Posts Tagged ‘language’

Fascinating story from the BBC about how falconry – hunting with birds of prey – influenced Shakespeare and the English language generally.

As a falconer, for example, tightly pinches the bird’s jesses, or tethers, under his or her thumb to stop the bird flying away at random, we get the term ‘under your thumb’, meaning controlled, although the term nowadays is more common when describing hen-pecked husbands than hunting birds of prey. (Hen-pecked also having its roots in medieval observation, of course.)

Another phrase we get from falconry is “wrapped around your little finger” which is when the bird’s owner uses his or her little finger in conjunction with the thumb to hold on tight to the bird’s jesses.

When the bird’s eyes and head are covered with a small leather hood to keep it from distraction until it is needed we get the term ‘hoodwinked’.

This rare jargon of English 16th century falconry entered our colloquial language thanks in part to one amateur falconer, William Shakespeare.

Experts still argue about how much falconry Shakespeare actually practiced in real life, but he was no doubt personally acquainted with the sport, as his plays carry more than 50 references to the sport.

Macbeth advises “scarfing the eye”, a reference to hoodwinking a falcon to prevent the bird (his lady) from distraction. He continues the falconry metaphor with holding the lady back on her perch while other falcons prepare to “rouse”, or take flight. French terms like “rouse” (from the Old French ruser, when a hawk shakes its feathers) entered English with the Norman invasion of 1066. But it is Shakespeare who helped forge a new meaning: “to rouse” as in “awaken”.

“Eyes like a hawk,” is well-known, of course, and with good reason. A hawk’s eyesight is ten times stronger than a human’s eyesight: like reading a newspaper across a football field.

A hawk’s eyesight is ten times stronger than a human’s (Credit: Credit: Andrew Evans)

There are lots of other examples of words transferring from medieval falconry to modern English.

Bate Birds beating their wings while still tethered; from the Old French batre (to beat), eventually “to hold back, restrain”, as in a bated breath.

Fed up A bird that is no longer hungry has no incentive to hunt.

Booze From the 14th-century verb bouse (Dutch origin), to drink excessively. A bird that drinks too much water will not hunt, similar to those who are “fed up”.

Haggard A wild hawk that’s difficult to train. One of Shakespeare’s favourite terms.

In Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew, the male lead Petruchio likens taming his new bride to training a hawk:

My falcon now is sharp and passing empty;
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come and know her keeper’s call …

A falcon or hawk that is fully gorged, or “fed up” will no longer work for her master. On the other hand, a “haggard” is a wild hawk that may never be fully trained. Shakespeare uses the term five times to describe different women in his plays, which in later English came to mean wild, unkempt and dishevelled.

What’s your favourite piece of curious etymology, Dear Reader?

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So today, beavering away at the coal-face of capitalist society, we took a break to have a laugh about pushy parents – you know the type, the ones always lurking in the wings at performances – usually artistic, thespian or sporting – abusing the world from the sidelines, photobombing their famous kids, cheering over-enthusiastically and generally making a public arse of themselves as they live vicariously through their offspring.

What, someone pondered, was the right name for a collection of such people? Was there a collective noun for these horrible folks?

Someone else suggested A Smother of Parents, which had us all giggling with its appropriateness. So spread the word. A Smother of Parents. Let’s see if we can get it popularised!

murder_of_crowsCollective Nouns are a bit of a thing of ours. We all know “A Murder of Crows”, of course – that’s a favourite – but did you also know that it’s an Unkindness of Ravens?

Don’t know what the Corvus ever did to offend everyone.

Maybe the genus is on the nose because Ravens became forever associated with the Tower of London and the bloodthirsty goings on there, and Crows are carrion feeders, of course, so, you know, just generally, “ugh”.

But then again some of their close relations get off a little more easily. Jackdaws – well, they’re “A Clattering” – and Rooks are the wonderful “Parliament” of Rooks, which perfectly reflects the racket generated by a rookery. The same noun is often applied to Owls, by the way. One can surmise the former is because of the mindless noise generated across the benches, and the latter a reflection of the supposed wisdom of owls.

Some as less well known, and quite obscure. Did you know those guys caterwauling in the back alley are called a “Cluster” of cats? No idea why. Or that a group of Peacocks are (quite perfectly) called an “Ostentation”? It’s a Charm of Finches, which surely reflects their melodic chirping, but why is it a Knot of Toads? And what on earth is a “Neverthriving” of jugglers when it’s at home?

