greco-Lat. spatha, the name of a number of blade-shaped objects; cf. the diminutive spatula.

Wafer, in both its senses, is related to Ger. Wabe, honeycomb. We find Anglo-Fr. wafre in the sense of a thin cake, perhaps stamped with a honeycomb pattern. The cognate Fr. gaufre is the name of a similar cake, which not only has the honeycomb pattern, but is also largely composed of honey. Hence our verb to goffer, to give a cellular appearance to a frill.


The meanings of adjectives are especially subject to change. Quaint now conveys the idea of what is unusual, and, as early as the 17th century, we find it explained as "strange, unknown." This is the exact opposite of its original meaning, Old Fr. cointe, Lat. cognitus; cf. acquaint, Old Fr. acointier, to make known. It is possible to trace roughly the process by which this remarkable volte-face has been brought about. The intermediate sense of trim or pretty is common in Shakespeare-

"For a fine, quaint, graceful, and excellent fashion, yours is worth ten on't."

(Much Ado, iii. 4.)

We apply restive to a horse that will not stand still. It means properly a horse that will not do anything else. Fr. rétif, Old Fr. restif, from rester, to remain, Lat. re-stare, has kept more of the original sense of stubbornness. Scot. reest, reist, means to stand stock-still-

"Certain it was that Shagram reisted, and I ken Martin thinks he saw something."

(Monastery, Ch. 4.)

Dryden even uses restive in the sense of sluggish-

"So James the drowsy genius wakes

Of Britain, long entranced in charms,

Restive, and slumbering on its arms."

(Threnodia Augustalis.)

Reasty, used of meat that has "stood" too long, is the same word (cf. testy, Old Fr. testif, heady), and rusty bacon

is probably folk-etymology for reasty bacon-

"And then came haltyng Jone,

And brought a gambone

Of bakon that was reasty."

(Skelton, Elynour Rummyng.)

Sterling has an obscure history. It is from Old Fr. esterlin, a coin which etymologists of an earlier age connected with the Easterlings, or Hanse merchants, who formed one of the great mercantile communities of the Middle Ages; and perhaps some such association is responsible for the meaning that sterling has acquired; but chronology shows this traditional etymology to be impossible. We find unus sterlingus in a medieval Latin document of 1184, and the Old Fr. esterlin occurs in Wace's Roman de Rou (Romaunt of Rollo the Sea King), which was written before 1175. Hence it is conjectured that the original coin was named from the star which appears on some Norman pennies.

When Horatio says-

"It is a nipping and an eager air."

(Hamlet, i. 4.)

we are reminded that eager is identical with the second part of vin-egar, Fr. aigre, sour, Lat. acer, keen. It seems hardly possible to explain the modern sense of nice, which in the course of its history has traversed nearly the whole diatonic scale between "rotten" and "ripping." In Mid. English and Old French it means foolish. Cotgrave explains it by "lither, lazie, sloathful, idle; faint, slack; dull, simple," and Shakespeare uses it in a great variety of meanings. It is supposed to come from Lat. nescius, ignorant. The transition from fond, foolish, which survives in "fond hopes," to fond, loving, is easy. French fou is used in exactly the same way. Cf. also to dote on, i.e., to be foolish about. Puny is Fr. pu?né, from puis né, later born, junior, whence the puisne justices. Milton uses it of a minor-

"He must appear in print like a puny with his guardian."


Petty, Fr. petit, was similarly used for a small boy.

In some cases a complimentary adjective loses its true meaning and takes on a contemptuous or ironic sense. None of us care to be called bland, and to describe a man as worthy is to apologise for his existence. We may compare Fr. bonhomme, which now means generally an old fool, and bonne femme, good-wife, goody. Dapper, the Dutch for brave (cf. Ger. tapfer), and pert, Mid. Eng. apert, representing in meaning Lat. expertus, have changed much since Milton wrote of-

"The pert fairies and the dapper elves."

(Comus, l. 118.)

Pert seems in fact to have acquired the meaning of its opposite malapert, though the older sense of brisk, sprightly, survives in dialect-

"He looks spry and peart for once."

(Phillpotts, American Prisoner, Ch. 3.)

Smug, cognate with Ger. schmuck, trim, elegant, beautiful, has its original sense in Shakespeare-

"And here the smug and silver Trent shall run

In a new channel, fair and evenly."

