Book review: What the Dickens?! by Bryan Kozlowksi

Last year, as you may recall, I read the complete works of William Shakespeare. It was an immensely rewarding project, to be sure, but I can’t lie: When I finished, I was really excited to read something else for a change. I immediately jumped for Bryan Kozlowksi’s What the Dickens?!: Distinctly Dickensian Words and How to Use Them, published in October 2016 by Running Press, who kindly sent me a galley for review.

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Image from Running Press.

That’s right, Shakespeare. You haven’t cornered the word market in the English language. In What the Dickens?!, Kozlowksi presents 200 of Charles Dickens most, well, Dickensian words from across his writing. Like growlery, “a place of refuge where one goes to vent frustrations.” Or comfoozled, “exhausted.” Or Pumblechookian, which is “typical of Mr. Pumblechook, Pip’s pompous, greedy, and hypocritical uncle in Great Expectations.” 

To guide our tour through Dickens’ whimsical and wide-ranging vocabulary, Kozlowksi loosely categorizes his selections by theme. One section is Words for Making Merry, including the likes of heeltap (a small amount of liquor remaining at the bottom of  glass) and hobbledehoy (an awkward and clumsy youth). Another is Vocabulary for the Smart-Sounding Victorian: bedight (“adorned”), plumbless (immeasurably deep), and Terpsichorean (relating to dancing), for instance.

Kozlowksi indeed curates a colorful menagerie, from words Dickens invented (sassigassity, “audacity with an attitude”) and based on his characters (Pecksniffian, “hypocritical”) to places (Gretna Green, a place at the the Anglo-Scottish border where lovers often eloped ) and practices of Dickens’ day (farm for children, a primitive Victorian day care, or cag- magger, an unscrupulous butcher).

And for each, page-long entry, Kozlowksi not only defines the words, but he also quotes their original context and offers insight into Victorian  culture, an anecdote about Dickens, or an interesting fact about the history and origin of the word at hand. Take moor-eeffoc, which particularly delighted me:

Moor-eeffoc [MOO-ee-fok] The uncanniness of common things seen suddenly from a different perspective. Case in point: Moor-eeffoc is simply the backward spelling of “coffee room.”

I recollect that…in the door there was an oval glass-plate, with COFFEE-ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee room now, but there there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side MOOR-EFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal revere), a shock goes through my blood.

– From Dickens’ Abandoned Autobiography

Moor-eeffoc is the most elusive and enigmatic word in the Dickensian lexicon. Dickens himself didn’t know how to define it, though future writers linked it to the very heart of his creative legacy. The word was of deep significance to fantasy writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.K. Chesterton–with the latter’s definition still considered the best:

That wild word, ‘Moor Eeffoc’, is the motto of all effective realism; it is the masterpiece of the good realistic principle–the principle that the most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact. And that elvish kind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate object. The date on the door danced over Mr. Grewgious’s, the knocker grinned at Mr. Scrooge, the Roman on the ceiling pointed down at Mr. Tulkinghorn, the elderly armchair leered at Tom Smart–these are all moore eeffocish things. A man sees them because he does not look at them.

I like to open up the book at random, enjoying each word like some magic little portal into Dickens’ world and imagination. Like lummy, which the Artful Dodger used in Oliver Twist for “first rate.” It’s “originally part of the longer interjection Lor’ lummy,” Kozlowksi explains, “a Cockney contraction of ‘Lord love me,’ used to express surprise or great interest.” And it perfectly describes What the Dickens?!

Kozlowksi’s knowledge of Dickens is comprehensive, his love for Dickens’ language is infectious, and his writing is fun, smart, and accessible. It’s a great book – and gift – for Dickens-philes and logophiles alike. Lor’ lummy, it might just make want to go on to read the complete works of Charles Dickens now…

WHAT THE DICKENS?!
By Bryan Kozlowksi
224 pages. Running PressRunning Press. US $15.00.

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From dinner to disarray: the origin of “mess”

Originally, we didn’t make messes. We ate them. 