Brief_History_of_Wood-engraving_Wynkyn_de_Worde_Fishing

A group of monks seen together (in England at least) has been known since 1486 as “An Abominable Sight of Monks”, from The Book of Saint Albans (or Boke of Seynt Albans), a compilation of matters relating to the interests of the time of a gentleman. It is also known by titles that are more accurate, such as The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms. This edition credits the book, or at least the part on hunting, to Juliana Berners as there is an attribution at the end of the 1486 edition reading: “Explicit Dam Julyans Barnes in her boke of huntyng.” It contains three essays, on hawking, hunting, and heraldry. It became popular, and went through many editions, quickly acquiring an additional essay on angling. 

Interestingly, the section on heraldry contains many coats-of-arms printed in six colours (including black ink and the white of the page), and was the first colour printing ever carried out in England. Dame Juliana Berners (or Barnes or Bernes) was believed to have been the prioress of Sopwell Priory near St Albans but the book is in fact a metrical form of much older matter, going back at least to the reign of the ill-fated Edward II of England (1283-1327), and written in French: the Le Art de Venerie of the huntsman Guillaume Twici.

Anyhow, apart from the marvellous “Abominable Sight” of monks, the book contains, appended, a large list of special collective nouns for animals, such as “gaggle of geese” and the like. Amongst these are numerous humorous collective nouns for different professions, such as a “Diligence of Messengers”, a “Melody of Harpers”, a “Blast of Hunters”, “a Subtlety of Sergeants”, “a Gaggle of Women”, and a “Superfluity of Nuns”.

Sometimes there are multiple collective nouns for one item, reflecting the fact that different parts of Britain developed languages that remained quite separate until the middle ages, and thereafter continued with strong local dialects (some of which persist to this day). Thus a “Congregation of Plovers” can also rightly be termed a “band”, a “flight”, a “leash”, a “stand” or a “wing”.

Dabblers

Dabbling or Dopping Ducks, taking a break from Paddling

Ducks are even more complicated. The very obvious but nonetheless charming “Paddling” of ducks (which should only be used when ducks are actually in the water, apparently) is nevertheless contested by supporters of “badelynge” (an old Saxon word for paddling, perhaps, that has survived only in this context?), a “flush”, a “brace”, a “bunch”, a “dabbling”, a “dopping”, (possibly a corruption of dipping?), a “plump”, a “raft”, a “safe”, a “skein”, a “sword, a “string” or a “team”. Phew.

On the same bit of lake you might also spot a “Whiteness of Swans”, which is a very ancient name, also expressed as a “whiting”.

And it would be wrong of us, given our geographic location, not to remind everyone in the northern hemisphere that it’s a “Mob of Kangaroos”. And for other southern hemisphere types, it’s nice to remember that it’s “A Stubbornness of Rhinoceroses”. And for our Indian readers, don’t forget it’s an “Ambush of Tigers”. Your life may depend on it.

So what’s YOUR favourite Collective Noun, Dear Reader? Do please let us know.

And what’s your suggestion of the best possible Collective Noun for … Collective Nouns? We’ll dream up a prize for the best idea!

Just leave a comment in the box below 🙂 And if you like the blog, please subscribe – find the box top left of the page.

 

Surgeons

Is doctor slang on the wane?

The inventive language created by doctors the world over to insult their patients – or each other – is apparently in danger of becoming extinct.

So says a doctor who has spent four years charting more than 200 colourful examples.

Medicine is a profession already overflowing with acronyms and technical terms, and doctors over the years have invented plenty of their own.

However, Dr Adam Fox, who works at St Mary’s Hospital in London as a specialist registrar in its child allergy unit, says that far fewer doctors now annotate notes with abbreviations designed to spell out the unsayable truth about their patients.

TOP MEDICAL ABBREVIATIONS
CTD – Circling the Drain (A patient expected to die soon)
GLM – Good looking Mum
GPO – Good for Parts Only
TEETH – Tried Everything Else, Try Homeopathy
UBI – Unexplained Beer Injury

The increasing rate of litigation means that there is a far higher chance that doctors will be asked in court to explain the exact meaning of NFN (Normal for Norfolk), FLK (Funny looking kid) or GROLIES (Guardian Reader Of Low Intelligence in Ethnic Skirt).

Dr Fox recounts the tale of one doctor who had scribbled TTFO – an expletive expression roughly translated as “Told To Go Away” – on a patient’s notes.

