Sunday, March 31, 2013


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'.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013


A scene from Humphry Clinker*
This may seem a bit obscure, but not if you happen to read classic British novels, especially of the epistolary sort. Like, for instance, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett. A large percentage of the book is told through the eyes of Jery Melford, as he relates his adventures to his friend, "Sir Watkin Phillips, of Jesus College, Oxon." It's clear from context and also from listening to the audio version of the book that "Oxon." refers to Oxford, and I believe I've seen it abbreviated it this way elsewhere when it comes to addresses. But why?

My best guess is that it is actually an abbreviation for Oxford-on something. On the Thames? On the Isis? Will I even be able to find an explanation?

Trinity College, from Oxonia Illustrata, by David Loggans

Oxonia. It's a shortened form of Oxonia--the Latin name for Oxford. Or really, I think, Oxfordshire. As a commenter here says, it's rather old-fashioned and rarely used now, as the post office prefers you write the word "Oxfordshire" out. (Different from the U.S., as here writing the two letter abbreviation for the state has all but erased the practice of writing it out or even abbreviating it to Calif., say, as we used to do when I was a kid.)

The original Saxon word for the place was Oxenfordia, which in Norman days became Oxonford.  This was in the days when they talked like this:

Worshipfull Sirs, with all recommendacion due hadde, wille ye wete that it is so that I was at Oxonford as uppon Fryday next byfore seint Thomas day for diverse...

And so on. The source for that passage is here, in case you wanted to know what happened.  

Apparently the university and the bishopric continued to go by the name Oxonford longer than the city or the shire did, which shortened to Oxford in the 16th century,because this is where the second use of  the abbreviation oxon. comes into play. A degree from Oxford would have the abbreviation oxon tagged on the end, as, say MA (Oxon), short for 'oxoniensis'-of or related to Oxford. The equivalent degree from Cambridge would be an MA (cantab), 'cantabrigiensis' being the full word here. But we're not going to get into how Cambridge evolved from Grontabricc or whatever now. (Hint--you can blame the Normans. What else is new?)   

Apparently it also becomes part of an Oxford bishop's name too, but  I couldn't find an example of that, because the current Bishop of Oxford also went to Oxford and so has an oxon. after his name by default.

Now just as I'm drawing to a close, I see that the Online Etymology has a slightly different version of this story, saying that the current Oxford was Oxforde in Middle English, but goes back to the Old English Oxnaforda  of the 10th century. I mention it partly because I like the sound of that Oxnaforda.

In any case, Oxford had a cattle crossing, while Cambridge had a bridge. That's how to tell them apart.

*I found the picture from Humphry Clinker on a French wikipedia site and in this way discovered the fascinating fact that Clinker was translated into French for Gallimard by none other than Jean Giono (and Catherine d’Ivernois). Hard to believe, but here's the site

Sunday, March 24, 2013


So this  should be a pretty simple one, right? But that's what I always think. It's just that I was listening to some news program and hear either the word moderate--mod-ur-rate--or the word moderate--mod-ur-rut, and realized that I really didn't know what the two had to do with each other.

To moderate is to sort of preside over a panel or a forum or a debate--maybe even a game show. To be moderate, though, is to keep a steady course between extremes. I can see how a moderator might be the one that keeps people on track, though I doubt, given our political discourse, that one could make anyone more moderate simply by being there. Well, maybe he or she can keep people from throwing chairs...

Anyway, I got interested in the two definitions of what must be a common word. Is a moderator a mode operator? I'm ready to find out.

A moderate day in Santa Cruz

"Moderate" is a weather word originally. From the late 14th century, it related to weather and other physical conditions. It comes out of the Latin moderatus, which was all about keeping things "within bounds". It's related to another Latin word, "modus", or measure. So, everything measured, restrained, sensible.

As the Online Etymology Dictionary has it: "In English, of persons from early 15c.; of opinions from 1640s; of prices from 1904."

"Moderator", however, comes to us straight from the Latin, where it meant something like manager, ruler or director--one who imposes a limit. The sense of the English word came to mean also "one who acts an umpire" in the 1560s. You can see how the idea of running something could with time come to mean mediating between factions as well.

"Moderatrix" for the feminine version is attested from 1530. Sounds a bit kinky to the modern ear, but I think probably shows that the position of women was relatively good back in England of the 16th century.

These tiles represent "Natura moderatrix optima" and reside at the Convento de São Francisco, Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahía, Brasil. The photo was taken by "Draken". You can seem more of them on Panoramio. I wasn't able to discover more about what the story the tiles are illustrating is, though.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why blog?