(1 Henry IV., iii. 1.)

The degeneration of an adjective is sometimes due to its employment for euphemistic purposes. The favourite substitute for fat is stout, properly strong,[57] dauntless, etc., cognate with Ger. stolz, proud. Precisely the same euphemism appears in French, e.g., "une dame un peu forte." Ugly is replaced in English by plain, and in American by homely-

"She is not so handsome as these, maybe, but her homeliness is not actually alarming."

(Max Adeler, Mr Skinner's Night in the Underworld.)

In the case of this word, as in many others, the American use preserves a meaning which was once common in English. Kersey's Dictionary (1720) explains homely as "ugly, disagreeable, course (coarse), mean."


Change of meaning may be brought about by association. A miniature is a small portrait, and we even use the word as an adjective meaning small, on a reduced scale. But the true sense of miniature is something painted in minium, red lead. Florio explains miniatura as "a limning (see p. 63), a painting with vermilion." Such paintings were usually small, hence the later meaning. The word was first applied to the ornamental red initial capitals in manuscripts. Vignette still means technically in French an interlaced vine-pattern on a frontispiece.[58] Cotgrave has vignettes, "vignets; branches, or branch-like borders, or flourishes in painting, or ingravery."

The degeneration in the meaning of a noun may be partly due to frequent association with disparaging adjectives. Thus hussy, i.e. housewife, quean,[59] woman, wench, child, have absorbed such adjectives as impudent, idle, light, saucy, etc. Shakespeare uses quean only three times, and these three include "cozening quean" (Merry Wives, iv. 2) and "scolding quean" (All's Well, ii. 2). With wench, still used without any disparaging sense by country folk, we may compare Fr. garce, lass, and Ger. Dirne, maid-servant, both of which are now insulting epithets, but, in the older language, could be applied to Joan of Arc and the Virgin Mary respectively. Garce was replaced by fille, which has acquired in its turn a meaning so offensive that it has now given way to jeune fille. Minx, earlier minkes, is probably the Low Ger. minsk, Ger. Mensch, lit. human, but used also in the sense of "wench." For the consonantal change cf. hunks, Dan. hundsk, stingy, lit. doggish. These examples show that the indignant "Who are you calling a woman?" is, philologically, in all likelihood a case of intelligent anticipation.


Adjectives are affected in their turn by being regularly coupled with certain nouns. A buxom help-mate was once obedient, the word being cognate with Ger. biegsam, flexible, yielding-

"The place where thou and Death

Shall dwell at ease, and up and down unseen

Wing silently the buxom air."

(Paradise Lost, ii. 840.)

An obedient nature is "buxom, blithe and debonair," qualities which affect the physique and result in heartiness of aspect and a comely plumpness. An arch damsel is etymologically akin to an archbishop, both descending from the Greek prefix ?ρχι, from ?ρχ?, a beginning, first cause. Shakespeare uses arch as a noun-

"The noble duke my master,

My worthy arch and patron comes to-night."

(Lear, ii. 1.)

Occurring chiefly in such phrases as arch enemy, arch heretic, arch hypocrite, arch rogue, it acquired a depreciatory sense, which has now become so weakened that archness is not altogether an unpleasing attribute. We may compare the cognate German prefix Erz. Ludwig has, as successive entries, Ertz-dieb, "an arch-thief, an arrant thief," and Ertz-engel, "an arch-angel." The meaning of arrant is almost entirely due to association with "thief." It means lit. wandering, vagabond, so that the arrant thief is nearly related to the knight errant, and to the Justices in eyre, Old Fr. eire, Lat. iter, a way, journey. Fr. errer, to wander, stray, is compounded of Vulgar Lat. iterare, to journey, and Lat. errare, to stray, and it would be difficult to calculate how much of each enters into the composition of le Juif errant.

As I have suggested above, association accounts to some extent for changes of meaning, but the process is in reality more complex, and usually a number of factors are working together or in opposition to each other. A low word may gradually acquire right of citizenship. "That article blackguardly called pluck" (Scott) is now much respected. It is the same word as pluck, the heart, liver, and lungs of an animal-

"During the Crimean war, plucky, signifying courageous, seemed likely to become a favourite term in Mayfair, even among the ladies."

