What is the “feck” in “feckless”?

Heads up: strong language ahead.

Comedian Samantha Bee sparked controversy this week when she called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” for her political complicity. The obscene remark, which Bee has since apologized for, had some wryly observing: why is everyone up in arms over feckless?

I think feckless and cunt are due for the etymological treatment.

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This balloon has lost all its feck. (Pixabay)

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Some etymological musings on “milkshake duck”

The Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English announced this week that it chose milkshake duck as its 2017 Word of the Year. As it defines the term, a milkshake duck is

a person who is initially viewed positively by the media but it then discovered to have something questionable about them which causes a sharp decline in their popularity.

The selection committee explains their decision:

Even if you don’t know the word, you know the phenomenon. Milkshake duck stood out as being a much needed term to describe something we are seeing more and more of, not just on the internet but now across all types of media. It plays to the simultaneous desire to bring someone down and the hope that they won’t be brought down. In many ways it captures what 2017 has been about. There is a hint of tall poppy syndrome in there, which we always thought was a uniquely Australian trait, but has been amplified through the internet and become universalised.

Tall poppy syndrome, as Amanda Laugesen writes for Oxford Dictionaries, is an Australianism that refers to

a tendency in Australian society to try and cut down people who are considered to be too successful or prominent (cutting the tall poppies down to size). Australians generally don’t like others to do too well, or (to use another popular Australian term) to ‘big-note’ themselves.

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The sneaky, slinking roots of “mooch”

Mooch may ultimately derive from an old Indo-European root meaning “darkness” or “silence.” 

The new White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci, drew many people to dictionaries last week for his distinctive surname. Scaramucci is indeed related to scaramouch, “cowardly braggart,” originating as a stock character in Italian comedy and familiar to most of us from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. As I discussed in an earlier post, the Italian scaramuccia gives English skirmish and scrimmage.

As if Scaramucci weren’t already colorful enough, Trump’s new Comms man also goes by the nickname the Mooch. Mooch, here, is taken from the pronunciation of his last name—although the word’s sense of “sponging” or “scrounging” are a bit ironic for a man who spent his career up to this point as a financier. So, where does this mooch come from, anyways?

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Under the cover of…mooch? (Pixabay)

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Behind the etymological mask of “clown”

The creepy crown craze – involving people dressed up as evil clowns frightening, threatening, and sometimes even attacking others – has spread from South Carolina all across the globe. But what about this word clown: Where did it spread from?

Clown

The word clown hasn’t been terrorizing the English language for as long as we might think but, creepily, we aren’t quite sure where it comes from. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the word in 1563, when a clown – or cloyne, as it’s first recorded – was a “rustic” or “peasant.” The lowly status of such a countryman, alas, was soon associated with ignorance and boorishness in the eyes of city folk.

On Shakespeare’s stage, clowns were “fools” and “jesters.” We see them as comical country bumpkins in such plays as The Merchant of Venice (Launcelot Gobbo), As You Like It (Touchstone), Twelfth Night (Feste), and even in Antony and Cleopatra, where it’s a clown who smuggles in the asp in a basket of figs for the titular queen’s suicide.

It’s not until the 1720s we see clowns as the circus performers that entertain – and horrify us – today.

While the origin of clown is obscure, two theories have prevailed. The first, usually attributed to Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson, is that clown comes from Latin’s colōnus, a “farmer” or “settler.” You might see colony in this noun – and you’d be right. The base verb, colere, “to till,” was a productive crop, yielding words like culture and cultivate. Most etymologists have dismissed this theory.

The other, favored theory looks to Scandinavian sources like the Icelandic klunni, a “clumsy, boorish fellow,” and North Frisian klönne, for roughly the same. At base for these, and their other Germanic cognates, are words for “clots,” “clods,” and “lumps,” whose thick, rough, clumpy masses stuck as an epithet for foolish, bungling fellows.

But Anatoly Lieberman, in a recent post on his Oxford Etymologist blog, finds this prevailing Scandinavian theory to be, well, a bit clownish. Lieberman seriously doubts a word like clown would have been borrowed from a Scandinavian language in Early Modern English. Instead, he reconsiders the long-snubbed Latin explanation, citing, by way of a 1940s Dublin philologist, a Professor T. F. O’Rahilly, who notes Fingal husbandmen were nicknamed collounes. As Liberman concludes:

Colloun must have been the Anglo-French reflex of Latin colōnus ‘farmer.’ It is not unlikely that this word was imported to England from Ireland…If O’Rahilly was right, clown does go back to colōnus, but via Irish…But what about the Germanic words cited in connection with clown? Perhaps they need not be dismissed as irrelevant, but no evidence points to their currency in Elizabethan England, while the Irish route looks real.