In his presser yesterday, Trump claimed: “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home, and abroad — a mess.” Clearly, he was describing his own news conference, which was a hot one, because the facts just don’t back him up. But Trump does raise an interesting etymological question: Where do we inherit the word mess from?

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Mess: Get it whiles it’s hot. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

On the table

English first serves up mess around 1300. Back then, it named “food for one meal.” The word comes into English from the Old French mes (Modern French metsand, before it, the Latin missus, a “portion of food” or “a course at dinner.” This etymological idea of “a serving” explains why we use mess as a general term for some loose “quantity,” particularly food, e.g., a mess of greens.

In Latin, missus literally means something “placed” or “put” – here, food on the table. The root verb is mittere, which shifted from “send” in Classical Latin to “place or put” in the language’s later years. Mittere has also delivered bundles of English words, from mass and mission to commit and promise

Getting into a “mess”

Over the centuries, mess lost its Michelin stars, so to speak. By the 1400s, mess referred to goopy foods like porridge, hence the biblical idiom mess of pottage.  (Today, we might recognize such a mess as the pasty gruel often plated up to ravenous children in the hellish summer camps of TV and movies.) This sense lead to a kind of “mixed, liquid slop fed to animals” in the 1700s. Alexander Pope, as an early instance, mocks metaphorical hogs chowing down on mess in his 1738 “Epilogue to the Satires.”

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What a mess: “Nine out of ten orphans can’t tell the difference.” Image courtesy of frinkiac.com, from The Simpsons, Season 4/Episode 1, “Kamp Krusty.”

And it’s from this notion of a nasty, mushy mixture that we get the modern mess: the senses of “jumble,” “confusion,” and “untidiness” emerge in the written record around the 1810s. Offshoots like mess up, make a mess of, and messy appear by the 1830-40s. To mess around, playfully or idly, is attested by the 1850s. Sexually? We’ve been messing around since at least the 1890s. 

“Mess” mates

The food sense of mess, though, kept cooking. In the 1400s, mess also referred to “a company of people who took their meal together,” especially military personnel in groups of four. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare mentions “a mess of Russians,” referring not to all the controversies surrounding the Trump administration, but to the four noble lovers in disguise.

From “dining companion,” mess later extended to the food and building where soldiers ate, thus compounds like mess bag, mess cook, messmate, mess hall, and hot mess.

Not-so-hot, new slang

Yes, a hot mess was a originally a warm meal, especially a soft, porridge-like mixture (as we previously saw) ladled out in mess halls. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a figurative use of in a hot mess, or “in a challenging situation,” in the 1860s. And the modern slang hot mess, “someone or something in extreme confusion or disorder,” has first been found from one P.J. Conlon in an 1899 Monthly Journal International Association Machinists: “Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.” Nowadays, hot serves to intensify the sense of messiness.

Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Emily Brewster has more on the history of hot mess – ever the apt phrase in our political moment, no matter what Trump wants to tell us, or himself – in her terrific video.

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The many “sist”-ers of persist and resist

Persist and resist come from a very active, and in many ways activist, Latin verb. 

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after he silenced his colleague, Elizabeth Warren, when she was opposing now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his confirmation.

But McConnell’s words spectacularly backfired: Nevertheless, she persisted has since become a rousing, much-memed feminist slogan, fitting perfectly alongside the anti-Trump rally cry, Resist.

And persist fits etymologically alongside resist, too. They share a common root: Latin’s sistere, “to take a stand.”

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Sistere is one Latin verb that won’t back down in the English language.  Image by Michael Kaufmann/freeimages.com.

Continue reading “The many “sist”-ers of persist and resist

Why do we call them “falcons”?

The falcon probably takes its name from the “sickle” shape of its beak, talons, or wings.

This Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons will take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI in Houston, Texas. I’ve previously taken on the etymology of patriot, which ultimately derives from the Greek word for “father” and, curiously, didn’t always carry a positive connotation in English. But what the origin of the word falcon?