(Hotten's Slang Dictionary, 1864.)

Having become respectable, it is now replaced in sporting circles by the more emphatic guts, which reproduces the original metaphor. A word may die out in its general sense, surviving only in some special meaning. Thus the poetic sward, scarcely used except with "green," meant originally the skin or crust of anything. It is cognate with Ger. Schwarte, "the sward, or rind, of a thing" (Ludwig), which now means especially bacon-rind. Related words may meet with very different fates in kindred languages. Eng. knight is cognate with Ger. Knecht, servant, which had, in Mid. High German, a wide range of meanings, including "warrior, hero." There is no more complimentary epithet than knightly, while Ger. knechtisch means servile. The degeneration of words like boor,[60] churl, farmer, is a familiar phenomenon (cf. villain, p. 150). The same thing has happened to blackguard, the modern meaning of which bears hardly on a humble but useful class. The name black guard was given collectively to the kitchen detachment of a great man's retinue. The scavenger has also come down in the world, rather an unusual phenomenon in the case of official titles. The medieval scavager[61] was an important official who seems to have been originally a kind of inspector of customs. He was called in Anglo-French scawageour, from the noun scawage, showing. The Old French dialect verb escauwer is of Germanic origin and cognate with Eng. show and Ger. schauen, to look. The cheater, now usually cheat, probably deserved his fate. The escheators looked after escheats, i.e., estates or property that lapsed and were forfeited. The origin of the word is Old Fr. escheoir (échoir), to fall due, Vulgar Lat. ex *cadēre for cad?re. Their reputation was unsavoury, and cheat has already its present meaning in Shakespeare. He also plays on the double meaning-

"I will be cheater to them both, and they shall be exchequers to me."

(Merry Wives, i. 3.)


Beldam implies "hag" as early as Shakespeare, but he also uses it in its proper sense of "grandmother," e.g., Hotspur refers to "old beldam earth" and "our grandam earth" in the same speech (1 Henry IV., iii. 1), and Milton speaks of "beldam nature"-

"Then sing of secret things that came to pass

When Beldam Nature in her cradle was."

(Vacation Exercise, l. 46.)

It is of course from belle-dame, used in Mid. English for grandmother, as belsire was for grandfather. Hence it is a doublet of belladonna. The masculine belsire survives as a family name, Belcher[62]; and to Jim Belcher, most gentlemanly of prize-fighters, we owe the belcher handkerchief, which had large white spots with a dark blue dot in the centre of each on a medium blue ground. It was also known to the "fancy" as a "bird's-eye wipe."


[52] Archaic Eng. bannal already existed in the technical sense.

[53] This is the usual explanation. But Fr. herse also acquired the meaning "portcullis," the pointed bars of which were naturally likened to the blades of a harrow; and it seems possible that it is to this later sense that we owe the older English meaning of hearse (see p. 154).

[54] "Numquid resina non est in Galaad?" (Vulgate.)

[55] A Spanish word, Lat. stipator, "one that stoppeth chinkes" (Cooper). It came to England in connection with the wool trade.

[56] In "livery and bait" there is pleonasm. Bait, connected with bite, is the same word as in bear-baiting and fishermen's bait. We have it also, via Old French, in abet, whence the aphetic bet, originally to egg on.

[57] Hence the use of stout for a "strong" beer. Porter was once the favourite tap of porters, and a mixture of stout and ale, now known as cooper, was especially relished by the brewery cooper.

[58] Folk-etymology for frontispice, Lat. frontispicium, front view.

[59] Related to, but not identical with, queen.

[60] The older meaning of boor survives in the compound neighbour, i.e., nigh boor, the farmer near at hand. Du. boer is of course the same word.

[61] English regularly inserts n in words thus formed; cf. harbinger, messenger, passenger, pottinger, etc.

[62] Other forms of the same name are Bowser and Bewsher. The form Belcher is Picard-

"On assomma la pauvre bête.

Un manant lui coupa le pied droit et la tête.

Le seigneur du village à sa porte les mit;

Et ce dicton picard à l'entour fut écrit:

'Biaux chires leups, n'écoutez mie

Mère tenchent (grondant) chen fieux (son fils) qui crie.'"

(La Fontaine, Fables, iv. 16.)

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