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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, peel language a grape.
Coming up in today’s show are some of the ways mistakes have crept into the English language and stayed there. Like linguistic penicillin mould, or Post-it Note glue.
There’s a bit of swearing in this episode, very educational swearing. If you’re doing dry January but for swearing, then it’s ok to continue playing this - the bit with the swears will be after the main part of the episode, like a little bonus featurette. So swear enthusiasts, you should listen right to the end. Remember, an Allusionist episode is not over till you hear the dictionary slam shut! (Plus about twenty more seconds after that.)
On with the show.
SUSIE DENT: There never has been a golden age when everything was as it should be ever. Even though we tend to think that English is now at its most dumbed down, always; I think every generation has thought that.
HZ: This is Susie Dent. She’s a lexicographer and writer, and if you’ve ever watched television in Britain in the daytime, you might have seen her on the game show Countdown, sitting in Dictionary Corner figuring out anagrams at lightning speed and knowing language inside out. And within the English language, there are a lot of words that came about by mistake. Take the word ‘dord’, which was accidentally printed in the 1934 edition of the New International Dictionary.
SUSIE DENT: ‘(Capital) D or (lowercase) d’ was just given as an abbreviation for ‘density used by physicists and chemists’, and then some typesetter thought it was D-O-R-D rather than ‘D or d’, and it became ‘dord’. And so dord is is now pretty much a kind of byword for any mistake in a dictionary.
HZ: As well as words that were errors, there are letters within words, phantom letters, that have no basis in etymology. Such as the ‘b’ in ‘doubt’.
SUSIE DENT: That was put there possibly by one single hand, one scribe who wanted centuries ago to return English to its classical heritage, and there was a lot of this going on, they thought, “We've got to look to the Latin, that's that's the kind of perfect scheme, pure language that we want to return to.” So it was D-O-W-T, doubt before in Old English, and they thought, “No, but the Latin is 'dubitum', so let's just stick a B in there” - and that's what they did. But of course pronunciation didn't change, and that's the story behind so many different silent letters in English, of which there are vast quantities.
HZ: Like the ‘b’ in ‘plumber’. Why is plumber pronounced ‘plummer’ and not ‘plumber’ like lumber?
SUSIE DENT: Again, it was a vigorous nod to the Latin 'plumbum', which meant a lead pipe, so we stuck a B in but we didn't change the pronunciation. But as for mistakes, those same scribes during the Renaissance didn't always get it right, so to this day we have the s in ‘island’ - the silent s in island - because they thought it came from the Latin 'insular'. So they put one in where in fact 'iegland' - which is I-E-G-L-A-N-D, with no s - was there in Old English all along and probably came from the Vikings. So they didn't always get it right when they thought, “Let’s have a look at the Latin,” or the Greek indeed as well. One of my favourite hiccups is the H in ‘ghost’, and that goes back to William Caxton and his team of Flemish typesetters, because he learnt his trade in Flanders.
HZ: William Caxton was an English merchant and diplomat. While working in northern Europe in the 15th century, he spotted the new printing presses being used in Germany, so set up his own in Flanders, then returned to England to introduce the printing press there too, bringing his Flemish typesetters with him.
SUSIE DENT: And their native Flemish at the time for ‘ghost’ was ‘gheest’. And so they thought let’s lob an H into the Old English ‘gost’, spelt without an H, because it looked wrong to them. Not only do we have the silent H in 'ghost', but we also have the ricochet effect which meant that 'aghast' and 'ghastly', each of which were perfectly happy without the h before they came along. They put an H in there as well so they inherited an extra letter. That was just it just so arbitrary really and so down to personal taste.
HZ: Sometimes, a letter gets detached from one word and attaches to the adjacent word. For example, an apron used to be a napron.
SUSIE DENT: Originally an apron was 'a napron' goes back to the French ‘nappe’, like a tablecloth for example. And what happened was people in spoken language obviously were saying ‘a napron’, ‘an apron’, and the N somehow got attached to the ‘a’ rather than the 'napron'. And so it changed, people assumed that it was 'an apron' rather than ‘a napron’.
HZ: This process has a few names: misdivision, metanalysis, rebracketing.
SUSIE DENT: The same thing happened in lots and lots of different words; so 'an umpire' used to be 'a numpire' or an ‘umpere’ which meant a non peer. In other words, it was somebody whose status was different to the players on the pitch. 'An adder' was 'a nadder' originally, and then the A again floated away. So it is quite interesting. We've actually been doing this so often.
HZ: We really have. A newt was an ewte. And here’s another good one: ‘nickname’, which was misdivided five hundred or so years ago. Before that, the word was ‘ekename’, ‘eke’ meant ‘also’ or ‘additional’, your ekename was your additional name. An ekename became a nekename, and at some point the vowel shortened, giving us ‘nickname’.
Here’s another term for your Big Book Of Big Words: metathesis, when letters get swapped around. As the letter R did in ‘nostril’, which used to be ‘nosþyrl’. ‘Þyrl’, in old English, meant a hole, but the letters got muddled to ‘thrill’. ‘Nose thrill’.