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Ready for flight…or to reap some grain? Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

A bird, or sickle, in the hand…

Falcon stooped on English in the mid 1200s. The Oxford English Dictionary firsts falcon, as faukun, in The Owl and the Nightingale, dated to around 1250. In this poem, the titular birds sharply debate which of them is the superior avian. (The nightingale accuses the owl of laying an egg in a falcon’s nest, the medieval version of Deflategate, I suppose.) 

The English falcon swoops in from the Old French faucon, which flies from the Late Latin falcōnem, all referring to the bird of prey. The nominative, or subject case, form of falcōnem was falcō, presumably derived from falx, “a sickle.” The falcon’s beak, talons, or possibly the sharp curve of its outspread wings resemble this farming blade, apparently.

Falx also gives English falcate, “curved like a sickle,” falchion, a machete-like sword, and, speaking big names of the US South, the surname Faulkner (“falconer”).

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The sickle is used for harvesting or reaping grain crops. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

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What is the “tray” in “betray”?

Betray shares its root with treason and tradition

Over concerns of its wisdom, justness, and legality, acting US attorney general Sally Yates nobly defied President Trump’s executive order banning immigrants, including refugees and visa-holders, from seven Muslim-majority countries. On Monday night, Trump fired her, claiming Yates “betrayed the Department of Justice.” It’s a strong, and deeply ironic, choice of words here, to say the least, but where does the word betray come from?

The tray in betray comes from a Latin verb meaning “to hand over.” Image courtesy of pixabay.com.
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The tray in betray comes from a Latin verb meaning “to hand over.” Image courtesy of pixabay.com

Continue reading “What is the “tray” in “betray”?”

Masses, milk, and metathesis: Following the “crowd”

Crowds are just a bunch of crud, etymologically speaking. 

We’ve been comparing – or, if you’re a certain president, complaining about – crowd sizes of late. One conservative estimate tallies Trump’s inaugural crowd at 250,000, about 1.5 million short of Obama’s in 2009. The Women’s March on January 21, meanwhile, may have drawn over 4.8 million protesters across the globe. So, as we count up the final numbers, let’s look into the origin of the word crowd

Working the crowd

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The original meaning of crowd, “to push on,” got lost in the crowd. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

As a noun, crowd hasn’t been crowding the English language for very long. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates crowd to 1567, adding that it replaced the usual earlier term, a press, which goes back to the 13th century.

The noun crowd comes from the verb crowd. But this verb originally meant “to press on, hasten, or drive” in Old English.  One would crowd a ship, say, by pushing her off land. The OED has actually dated this usage, incredibly, to 937, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Crowd’s modern sense, “to gather in large numbers closely together,” appears by the beginning of the 1400, and we can easily see how the action pushing and shoving transferred to a thronging multitude.

The Old English crowd – crúdan – is related to the German kroten, “to oppress,” and the Dutch kruien, “to push or drive (e.g., a wheel-barrow).” The OED notes that the verbal crowd is “not known in the early stages of the other [Germanic] languages,” and in English, “was comparatively rare down to 1600.”

The etymological center of crowd is unclear. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, though, traces it back to the Germanic *krudan, from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *greut-, “to compress” or “push.” 

Crowds and whey

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Did the word curd get separated from the crowd? Image courtesy of pixabay.com

One thing that does get compressed, in a manner of speaking, are curds. These little lumps are formed when milk coagulates – and, as a word, curds (and its derivative, curdle) may be formed from the same root as crowd. Some etymologists think speakers flipped around the sounds of the Old English crúdan to get curd, attested in 1362. This flipping process, called metathesis, is a common one in English, among other languages, and has produced words like curl, task, and even bird

For curd/crowd, etymologists point to the Irish gruth, “curds,” which they root in the PIE *greut-. For the meaning of curd as a “crowded” substance, they cite the very chemical action that yields curds, coagulation, as an analogy. This word is skimmed from the Latin cogere, “to curdle, compel, or collect,” literally meaning “to drive together” (com-, “together,” plus agere, “to set in motion,” source of act.)    

I, for one, think curds are delicious, but perhaps you find them to be a bunch of crud. Etymologically, you may not be wrong: Many think crud, by that same process of metathesis, indeed comes from curd. This would mean crud switched the –ur- sound of curd, which switched the –ru– of crowd/crúdan. And so crud ‘returns’ to its original form.