He told BBC News Online: “This guy was asked by the judge what the acronym meant, and luckily for him he had the presence of mind to say: ‘To take fluids orally’.”

Quaint up North

Regional dialects abound, even in the world of the medical abbreviation.

In the north of England, the TTR (Tea Time Review) of a patient is commonplace, but not in the south.

And the number of terms for patients believed to be somewhat intellectually challenged is enormous.

Patient

“I can’t believe what he just called me…”

From LOBNH (Lights On But Nobody Home), CNS-QNS (Central Nervous System – Quantity Not Sufficient), to the delightful term “Pumpkin Positive”, which refers to the implication that a penlight shone into the patient’s mouth would encounter a brain so small that the whole head would light up.

Regular visitors to A&E on a Friday or Saturday night are also classified.

DBI refers to “Dirt Bag Index”, and multiplies the number of tattoos with the number of missing teeth to give an estimate of the number of days since the patient last bathed.

A PFO refers to a drunken patient who sustained injury falling over, (Pissed Fell Over) while a PGT “Got Thumped” instead.

MEDICAL TERMS – A GLOSSARY
Digging for Worms – varicose vein surgery
Departure lounge – geriatric ward
Handbag positive – confused patient (usually elderly lady) lying on hospital bed clutching handbag
Woolworth’s Test – Anaesthetic term. (If you can imagine patient shopping in Woolies, it’s safe to give a general anaesthetic)

This is an international language – Dr Fox’s research reveals that a PIMBA in Brazil can be translated as a “swollen-footed, drunk, run-over beggar”.

Doctor insult

And much of the slang is directed at colleagues rather than patients.

Thus Rheumatology, considered by hard-pressed juniors one of the less busy specialties, becomes “Rheumaholiday”, the “Freud Squad” are psychiatrists, and “Gassers” and “Slashers” are anaesthetists and general surgeons respectively.

Dr Fox is keen to point out that neither he, nor the other authors of the paper, published in the journal Ethics and Behavior, actually advocate using any of the terms.

He said: “It’s a form of communication, and it needs to be recorded. It may not be around forever.”

He said: “I do think that doctors are genuinely more respectful of their patients these days.”

If that is the case, perhaps the delights of a “Whopper with Cheese”, “Handbag positive” or “Coffin dodger” could be lost forever.

(From the BBC, with thanks.)

We say: it would be a shame if such humour was lost because of political correctness. We are sure other industries must have similar shorthand terms. Certainly in the ad business – well in our agency, anyhow – we talk about PLU – “People Like Us” – people who share our general world outlook, are pleasant to deal with, and thus make good customers or suppliers. If we remember correctly the terms was first coined by none other than Margaret Thatcher to describe political colleagues who could be relied upon.

The funniest we’ve ever heard was “He’s a complete ankle.” An ankle being lower than a C-word. Certainly someone to be avoided …

Each country has its own linguistic quirks. They fascinate me, and others. Well, you gotta have a hobby, I guess.

Being interested in linguistics, I have long wondered about the derivation of the ubiquitous term “Pom” that Aussies use to describe Brits, often disparagingly, sometimes affectionately.

Now a new explanation comes from the Oxford English Dictionary via the Beeb.

Historical dictionaries are not just about definitions.

Every word or phrase has a story, and the historical lexicographer has to tease this story out from whatever documentation can be found.

An enduring myth is that the word pom (as in whinging pom and other more colourful expressions) is an acronym from either “Prisoner of His Majesty” or even “Permit of Migration”, for the original convicts or settlers who sailed from Britain to Australia.

The first recorded use of pom comes from 1912, which is quite – but not unnaturally – early for an acronym.

There is no historical documentation to support these myths (rather like the disproved theory that posh (meaning well-bred or wealthy) derives from tickets for the upmarket cabins on the old P&O liners – port out, starboard home – even though that is still commonly used as an explanation). Instead the etymology is apparently more circuitous.

In the case of “Pom” we actually start with the word immigrant, well-established by the mid 19th Century as a settler.

Then, in a joking way people would play with immigrant from around 1850 or so, turning it into a proper name (Jimmy Grant), to give the strange immigrants a pseudo-personality.

Equally playfully, a Jimmy Grant morphed around 1912 into pomegranate and immediately into pom, which it has stuck as till today.

Here are a few more from Australia, courtesy of the Australian National Dictionary Centre.

