Sunday, March 31, 2013

lackey/laquey

You'll have to bear with me if there are a few nods to The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett in the next few posts. The language of the book, which was published in 1771, is surprisingly modern and easy to read, but you do get the occasional variant spelling or antiquated word.

One word that, unsurprisingly, comes up a few times is 'lackey'. However, Smollett spells it 'laquey'. This got me thinking about where this word came from. I think we all have heard it enough to have a general sense of the meaning. A lackey would be a servant, but one at the low end of the pecking order. A dogsbody, and someone who doesn't have much say over his work. Not the head butler, at any rate.

The word lackey has an overtone of slacking, of lacking, and even of blackness. But the variant spelling lacquey shines a new light on it. I am going to go way out on a limb and guess that it is a borrowed word from another language, and I'll even hypothesize that it comes from some Indian caste system. If it's not a caste, it's probably a tribe.

Okay, let's see  how far I got with this.

*** 

There are apparently many possibilities of where the word lackey came from, but India is not one of them.

A lackey may now have the reputation of being something of a toady, or at least fawning and servile, but originally it merely meant someone in uniform, a liveried servant. It came to English from the French, predictably. The Middle French was laquais, and could mean foot soldier as easily as footman or servant. You can see where Smollett got the -qu- spelling before the British rejected the French ideas and turned it into something more, well, British. (No offense, French people. I really have no idea why they did it.)

It's all a bit dicey going backward from there, though. Some say the word comes from Old Provençal, where lacai was related to words meaning glutton and covetous, and these in turn go back to lecar--"to lick". As in, "Lick my boots, lackey!"?

Another guess is that the French got it from the Catalan alacay, which comes from the Arabic al-qadi--"the judge". Which frankly doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

But Skeat tells us that there were a certain class of soldiers, mainly crossbowmen, who were called alagues, alacays or lacays, so who knows?

Then others take it back through the Spanish lacayo all the way back to the Turkish ulak, which means runner or courier. The short answer is, nobody knows. But everybody seems to know it wasn't from India.

"Lackey" wasn't a pejorative in English when it first came on the written scene at around 1520, but by 1570, the 'servile' tinge had already taken hold. It's funny really, that it became part of Communist rhetoric in 1939. It's an old-fashioned word, and certainly not very suited to what must at the time have been regarded as "new thinking".

The best get out of all this web roaming, though, has nothing to do with etymology at all, but with the lackey caterpillar. This creature is not servile at all, but is instead named on account of its 'livery'.
 

 

21 comments:

  1. OMG, what fun, all the way to the end!

    ReplyDelete
  2. The end is the pièce de résistance, if I do say so myself. Actually I don't say so myself, I had to copy and paste the French spelling in, and borrow the photo as well.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Amazing that word has so many origin possibilities! But I have to say that above all, that's the cutest caterpillar I've ever seen.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I know, Julie, I know. Like I say sometimes, one of the best things about doing this blog is the random treasure I find along the way.

    ReplyDelete
  5. That's no caterpillar, that's a dragon in a Chinese New Year's celebration.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Well, a dragon on a very large leaf, then.

    ReplyDelete
  7. All I can say about that caterpillar's face is that I know what I want to be if ever get dressed up for Halloween again.

    ReplyDelete
  8. And all I can say is that I hope I don't run into it down a dark hallway some night.

    ReplyDelete
  9. What do you mean? It's adorable.

    Earlier in my career, I had reasons to reach for several words that have acquire meanings similar to lackey: janissary, apple-polisher, fawning lickspittle, etc,

    ReplyDelete
  10. I don't think it would be adorable magnified to the size of a human face.

    ReplyDelete
  11. You could be right. Doubtless my superior size and physical sense enable me to call it cute and adorable. I'm so anthropocentrist sometimes.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Lickspittle reminds me of backwash which reminds me of my first movie experience 99 Dalmations and how we had to share a pepsi in a bottle. Thanks for the memories Peter.

    Sheiler

    ReplyDelete
  13. Backwash reminds me of a place I'd like to visit, Pugwash, Nova Scotia. You won't get any bushwah in Pugwash.

    Was 99 Dalamatians a prequel to 101 Dalmations--which reminds that I have been to the Dalamatian coast in Croatia. I saw few, if any dogs, and none with dots.

    Hmmm, I just had an idea for a cute Disney animated horror movie: Hellfire and Dalmations.

    My v-word number is 99.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Peter's response is so complete that it leaves me with little to add, except that I grew curious about dalmatians as a result, and found several things that I didn't know. (What else is new?) First of all, they have no spots when they are born, and only get them after a few weeks. Secondly, they have a genetic predisposition toward deafness and only 70% can hear normally, but that fact wasn't known for a long time, which led to the mistaken impression that they are stupid. Apparently their deafness is related to their pigmentation. Some breeders think deaf dogs should be put down at birth, but a growing number of people have learned to communicate with their dogs via sign language. Yeah, I've just spent about fifteen minutes watching videos...

    ReplyDelete
  15. In a grim coincidence, I read your reply not long after I edited a news story about a firefighter killed on the job this weekend. Dalmatians, of course, proverbially are firehouse of dogs, and I always smile when I see one at a fire station.

    ReplyDelete
  16. That's very sad. Firefighters are really icons of heroism, aren't they? I wonder how the dalmatian came to be associated with them. I'm sure it's one of those things that has been answered a million times...

    ReplyDelete
  17. Actually, there is a nice short article about them here. It almost makes me want to get one.

    Almost.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I must have been channeling my own lack of a dog (who recently died) -- it *was* 101 Dalmations. So I nixed one for personal reasons. But what about the remaining/missing 1 dog? Hmm.

    I had heard when I was a little kid that Dalmations were mean dogs for kids. I always kept that in mind I guess. Plus, I am allergic to everything, nearly, that isn't human. Except for the curious case of sled dogs ->Malamutes, and, alas, poodles. The new hybrid breeds have not proven to be all that as far as my eyes, nose and lungs are concerned.

    Have you read the story of Edgar Sawtelle? About a boy who could hear but could not talk, who raised dogs and communicated with them through eye contact and signing. But his dogs weren't deaf.

    Sheiler

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sheiler, no I haven't read Edgar Sawtelle, though it was a big book here. Two friends on staff read it and one loved it and one hated it. For some reason, this made me think I'd better leave it alone.

      My nephew is allergic to most dogs as well, which is very sad, because he would have liked to have one.

      Delete
  19. I'm reading Pride and Prejudice to my daughter and its interesting that when a carriage pulls up outside the inn she's staying at, she knows that it belongs to Mr Darcy because "of the livery".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Adrian, yes, I'm aware of livery now, but I know I didn't even notice it the last time I read P&P. Another word I glossed over. Having just researched the word for my next blog post, it's safe to say that the English language took the word and ran with it.

      Delete