Great. There may be no snakes in Ireland, but, etymologically speaking, there are clowns. Well, those creepy clowns have been sighted here, too.

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Fascist baskets? The controversial origin of “basket”

At a recent fundraiser, Hillary Clinton turned heads when she remarked “you could put half of Trump’s supporters in what I call the basket of deplorables.” As political analysts consider the gaffe’s political fallout, the internet churns out hashtags and memes, and linguists inspect the odd usage of deplorables, etymologists are weighing a different controversy: the origin of the word basket

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Trying to declutter etymology: “Basket.” Image by Jean Scheijen, courtesy of freeimages.com

Basket

Writing in the first century AD, the Roman poet Martial quipped:

Barbara de pictis veni bascauda Britannis;
Sed me iam mavolt dicere Roma suam.

As one translation renders the epigram: “I, a barbarian basket, came from the painted Britons; but now Rome claims me for her own.” The Romans, it would seem, greatly admired Celtic wickerwork – and Martial, apparently, even liked to anthropomorphize it.

Etymologists have long cited this passage for the origin of basket, which isn’t woven into the English written record until the 1200s. They claim bascauda is a Latinization of a Celtic word Romans borrowed following contact between the two ancient cultures.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes issue with this theory, though. First, modern Celtic languages have basket words (e.g., Irish bascaed), but the record suggests they are actually loaned from English’s basket. Second, the dictionary is skeptical about the shift from Latin’s bascauda, a “bathing tub” or “brass vessel,” to English’s wicker basket.

But Ernest Weekley and Anatoly Liberman rebuff the OED’s skepticism. Weekley observes that canister, usually made of metal, is from the Latin for “wicker basket,” as it happens. Liberman explains that tunnel comes from a Germanic root for “cask.”

And how do make sense of the Old French baschoe, a “large wooden container”? This word, which yields the Anglo-French bascat, appears to evolve from Latin’s bascauda. Anyways, Liberman says bascauda probably meant a “large tub made of wood or wicker for washing goblets during or after a meal, rather than a bronze vessel.” 

So, it seems the Romans borrowed some woodworking technology from the Celts (consider the origin of car). They called this particular, tub-like container the bascauda. French fashioned this into baschoe, later morphing into bascat as the word made it way into English basket. And -et, a diminutive suffix we saw in the origin of target, helps explain how a “large wooden container” shrank down to something you’d take to a picnic.

As for bascauda? This could be related to fasces, a “bundle,” an important Roman symbol of authority and origin of the word fascism – the very sort of intolerant ideology Hillary Clinton tried, and failed, to call out with her “basket of deplorables” comment.

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The controversial origin of “gawker”

Gawker, the news and media gossip site, has shut down after 13 years. Gawker has had an influential, if controversial, voice in the online journalism and blogging landscape. And Gawker has had a distinctive name, suggesting a can’t-look-away amazement it experienced (or wanted its readers to) over the many stories it covered.

Gawker

A gawker is “one who gawks,” or stares at something, often openly, stupidly, or stunned. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records it in 1951. It cites its base, to gawk, in 1785.  (Gawk also referred to “an awkward person” in the early 1800s. The history of this word is likely enmeshed with our word at hand.) The ultimate origin of gawker is obscure, but there are many theories.

1. Gaw

One explanation is that gawk comes from an obsolete verb, gaw, “to stare.” This derives from the Middle English gaw. Etymologists point us to a Scandinavian source, like the Old Norse , “to heed.” But what about the k? Perhaps it has a frequentative force, behaving like the k in talk, which is rooted in tale.

2. Gawk hand

A gawk hand is a “left hand.” The OED finds this adjective in 1703. This gawk is contracted from an older form, gallock. Variants include gaulick and gaulish. Some have supposed this gallock to come from gauche, the French for “left.” Others, that the gaulish form points back to an old insult against French, left-handedness long carrying negative, even evil, associations. Gawk-handed has connoted a clumsiness, which, if this theory is correct, was apparently likened to the stupid gape of a gawk.

3. Gowk

A third origin could be gowk, an old term for a “cuckoo.” The word has Scandinavian, and perhaps even Latin, cognates. Old English had géac, Old Norse had gaukr, for this onomatopoeic bird name, which has mocked many a “fool” or “simpleton” in its history. Gowk ribbed the “half-wit” in English by the 1600s, which would explain its possible connection to the slack-jawed gape of gawking.

Scholar Anatoly Liberman favors this explanation, thinking it’s rooted in the structure gk, whose sound supposedly conveys a sense of stupefaction. This structure might also be behind the work geek. And gaw and gallock may well have had their influence on gawk as we know it.