Cark it

To die, as in don’t tell the kids the budgie carked it. The origin is uncertain. Perhaps it is a play on the standard English word croak ‘to die’, or it may be a shortening of carcass. Cark it also means ‘to fail or break down completely’: my blender’s carked it.

Chardonnay socialist

A derogatory label for a person who pays lip service to left-wing views while enjoying an affluent lifestyle. It is modelled on the British term, champagne socialist, which has a similar meaning. The term chardonnay socialist appeared in 1989, not long after the grape variety Chardonnay became extremely popular with Australian wine drinkers.

A good alternative for the early settlers when no chooks were available ...

A good alternative for the early settlers when no chooks were available …

Chook

A domestic fowl. Chook comes from British dialect chuck or chucky ‘chicken’, a word imitating a hen’s cluck. Australians use ‘chicken’ to mean either ‘the meat of the bird’ or ‘a baby fowl’. Chook is the common term for the live bird, although Chook raffles, commonly held in Australian pubs, have ready-to-cook chooks as prizes as well as other items. First recorded as chuckey 1855. Which led us to:

May your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny down

A comic curse. This expression recalls an earlier time when many Australians kept chooks in the back yard and the dunny was a separate outhouse – er, toilet.

Chunder

To vomit. Also used as noun ‘vomit’. Chunder probably comes from a once-popular cartoon character, ‘Chunder Loo of Akim Foo’, drawn by Norman Lindsay for a series of boot-polish advertisements in the early 1900s. It is possible that ‘Chunder Loo’ became rhyming slang for ‘spew’. Chunder, however, is the only form to be recorded. First recorded 1950.

Cobber

A friend, a companion. Also used as a form of address (g’day cobber!). The word probably comes from British Suffolk dialect cob ‘to take a liking to’, although a Yiddish word khaber ‘comrade’ has also been suggested as a source. Cobber, now somewhat dated, is rarely used by young Australians. First recorded 1893.

Cocky

A farmer. In Australia there are cow cockies, cane cockies and wheat cockies. Cocky arose in the 1840s and is an abbreviation of cockatoo farmer. This was then a disparaging term for small-scale farmers, probably because of their habit of using a small area of land for a short time and then moving on, in the manner of cockatoos feeding.

Cordie

Cordie is a term for an army cadet from the Royal Military College Duntroon in Canberra. The term is used by civilians (especially Canberrans), and then the term is regarded by cadets as highly derogatory; but the term is also used by cadets themselves, and then the term is one of camaraderie.

It is most commonly assumed by cadets themselves that the term arose at the time when cadets were not allowed to wear denim jeans outside the college, whereupon, as a ‘fashion’ substitute, they wore corduroy trousers (the minimum dress standard) in order to fit in with the way contemporary and ‘with it’ young males would be expected to costume themselves. Since the cadets soon came to be readily recognisable as such, even when out of uniform, partly because of their corduroy clothing (often abbreviated to cords in Standard Australian), they came to be (mockingly?) referred to as cordies. Although this is the generally accepted explanation, others are offered:

  • the first cadets at the College all wore corduroy trousers, or cords.
  • the term derives from the lanyard or cord worn by cadets on their right arm.
  • R. Rayward in More than a Mere Bravo, English Department, ADFA, 1988, reporting a Canberra resident’s claim that he had heard the term as early as 1939, argues that the term is a corruption of the College barracking cry used at sporting matches, ‘Come on, Cora!’ (where ‘Cora’ is a shortening of ‘Corps of Staff Cadets’).

Crook

Not just a criminal, but a word meaning bad, unpleasant or unsatisfactory in general: Things were crook on the land in the seventies. Crook means bad in a general sense, and also in more specific senses too: unwell or injured (a crook knee), abut it can also mean dishonest or illegal (he was accused of crook dealings). It is an abbreviation of crooked ‘dishonestly come by’.

Cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down

Not strictly a word derivation here, but a wonderful Aussie term. It’s a joking description for a cure-all, the remedy for any problem. The phrase (now often with some variations) was originally the title of a 1960s Sydney theatrical revue. The cuppa, the Bex (an analgesic in powder form) and the lie down were supposed to be the suburban housewife’s solution to problems such as depression, anxiety, isolation and boredom. The expression is often used in political contexts as in, ‘He called the ASEAN ambassadors in for a cup of tea, a Bex and a quick lie down’.

Finding how words or phrases developed gives us an insight into our shared history. What’s your favourite word derivation story? If you’ve got the bug like me, checkout www.etymonline.com. Hours of harmless fun for all the family!