“I think we are pretty close to a laughingstock at this point,” Walter Shaub told the New York Times after he resigned as the head of the Office of Government Ethics earlier this month. Shaub felt the Trump administration’s conflicts of interest, inter alia, are severely undermining his office’s credibility and efficacy, and compelled him to seek toothier watchdog work elsewhere.
It’s powerful choice of words, but what, exactly, is the stock in laughingstock?
There’s been a lot of revamping of late. Twitter has revamped its timeline. Next month, students will take on a revamped SAT. And after New Hampshire, many of the presidential candidates are revamping their campaigns.
We’re familiar with re-, a Latin prefix meaning “again” or “new.” But what the heck is a vamp?
In short, a vamp is the front and upper part of boot or shoe. So, torevamp literally means “to patch up (some old footwear) with a new vamp.” Doesn’t sound so sexy, huh? But it’s pragmatic, cost-effective, resourceful.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites vamp in the early 1200s when the word referred to a “sock” or “stocking,” specifically the part which covered the foot and ankle. By the end of the 1500s, the verbal vamp appears: “to provide with a new vamp,” hence, “to patch up, mend, refurbish.” Before revamp appears in the early 1800s much in the modern sense we use it today, figurative cobblers would new-vamp in the mid 1600s.
Piano players and other musicians have been vamping since the end of the 1700s. The OED cites this musical term for improvisation in 1789. If you’re improvising an accompaniment, prelude, or the like, you’re sort of patching something together as you go, as the metaphor suggests.
Now, vamp, it turns out, is itself quite vamped. Via Anglo-Norman French, English ultimately fashioned vamp from the Old French avanpié, pieced together from avant (“before”) and pié (“foot”), both derived from Latin. (French uses pied today; English’s own foot is actually related.) So, an avanpié is “the front part of the foot,” fitted later for the footwear it donned. Stitch avant and piétogether (compounding), cut off an a (aphesis), snip off a t (elision), form np into mp (assimilation), and voilà: it’s like a a whole new word.
Back in the Middle Ages, knights armored themselves with vambraces or vantbraces, which covered the forearm. These words join avant and bras, the French for “arm.”
Forget reinventing the wheel, er, buying a whole new pair of boots: language really knows how to vamp things up.
Before we begin, I want to welcome all my new readers–or, dare I say, my fellow blog-mongers. But seriously, though. Wow; I’m flattered. Really. Thanks! Now, let’s get to the scoundrels.
Part of me thinks of monger as an historical artifact or romantic relic of a simpler time, a time when our work was our wares. Cheesemongers traded in cheese, fishmongers in fish, alemongers in beer, pearmongers in pears. All was simple, and what you saw is what you got.
Except not, as the history of monger admonishes us. Forget the whoremongers and warmongers, though: It’s the costermongers we really need to watch out for.
In Old English, a mangere was a “dealer or a trader.” It’s a very old word; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) positions it as early Old English (AD 650-900) with the first dated attestation coming around 1225. The word has been used in compound forms since the 12th century. Since the 16th century, though, as the New English Dictionary observes, monger has suggested “a contemptible or disreputable ‘trade’ or ‘traffic.'” Through Germanic wheelings and dealings, this mangere is indebted to the Latin mango (no relation to the fruit), meaning a “slave dealer” or “pushy salesman.” Eric Partridge elaborates that mango meant “a vendor that decks out and furbishes his wares (in order to deceive).”
We can track the Latin mango back to the Greek manganon, signifying a means of bewitching, deception, or enchantment. More specifically, the term was a military one, naming the pulley-axis, a kind of catapult used to launch stones. Somewhere and somehow along the way, this root gave Dutch (and later, English) the mangle, a “clothes-pressing machine.” Now here’s a truly beguiling contrivance:
Monger had many middlemen, though. At the sourceis the Proto-Indo-European *mang-, “to charm” or “deceive.” According to Partridge, its derivatives are indeed “charming” and “deceptive”: Sanskrit has mañjus (beautiful) and mangalam (good luck). Tocharian A–an extinct language associated with liturgical Buddhist texts in what is now Xinjiang in northwest China–has mank (sinner, guilt). Old Persian has manga (whore) and Middle Irish meng (deceit).
We humans have such a complicated relationship with beauty.
For word lovers, though, monger is a real bogo.
First, you get old-fashioned names for old-fashioned jobs. A fleshmonger was a butcher, an isemonger or iremonger was an ironworker, and a costermonger was “itinerant apple-seller,” (Online Etymology Dictionary). Yes, a costermonger, with coster from costard, a kind of high-ribbed apple. (In Latin costa means “rib.” Coast is cognate.)
Of these, only cheesemonger strikes me as maintaining any currency today: the American Cheese Society (yes, the honorable ACS) uses the term without irony. (There’s a cheese joke somewhere I’m missing here.) I’m surprised, though, that hipsters, in all their artisanal pursuits, haven’t taken up the -monger mantle wholesale.
But its in these selfsame professions thst we witness the real career of monger–the sharp wit and punchy, purposeful wordplay of English-language nonce words.
A nonce word (a word “used for the (n)once”; this n has its own story to tell) is, as David Crystal defines it, “a linguistic form which a speaker invents or accidentally uses on a single occasion.” However, if a speech community takes it up into its lexicon, then it become a neologism–a new coinage.
While earlier examples exist (the OED cites “peningmongere” or penny-monger), in the 1500s monger began booming as a term for a people engaged in a “petty” or “disreputable” trade (OED). Interestingly, the English monger was taken from a pejorative Latin origin but used in earnest until wordplay reverted it back to its shady Roman business. Perhaps its this underlying implication that drove monger out of mainstream usage for various sellers and tradesmen.
Some of these mongers still have inventory in stock (all dates are the OED’s attestations):
Whoremonger (1526, Tyndale’s Bible)
Warmonger (1590, Spenser’s Faerie Queene)
We also have wordmonger (attested in 1590). In spot-on self-deprecation, Earnest Weekley, in offering an example of monger‘s principal cynical, creative usages:
Professor Weekley is well known to our readers as the most entertaining of living word-mongers (“Daily News,” Nov. 8, 1916)
Aside from costermonger,fishmonger, fleshmonger, and whoremonger, Shakespeare alone used to sneering effect (and I can’t speak to his coinage of any of the following):
Barber-monger (a fop, dandy)
And here’s some other noncemongery I came across, in no particular order: ceremony-, merit-, pardon-, holy water-, Heymonger (surname; not a nonce word but I had nowhere else to shelve this), state-, insect-, shell-, punctilio- (thanks to Winston Churchill), humanity-, verbal inspiration-, superstition-, hero-, conference-, noise-, tax-, rumor-, hate-, miracle-, pupil-, cock-, guest-, and mutton-monger (a pimp).
The genius of coinages like gossipmonger, which have staying power, or punctilio-monger, which met the moment, lies not just in their wordplay, but in how they give name to a very real yet before-unnamed phenomenon. Our better blends today (e.g., staycation) do this, too. They meet a need.
Tell me, what do you think the mongers of today are?
In response to a tweet, editor, linguist, and blogger Stan Carey nonced “-mongermonger.” To me, this cleverly names our age’s hyper-self-aware meta-mindedness. To this end, I’ll offer hashtagmonger and mememongers, as well as datamongers (let’s just say I did a lot of work in public institutions) and remakemongers (Robocop, anyone?).