I had an email a few weeks ago from a kind of blog digest, asking if I would like to be included in their blog feed. If you've been blogging for any length of time, you've probably had some request from an outside source to use your content in some way, as have I. I've even fallen for it once, allowing some content to be featured that wasn't as neutral as I'd first thought. That's what the delete button is for.

This particular offer, though, seems to be legit, and therefore flattering. There's really no good reason not to add my name to their scrolls--theoretically, it means more readership, which I suppose is what you want. Isn't it?

I think the blogosphere can probably be divided into two types of bloggers--those who know why they blog and those who don't. I'd suggest that the first category comprises those who are using their blogs for promotional purposes, which is a perfectly legit reason, as long as its all, in the fashionable word of the day, 'transparent'. Then there are those who have an enthusiasm and want to share it, which is wholly admirable as well, and finally, those whose blog is itself the work, like the guy who did one picture for each page of Moby Dick (it has since become a book, but he didn't know that when he started), or the rather wonderful blog Hyperbole and a Half, which I cottoned on to at nearly the end of its run. The author first announced that there was going to be a book, but the last post is about depression, which is rather sad and worrying.

The second category may really only be me, though I suspect not. I fell into this all in a rather haphazard way, and the reasons behind it are now obscure to me. I am absolutely certain that if  I hadn't found some little corner of the blogosphere where I can converse with other bloggers, I wouldn't have kept this up. I don't really even know if I should keep it up. I mean for myself. That may sound like false modesty, or even valid modesty, but what I mean is that I could certainly sustain the blog community connections I have by commenting on other people's blogs. I seriously doubt if anyone would mind.

I think what the blog digest offer connoted to me, and again this is just me and nothing to do with them, is that I am in some way more serious about all this than I actually am. Although I'm happy and even more than happy to read comments here and reply to them, its never really been my aim to build a big  following. This is partly because nothing that I say here should ever be taken as authoritative--at most, it's my best guess. I'm not and have never wanted to be a teacher--I'm a student. A somewhat indolent student at times, but still--that's the right angle. I'm not even particularly interested in language, which you may be skeptical of, but then again, it may explain a lot. All I'm really trying to do here is hone in on things I realize I don't know all that much about. As I've said many times here, I will never run out of material.

Anyway, there is something about trying to steer an audience towards this blog that seems like it would subtly change what I'm doing. For example, I recently did a post on the word 'finance'. All I was trying to do there was figure out what the word stemmed from. I have no financial advice to offer anyone, except to pay your bills on time and forego things you can't really afford. But this blog's stats spiked just from using that word. I am pretty sure almost none of those hundreds of people were grooving on etymology, nor, I think, did they stay long. But it's probably destined to be one of my most popular posts. If I were trying to increase readership, I would be looking into words like subprime, default and bailout.

It would be false to say that I don't care at all who reads this blog. I'm very grateful for readers, but I don't want them to sway me too much. I happened to mention my dilemmas about blogging to a new coworker, not really expecting that she would be able to resolve them. But she was surprisingly fast and lucid in her response. She said, and I paraphrase, "What I like about blogs is that you are thinking about something, and you look it up, and there is a blogpost by someone who is thinking about exactly the same things that you are."

Blogs are indeed a comfort in our existential situation. So if you happen upon this one, don't hesitate to write.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


When a word crops up a few times in a few days in my life, I make it a practice on this blog to take a look at it. "Yummy" turned up in a variety of places where I was somewhat startled to hear it recently, startled because it was not in conversation with someone under the age of ten, or in a commercial pandering to them. Yummy is a good word for delicious, but it does have a hint of infantile regression in it when used by adults.

I'm sure that yum, yummy and one I was fond of in my teens, yumbola, are all variations of the same thing, but is yum just a primal sound or is there actually an etymology lurking here somewhere?


Oh, right--and not to forget "yum-yum".

The history of this word is interesting, although somewhat speculative. The Free Online Dictionary has it that 'yum' comes from the sound of smacking one's lips, but as I saw mentioned at English Language and Usage , this seems a bit of a stretch and I am not convinced that anyone can say yum while smacking their lips at all. The idea from Take Our Word For It that it is related to the sound "mmm", as in "that's what Campbell's Soup is, Mmm, Mmm Good!", seems more more likely.

Warhol, of course.

The funny thing about "yum" as a word, though, is that it is not attested before 1878, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. "Yummy" follows it in print in 1899. There is also a slight difference here--"yum" is an "exclamation of pleasure", while "yummy" means more specifically delicious.