The wrong crowd

Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green finds crud in Scottish English for “thickened or coagulated milk” and in US English for “curdled milk,” perhaps as back-formed from the adjective cruddy. Green also locates crud for “any filthy or disgusting matter” all the way back in the early 16th century. Crud, in some way or another, made it into US military slang for any “disease” or “worthless person” in the 1930s, expanding to “diarrhea,” “a slob,” and “venereal disease” in the 1940s and 1950s. A crud may be one to let slip a little crowd-poison, a euphemism for public flatulence. 

Trump may yet find validation, then. Crowds are crud, etymologically…and when you’re just not drawing the kind of numbers you hoped for.

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Why is it called an “inauguration”?

The etymology of inauguration is one “for the birds.”

Today marks the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. This historic moment raises lots of questions. Like Why?

Why does the transfer of power take place on January 20? In 1933, Congress ratified the 20th Amendment, which moved up the inauguration from March 4 to January 20. Way back when, new officials required much more time to prepare for their office, creating a very long “lame duck” period after the November elections.

And why do we call it an inauguration? For the origin of this quadrennial word, we’ll have to look to the skies – and Ancient Rome.

Continue reading “Why is it called an “inauguration”?”

What is the “mail” in “blackmail”?

The origin of blackmail has nothing to do with dark letters.

This week, a sensational yet unverified dossier leaked that alleges Russia has “compromising personal and financial information” it could use to blackmail President-elect Donald Trump. While we wait to learn more about the allegations, let’s get to the bottom of another matter. Where does the word blackmail come from?

Border issues

Since the late 1700s, blackmail has referred to the extortion of money, or other benefits, under the threat of revealing incriminating or damaging facts about someone. But several hundred years ago, blackmail was a much more localized affair, shall we say.

In the 16th century, blackmail was a tribute paid by farmers along the border of Scotland and England to freebooters for protection from their raids. The freebooters are often identified as the Border reivers, descended from both Scottish and English families in the region. They resorted to pillage and plunder, apparently, due to the disruptions and devastations wreaked by the ongoing war between the two peoples in the late Middle Ages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first dates the term to the 1530s in Robert Pitcairn’s Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland.

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The Border reivers know what you did. A scanned drawing, by George Cattermole, of Border reivers at Gilnockie Tower. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An etymological “tribute” 

The second part of the compound blackmail, mail, refers to the “tribute” paid to the freebooters. In Middle English, and continuing into Scottish, mail could signify a “tribute,” “rent,” “payment,” or “tax.” It comes down from the Old English mal, variously meaning “agreement,” “bargaining,” “terms,” or “lawsuit,” in turn from the Old Norse mál, “speech” or “agreement.” Indo-European scholars root mal and mál in the Proto-Germanic *mathla- and Proto-Indo-European *mod-, “to meet” or “assemble.” (Mail, as in letters and armor, are unrelated.)

The sense development of mail would seem fairly straightforward, then. When we gather, we talk, and through talking, we make deals, which often concern money, ultimately yielding the mail in blackmail. We can see, too, how the particular and historical extortion of blackmail in the Anglo-Scottish border readily broadened to its modern usage. It’s a Scotsman, too, whom the OED credits for the early expansion of blackmail: philosopher David Hume, in 1774.

Not so black and white

As for the black in blackmail? Some etymologists point to black rent and white rent. Black rent, so the theory goes, could be paid in work, goods, livestock, or produce, the color associated with cattle or the ‘baser’ quality of the forms of payment. White rent, meanwhile, was paid in money, like silver, whose metal was once called “white.” Black rent was an indeed an earlier (1420s) form of blackmail, but the OED enters white rent as a variant of quit-rent, a kind of historical property tax that exempt (quit) renters from other obligations concerning the land under feudal law. Folk etymology probably accounts for the confusion.

More likely, the black in blackmail refers to the “illegal” (black market) or “evil” (black magic) nature of the extortion.

