President Trump on Thursday balked at an immigration deal that would include protections for people from Haiti and some nations in Africa, demanding to know at a White House meeting why he should accept immigrants from “shithole countries” rather than from places like Norway, according to people with direct knowledge of the conversation.
It’s remarkable, this “shithole” remark—and no, I don’t just mean the racist xenophobia lurking in President Trump’s language, not to mention its utter ignorance of international affairs and an abject dearth of humanitarianism.
On the Strong Language blog, Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper explains why newspapers printing shithole, as their editorial policies have been variously averse to do, is such a boon to lexicographers:
So when the word “shithole” shows up above the fold in the news section of a newspaper, that tells me, as a lexicographer, that this word is not just the province of BuzzFeed or Twitter or pulp fiction, but might actually be (shitty, shitty) Wonder Bread.
The “Wonder Bread” here, in Stamper’s apt metaphor, is an earlier reference to a word as “boring and everywhere…remarkable only because it is wholly unremarkable[.]”
It’s April 20, or as many marijuana enthusiasts know it well, 4/20. Today, especially when the clocks strike 4:20pm, many people will light a joint or smoke a bowl in celebration of the herb. Contrary to all the myths about police codes, the number 420 is variously used to refer to marijuana thanks to a group of Bay Area high-schoolers who would meet at a campus statue after school at 4:20pm to get high and hunt for a secret patch where marijuana plants were growing. The time later went on to become a codeword for marijuana or getting high itself.
That’s the origin of 420. But what about the origins of the day’s honoree, marijuana, and some of its many related terms? I think this calls for a hit of etymology.
Today, as we see Cruz imply, a henchman – or henchperson, as language writer Stan Carey has observed – does his boss’s dirty work. But historically, a henchman may have gotten their hands dirty with a very different kind of business. See, the best we can tell, the hench in henchman is all about horses.
From groom to goon
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites henchman in 1360, when, taking the Medieval Latin form of hengestmannus, the word appeared in official financial records during Edward III’s reign. Then, a henchman named a kind of “squire” or “page” who attended on a royal or noble figure on foot – or, more important to the origin of the word, horseback – during a procession. (The two henchmen noted in the OED’s earliest accounts were apparently named “Mustard” and “Garlic.”)
Henchman, then, probably began an ordinary “groom” but later rose in rank, a social mobility that the words constable, marshal, and groom itself also enjoyed.
Henchman appears to join man to hengest, an Old English word that named a “horse,” “stallion,” or “gelding.” For the compound, philologist Walter Skeat identifies relatives in the Icelandic hestvörðr (“horse-ward) and Swedish hingstridare (“horse-rider”). Hengest itself has widespread Germanic cognates, which some Indo-European scholars reconstruct in the Proto-Germanic *hangistaz, “best at springing,” rooted in a Proto-Indo-European base for “to spring.”
But right after 1200, hengest flees the written record except as an element in various proper names associated with Hengist, the alleged war-name of the Jutish conqueror of Kent in the 5th century. And, while Skeat cites Nordic kin, the OED notes no compound counterpart for henchman in other Germanic languages.
The origin of henchman does some raise questions, even if we have a good hunch about it.
In the late 14th-century, Henry IV, then the Earl of Derby, added henchmen (henksman and hensman in the historic documentation) to his retinue on an important expedition. English royalty thereafter variously enlisted henchmen for royal service until Queen Elizabeth abolished them in 1565. Henchman itself flees English after the 1650s until Sir Walter Scott (re)popularized the word.
So, as the OED wonders, did Burt just coin hanchman or actually revive the obsolete term? As philologist Ernest Weekly offers, “There may be no real connection to the [Modern English] word.”
After Scott, henchman spread into politics. The OED cites it as a “stout political supporter” by 1839, noting it started showing the “unscrupulous” (if not outright “nefarious”) character Ted Cruz conveyed in American English by the end of the 19th century.
Does hench the henchman ultimately come from the, er, horse‘s mouth? Possibly, but it’s not crystal clear. Just like the outcome of the presidential race: Will all these spilled beans and henchmen open up a lane for another political term rooted in horse-racing, the dark horse candidate? John Kasich seems to be betting on it.
For more on horse-y etymologies, see my posts on horse and derby.
Not too many people would say they love politicians. Late-night talk show hosts and word nerds, however, are notable exceptions, ever drawing from the endless well of political speech. Recently, quagmire has taken the political – and lexical – limelight, thanks especially to Bernie Sanders’ use of it at the first Democratic debate this past week in Las Vegas, as Ben Zimmer has analyzed over at Vocabulary.com.
Let’s step – cautiously – into the origin of quagmire: Its roots just may be hard to extricate.
Quagmire has been stuck in English since 1566, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Back then, it referred to an “area of wet, boggy land that gives way under foot.” Thanks to how hard it can be to extricate oneself from a quagmire, its metaphorical extension is documented not long after in 1577.
Growing up, my dad loved characterizing my puerile indiscretions, if I’m to be generous, as having “mush for brains.” Perhaps he was just channeling his inner bard. Shakespeare used quagmire for something “soft, flabby, or yielding” (OED) when Talbot threatens in Henry IV of Frenchmen to “make a Quagmire of [their] mingled brains.”
Another term – and etymological clue – for quagmire is a “quaking bog,” for a bog’s ground quakes, or shakes, underfoot. Philologists like Walter Skeat, Ernest Weekly, Eric Partridge, and Ernest Klein see quagmire as nothing more than quakemire, a form of quagmire attested in the late 1500s. This makes quagmire a compound of quake and mire.
Quag is indeed a regional variant of quake, from the Old English cwacian and cweccan, which variously signified quaking, shaking, and trembling, sometimes of the teeth in fear, other times of weapons in fighting. Its ultimate origin is unknown. Many suggest that it is imitative. Can you hear quivering or shaking in quake?
As the OED offers, however, quag might be a variant of a different word: quab, a “marsh” or “bog.” Appearing in the early 1400s, this quab is reconstructed in the Old English *cwabba, which itself might just mean “to quake.” Like quake, the origin of *cwabba is unknown, but it also might be echoic. Here, the b lends a bubbling and gurgling sound effect, fitting for a swamp. English has had other quabs: the word has named, if on an obscure and rare basis, certain kinds of fish as well as sea cucumbers. Historical linguistics note connections to slimy critters (e.g., toads) in other Indo-European languages, suggesting, as the OED does, a root in “something slimy, flabby, or quivering,” certainly not out of place in swamplands.
Speaking of swamplands, mire, meanwhile, is Scandinavian in origin, emerging in Middle English and related to the Old Norse mýrr, a “bog” or “swamp.” The word is cognate to English’s own moss. Both mire and moss are taken back to an Indo-European root for swampy ground and wet vegetation found there, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains. The metaphorical mire is evidenced by the end of the 1300s.
Etymologically, we may not find terra firma with quagmire, but, when it comes to the ‘muck’ of politics, this word works on so many levels.