Personally, I think they probably overlap a bit more than that.But it is odd that these words begin to be seen in such a narrow window of time. So I like the idea at Take Our Word For It that it may be connected to the word "yam". Although the site says it means "to eat" in English, I think that's probably an error, and that yam simply means, well, a yam. But yams come from West Africa originally and there, in Senegal, the word for 'to eat' is nyami. Take Our Word For It has 'yam' becoming part of English in the early 18th century, though the Online Etymology Dictionary says the 1580s, through Portuguese or Spanish (I'm guessing sailors). This source also has it that the word in American and Jamaican English probably comes directly from West African sources. So maybe not sailors so much as slaves...

You may not  have known this before, but people can get very excited about yams.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013


I actually thought about doing this post some time ago, but didn't get around to it. It's mainly the workings of Washington these days that keep bringing the word into common speech. I do know what this word means--flirting with going over a brink of some kind in order to prove you have more chutzpah than your opponent. Playing a game of chicken, in other words. But when did brinksmanship become a word? And for that matter, what precisely is a brink? Although I know it's an edge, I can't help thinking of Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates every time I see it.


To start off, all the info I've found on this word has it as 'brinkmanship', though I have never heard it without that 's'. (Or, more likely, I have heard it, but just didn't notice the absence). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the 's' in my version is 'parasitic', meaning it isn't necessary, but is copied from words like salesmanship, sportsmanship and the like, if in fact there are more.

I somehow associated  the word with royal courts of the past, possibly dueling, but in fact it is quite recent. My dad's big hero Adlai Stevenson first used it in print, in fact. He was speaking of a controversial statement by John Foster Dulles, which appeared in a magazine article in early 1955. He was Times Man of the Year.

The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.

Stevenson's response was to criticize Dulles.

We hear the Secretary of State boasting of his brinkmanship: the art of bringing us to the edge of the abyss.

    Adlai Stevenson - Speech at Hartford, Connecticut (25 February 1956)

And brink when it's at home? Well, it's either the Low German brink, which does mean edge, or the Danish version, which means 'steepness, shore, bank, grassy edge'.

The Dulles/Stevenson brink was a nuclear one, by the way. Personally, I'll take the Danish grassy edge every time.


Saturday, March 2, 2013


Louisiana governor Huey P. Long *

I heard Rachel Maddow use the word 'bombastic' the other day on her show, probably in reference to the pronouncements of some Republican or other. Realized once again that I have a vague rather than precise sense of a word. In this case, it may be even more pronounced than usual. Of course I know that bombastic is never meant as a compliment, and I think it may have something to do with with the use of cant, but there are overtones in the word itself that always make me associate it with heavy handedness, and leadenness. I always hear the bomb in bombast, but I also hear the echo of ballast. Is this leading me astray?

Oh, yeah, and pompous. I forgot to mention pompous. In general, bombastic means lofty sounding, high-falutin', grandiloquent, over the top. But it doesn't have anything to do with bombs, or ballast. In fact, it's more related to something called bombazine than either of these, but I'll get to that.

Bombast is one of those sneaky shape shifter words that has changed both meaning and spelling over time. It is a corruption of the earlier  and apparently obsolete "bombace", which was swiped directly from the Old French, which took it from the Late Latin bombacem, the accusative tense of the word bombax. Bombax was itself both a corruption and a transferred use of the older Latin bombyx.From the Greek.

So what was this bombace? It was cotton padding. This means that bombastic doesn't have to do with leadenness or any heaviness at all--it is, if anything, fluffy. Padded.

Which leads us to bombazine. Bombazine is a fabric. Originally this fabric was  woven with a silk warp and a wool weft, but over time the term also came to apply to cotton. In fact, a curious feature of all these bomba- words is that they start out referring to silk but end up referring to cotton. This happened with the original Greek bombax as well. (This Greek beginning led to similar words in many languages influenced by them. One of the more felicitous finds was that Turkish Nobel Prize novelist Orhan Pamuk would translate as Orhan Cotton.)

Anyway, bombazine was a very popular fabric for a long time, though eventually eclipsed by synthetic fabrics. There's a nice article on this at Wise Geek, and one of the interesting things
mentioned there is that it found its true niche as the fabric for mourning garments.

"Black bombazine appeared to have just the right amount of gloss to be considered appropriate for a widow and the relatives of the recently deceased. The twilled silk and worsted fabric design of the bombazine fabric made it possible to hold up well to multiple wearings and washings, so it was not necessary for the widow observing the one year of formal mourning to be outfitted with more than four or five dresses."

Church, Isle of Wight. Digital ID: 804007. New York Public Library
Church, Isle of Wight, 1872 (NYPL)


Bombast meaning cotton padding is first attested in 1560. It took a paltry 20 years for the meaning of "pompous, empty speech" to appear in print. Oratory apparently hasn't changed much since.

* I don't know if Huey Long was bombastic, but for a long time, he held the record for having given the country's longest filibuster.