Snail “mail”?

Mail, as “tribute,” does appear in other words, as the OED notes. Now obsolete, they were largely used in Scottish, underscoring the longer life mail enjoyed in the language:

  • Burrow-mail (1400s), a tribute paid by a borough (burrow) to a ruler
  • Grass-mail (1400s), rent for grass or grazing rights
  • Feu-mail (1500s), rent for a leasehold tenement (called a feu, variant of fee)
  • House-mail (1500s), rent on a house
  • Land-male (1300s), rent charged on a piece of land
  • Rental mail (late 1700s), a tautological form which documents the gradual obsolescence of mail
  • Retour mail (1600s), like feu-mail, retour being a Scottish form of return, here referring to a certain legal practice

Today, mail is essentially a fossil word, preserved only by virtue of the currency of blackmail. But a more recent coinage, whitemail, has renewed its lease. Appearing by the 1860s, whitemailing, clearly riffing on blackmailing, is kind of ‘moral extortion,’ e.g., a mother threatens to reveal her son’s smoking to his father unless he relinquishes his cigarettes. More recently, economics has taken up whitemail, in which a companies sells off a lot of stock at a reduced price to thwart a takeover.

And perhaps Trump, based on the threats and incentives he issues to businesses, will occasion a new addition to the -mail family. Orangemail, perhaps? 

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“Names in the News” at Nameberry

Guest-blogging on Nameberry 

Back in September, I started guest-blogging on Nameberry, a leading baby name website created by name experts Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz. Alongside an active forum, thematic lists of baby names, and a daily blog, Nameberry features a searchable database of over 50,000 names, including trends on their popularity.

As a word nerd, I particularly like the quick info Nameberry provides on the meaning and origin of names – and I use it as a springboard for my “Names in the News” posts on the site. Each month, I round up a list of some of the biggest, and most interesting, names that made the headlines the previous month and suss out the surprises in their etymologies. Last December, for instance, Kirk Douglas turned 100 while Mariah Carey couldn’t have been happier to turn a new page on 2017 after her New Year’s Eve performance. What do the names Kirk and Mariah mean, and what might their origins reveal about their current moment? Read my latest, and catch up on previous months, over at Nameberry.

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New Year’s “resolutions”: an etymology not meant to last

“New year, new me,” as so many of us are starting out 2017, resolved to lose weight, save money, or variously better ourselves and lives. Historians trace the practice of making self-improving resolutions in observance of the new year all the way back to ancient Babylon. But why do we call them resolutions?

Resolution

The Oxford English Dictionary first finds the phrase New Year’s resolution in American author and minister Edward Everett Hale’s 1850 Margaret Percival in America: “I am here, ready, from this moment to obey. It shall be my New Year’s resolution,” says the titular Margaret, forswearing some friends leading her astray from the (apparently) better judgment of her priest and church. Such a resolution – an action one has resolved, or firmly decided, to do – is much older, dating to the late 1400s.

But the earlier meanings of resolution and resolve don’t sound so, well, resolute: Back in 1390s, the words were used in scientific contexts for “breaking a substance down into its component parts.” Intensified by the prefix re- (“back”), resolution and resolve come form the Latin verb solvere, meaning “to loosen,” among many other extended senses. (The deeper, Indo-European root, *se-lu-, suggests something like “loosened apart.”) Chemistry still shows the ‘etymological’ sense of Latin’s solvere: A solution, loosely, is a kind of uniform mixture of one substance completely dissolved in another. Indeed, dissolve is the first of this word family to appear in written English, used for “melt” in the 1380s.

But in math and more generally, a solution is something that seems far from “broken down”: It’s an answer. What  gives? There’s a metaphor to this madness: When we take something apart (literally solving it), we can see how it works; this helps us to better understand its fundamental nature (figuratively solving it). And when we truly know something, we can thus make a determined – a resolute – decision. Looseness becomes firmness. 

This January, if you miss a day at the gym and worry your New Year’s resolution is falling apart, look to etymology for some encouragement. Sometimes it’s in breaking down that we build ourselves back up.

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