SUSIE DENT: That was a 'nose thrill' originally, not a nostril. And the nose thrill there meant 'to pierce' and is related to the way we talk about a thrilling experience; because a thrilling experience pierces us, it pierces our emotions. But to thrill originally meant to kind of stab somebody with a knife and create a hole. And a nosþyrl was a hole in your nose. It was a nose-thrill originally. It's a very roundabout story, but that was another one that underwent metathesis.
HZ: Sometimes, when we mess with a word, it’s because we’ve been overthinking it.
SUSIE DENT: For example, 'cherry' comes from the French 'cerise' which still means 'cherry' in French. And because cerise sounded plural, we thought 'cerise' or 'cherries' must be plural so we'll work back a little bit and have 'cherry' for the singular, when in fact 'cerise' is singular in the first place. So these kind of weird workings out that we've been doing - I say weird, they're actually fairly logical, we’ve just been trying to make things sit more comfortably on our tongue. So nowadays my mum, who was trying very hard I guess to be posh when I was growing up, had a 'chaise lounge' in her bedroom, which was not the 'chaise longue' which you will find in French, but 'chaise lounge' sounded completely logical.
HZ: And some of the tweaked versions of words do make sense. ‘Shamefaced’ was originally ‘shamefast’, held fast by shame, but having a faceful of shame is also an allusion that works.
SUSIE DENT: 'Buttonhole - we talk about 'buttonholed', 'buttonholing' somebody these days which makes perfect sense, as if you're putting your finger through a button hole in their jacket and pulling them towards you, but actually it used to be 'buttonhold' - holding someone by the button. 'Hangnail' is another one that seems to make sense. It's that painful little bit of skin that seems to hang from the fingernail. Actually it goes back to an 'agnail' in Middle English - the 'ag-' there meant painful. It's related to anger. So that hangnail just made sense to us.
One of my favorite stories is the Jerusalem artichoke. What's that got to do with Jerusalem? Absolutely nothing, as it turns out. It goes back to the French and ultimately the Italian 'girasole' meaning a sunflower because the artichoke is a heliotrope it turns towards the sun, but we couldn't say 'girasole'; we changed it to 'Jerusalem', which was the closest sounding thing we could find.
HZ: That familiar linguistic process, making something more like a thing it sounds a bit like.
SUSIE DENT: When we 'curry favour' today, we've completely lost sight of a wonderful story involving a horse called Favel, who once belonged to a king and was brush down by fawning courtiers to get into the King's good books. And so when we 'curried Favel', we were really taking a curry comb and brushing him, brushing the horse down, and Favel, of course, was completely lost from view. So we decided that 'favour' made perfect sense as it does so we curry favour these days and have totally lost the original story.
I think thanks to social media we will probably be ‘trending towards’ things rather than ‘tending towards’ them in the future; 'to all intensive purposes' is making inroads now as well. There are ludicrous examples as well, but who knows whether they'll stick around - 'a jar-dropping experience'; 'like a bowl in a china shop'; being 'lack toast intolerant', which makes perfect sense to me in the morning. 'Right from the gecko'. All of these. And we have to mention malaphors as well. They're mixtures of metaphors and malapropisms and they're the really plausible utterances that we inadvertently offer up, and we've all got some. A famous one is something ‘isn't rocket surgery', which makes sense. 'I'll burn that bridge when I come to it'. 'Like lemmings to the slaughter'. And the thing is, once you tune in, you can't stop hearing them. So when I was in the loo once, there were two women chatting over the cubicles and one of them said, “You wash my back, sweetheart, and I'll wash yours,” which I thought was wonderful.
HZ: It's a good deal as well.
SUSIE DENT: It's a very good deal. So yes, lots and lots of malaphors around, lots of the famous eggcorns - eggcorns being a term for the rewriting of our expressions. And that was because of an overhead mangling of the word ‘acorn’. And there was a brilliant brilliant error in a newspaper column a few months ago now, in a jazz column of a newspaper, where the correction notice said, “In yesterday's paper, in Chris's jazz albums column, we incorrectly referred to Don Rendall as a ‘terrorist’ when it clearly should have been ‘tenorist’ - we apologize for any offence.”
HZ: In that respect, correctness is important.
SUSIE DENT: Very much so.
HZ: I asked Susie about her favourite etymologies.