Some may think the etymology of gawk fitting for the late website. They were “clumsy,” no “cuckoo,” to post the privacy-violating content they did. Others will deem think it sad and stupid, given the positive effects Gawker has had on media, journalism, and online writing, that they site shut down. Etymology, alas, doesn’t always create agreement.

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Pulling “rabbit” out of the etymological hat

Christianity, in many ways, originates with Easter: Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead is a cornerstone of the faith. The Easter Bunny, most maintain, originates in German folklore involving a rabbit that delivered colored eggs to good little girls and boys. And the holiday’s bunnies, chicks, and eggs, of course, have longed served as symbols of fertility, rebirth, and new life. But what about the word rabbit?

Down the rabbit hole

Some of my favorite etymologies concern those simple, everyday words whose origins we simply don’t know. Over at Oxford Dictionaries, I recently wrote about a number of them, including dog. Yes, dog; we just don’t know what, er, etymological tree it’s barking up. We can add to this list rabbit, another commonplace word for a commonplace animal whose origins are obscure.

Here’s the problem with rabbit: there is apparently no native Celtic or Germanic word for this animal, as the critter was not native to northern Europe. These early cultures had a word for hare, no doubt, but not the rabbit. Now, I can’t quite tell you the difference between the rabbit and the hare, but the lexicon of our Indo-European ancestors certainly registered them.

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A rabbit, wondering that’s the etymology of its name it hears lurking in the brush. Image from http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/jeffreyvb-33973.

We have record of rabbit by the late 14th century. Origins have been proposed like, well, rabbits. But, in his excellent An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, professor and philologist Anatoly Liberman easily dispatches with many of the early ones, including: the Hebrew for “copulate,” the same Latin root that yields rabies, the Greek for “creeper,” and even the name Robert.

But the picture gets more complicated when we consider robett, the word for rabbit in Walloon, a Romance language spoken in parts of Belgium and France (and, for a time, in Wisconsin). This cognate, though now considered borrowed from Flemish, has led many etymologists to seek a Romance root for rabbit, including in the French râble (“back and loin of the rabbit”) and the Spanish rabo (“tail”). Liberman traps these hypotheses, as tempting as they may look.

Instead, Liberman looks to a structure used in Germanic animal names, including German’s Robbe (“seal”) and the Icelandic robbi (“sheep, ram”): r + vowel + b. He also roots robin, whose name has been of equally problematic origin, in this structure. Onto this base was added a French suffix along the lines of -et or –ot.

As Liberman nicely sums it up: “Rabbit is a Germanic noun with a French suffix.”

But what does r-b mean?  Speakers of ancient Germanic languages apparently – and arbitrarily – had  this sound complex available as vehicle for naming animals of all sizes and stripes. And the French -et  or -ot signifies diminutives. So, a rabbit, if Liberman is correct, is some sort of little animal-type thingy.

Liberman puts rabbit into the bigger picture for us: “Rabbits were well known in the British Isles by the year 1200, but the word rabbit surfaced two centuries later. Most likely, speakers of English coined many words for the new animal. They are all lost, while rabbit has survived. The sound complex r-b in the name of the rabbit has no parallels outside Germanic.”

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The hare is larger and has longer ears than the rabbit does, among other differences. The Easter Bunny can be frightening enough. But the Easter Hare? Eesh. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In the rabbit warren 

English does have other words in its leporine lexicon, though. Coney was an earlier name for “rabbit,” attested by the early 13th century though largely displaced by the 19th century; its historic pronunciation, rhyming with honey, yielded some coarse slang. Coney ultimately derives from the French conil, which, in turn, comes from the Latin cunīculus.

But, like English’s own rabbit, cunīculus was not a native term for the Romans. Historians, even ancient historians, note that Spaniards introduced rabbits to the Romans. In Spanish, rabbit is conejo, though this develops from the Latin; etymologists suggest an ultimately Iberian origin for the word.

Some claim, though it’s disputed, the very name Spain means “land of rabbits,” from a Phoenician root for the “hyrax,” cognate, from what I gather, to Hebrew’s šāpān. The King James Bible uses coney, in fact, to translate the name for this creature that looks like a rodent but is not related.

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The rock hyrax, actually related to elephants, not rabbits. Image from http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/revi82-62142.

Bunny hops onto the scene last. The OED cites it as a “pet name for a rabbit” by 1606, from bun. Documented a few decades earlier, bun originally named a “squirrel” or a “rabbit,” leading some to a Scottish word referring to “tail.” But the ultimate origin is unknown – which, for an etymology nerd like me, is like candy in my Easter basket. Just no Peeps, please.

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