SUSIE DENT: I love the ones which you never guess had a really really literal story behind them, but they do. So, ‘stealing someone's thunder’ is one of my favorites, because linguists and lexicographers rarely discover the exact moment when an expression was born, but we do think we know where 'stealing thunder' comes from, and that involves a playwright manager from the 18th century called John Dennis. And he invented a machine that could reproduce the sound of thunder for his own play that he put on in London's Drury Lane Theatre. This is about 1709. Sadly the thunder may have been good but the play apparently wasn't, and it closed after a really short run and it was replaced by a production of Macbeth. Then he decided to show solidarity and to go along and support the company that succeeded him and went to the opening night, but was outraged by hearing the sound of thunder emanating from the stage and realised that they were using his own thunder machine. And records of the time tell how he stood up and shouted, “Damn them! They won't let my play run, but they steal my thunder!” We think it's his outburst that that gave rise to our modern expression, which I love. And I also love the ones that wear their hearts on their sleeves but we just pass them by. So secretaries keep secrets: they were secret-aries. Freelancers were knights that were free to use their lance for whoever paid them the most. Whomever paid them the most rather than being attached to a single Lord. Oh, and ‘licking into shape’. This possibly is my favorite of all time. This goes back to a belief that persisted into medieval times that bear cubs were born shapeless, so they were born as blobs essentially and then had to be licked into bear shape by their mothers.
HZ: Why bears in particular?
SUSIE DENT: I have no idea. I guess because people probably were never likely to be confronted with reality. So maybe they chose a story that was as charming as it was unlikely ever to be disproved at least for a while. I just think it's a wonderful flight of imagination, it's just beautiful. And again, we pass it because it just seems to make sense. And you would never know that has this kind of glorious story hidden behind it. That's why I love English. It's just so gnarly.
HZ: Susie Dent is an author, lexicographer, and the stalwart of Countdown’s Dictionary Corner. She is @susie_dent on Twitter, and you’ll love her account for the regular doses of etymology. And stick around for an extra bit of etymology from Susie.
HZ: Still with us? Good. Now, here’s the part of my conversation with Susie that turned to swearing.
SUSIE DENT: 'Oh my giddy aunt'. Who was the original giddy aunt and why was she so dizzy?
HZ: Is that a way of people not blaspheming by not saying “oh my god”?
SUSIE DENT: Yes. Euphemisms - in the Middle Ages, it was less bodily functions and far more religious profanity that had to be avoided at all costs. That’s when a lot of our euphemisms emerged. So we had really really quite convoluted ones as well. So one of the exclamations of the time was 'gad's budlikins'. And ‘gad's buldlikins’ was a sort of corruption of 'God's body'. And then you have ‘gadzooks’ which you will find in sort of 1920s, 1930s comics - ‘gadzooks’ and other exclamations. And that was a euphemism for 'God's hooks' i.e. the nails of the cross. So really quite elaborate euphemisms came about then. And then there was ‘gorblimey’ as well, which is a classic Cockney exclamation that was 'God blind me'. And then later on 'Jiminy Cricket' for ‘Jesus Christ’, and then 'jeepers creepers', same thing, same initials.
HZ: ‘Zounds’, as well, ‘God's wounds’.
SUSIE DENT: God's wounds, exactly.
SUSIE DENT: ‘Strewth’, ‘God's truth’. Yeah, all of that. Staying with swearing, 'bollocks' is a fairly standard Anglo-Saxon word and it wasn't rude at all, it was just used fairly matter of factly for the testicles; but at the time the intestines were called - and this is a translation from the Bible - 'arse ropes'. Which I absolutely love, and why don't we still call intestines 'arse ropes'?
Bacronyms are quite interesting as well where we try to make sense of words by inventing acronyms for them. So 'shit', for example, famously people think is 'ship high in transit', something to do with combustible cow dung having to be stored high up on a boat for fear of explosion. And 'fuck' of course, the bacronym for that was 'fornication under consent of the king' - there's no evidence for this whatsoever, but it's said that in times of plague and the population has been decimated, the monarch would decree that couples need to get fornicating and producing. And so couples would hang ‘F.U.C.K.’ on their doors just to let people know that they shouldn't be disturbed because they were fornicating under consent of the king. Again - absolute rubbish.
HZ: Why do you think it is? Zaltzman's First Law of Language is “It's almost never an acronym, especially if it's pre-20th Century.” Why do people always want it to be an acronym?
SUSIE DENT: I don't know. I guess it's sort of easy, containable, etc. I don’t know what the sort of instinct is - I guess it's just trying to make sense of things all the time, and then we can compartmentalize them and move on. I love the mysteries. There are so many frustrating entries in the OED where you think “There must be a good story behind that word,” ad you'll find 'etymology unknown', because the OED is famously cautious about etymology until it can actually nail something. So it tends not to give you all the theory surrounding it - sometimes it will, but quite often it will just leave something as a mystery, which is frustrating. But also slightly exciting at the same time, because you know that people are still digging, still digging to find the true meaning and the true origin of something. That work will never stop.
The Allusionist is a member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts on the interwaves. Find them all at radiotopia.fm.
Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
liripipe or liripoop, noun: the long tail of a graduate’s hood; a part or lesson committed to memory; a silly person.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with music by Martin Austwick of Song By Song podcast. You can find allusionistshow on Facebook and Twitter, and to find out about Allusionist-related events, to hear every episode or to read the transcripts, to obtain additional content about each episode topic, and to see the full dictionary entry of the randomly selected word, visit the show’s forever home theallusionist.org.