In the definition for ‘toughy’ I quoted yesterday from Robert Forby’s The Vocabulary of East Anglia was, “– a coarse sweetmeat.” That word ‘sweetmeat’ is interesting; it is made of two elements, ‘sweet’ and ‘meat’, and is sometimes found as two separate words, (Sir Kenelm Digby uses it this way). The ‘sweet’ part is obvious enough, but the ‘meat’ part needs an explanation.
In the past ‘meat’ used to mean any food, not just flesh, as we now use it. In Gothic, it was mats, in Old Norse mata, in Anglo-Saxon mete and in Old High German maz, all meaning ‘food.’ For example, in the Bible is, “And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house,” (Matt. 9:10). From the same roots, a person with whom you shared food was your ‘mate’. The word remains in the modern tongue in the filling for Christmas pies – mincemeat – in the sense that it is minced food, and not ‘minced meat’, (although some recipes do include meat).
Mincing was a well known technique, and in the first English cookery book, The Forme of Cury (1380), we can find such examples as this: - A recipe for Rosee.
|The Forme of Cury - recipe for Rosee - 1380|
Translated, it reads: -
Take thick milk already boiled; cast thereto sugar, a good portion pine-nuts. Dates minced, cinnamon & powdered ginger and boil it, and mix it with flowers of white Roses, and flour of rice, cool it, salt it & serve it forth. If you will instead of Almond milk, take sweet cream of cattle.
In John Frith’s Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogues (1533), is the phrase,
“We use it customably in our daily speech to say, when a child sets his mind and delight on sport and play, It is meat and drink to this child to play.”
|John Frith - Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogues 1533|
The meaning is that if something is ‘meat and drink’, it is a source of intense enjoyment, as in Shakespeare’s line from As You Like It, “It is meat and drink to me to see a clown.” Contrary to this, we have the phrase, ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison,’ which is to say that what one man takes pleasure in will not suit another. The phrase comes from Lucretius, in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) he writes
“ …so vast the Diff’rence is, what proves Strong Poison unto one, another loves,”
and was so well known to cause Thomas Middleton, in his Plato’s Cap Cast at the Year of 1604, to say,
“Whereby that old moth-eaten proverb is verified, which says, 'one mans meate, is another man's poyson'."
|Lucretius - De Rerum Natura - Trans. T Creech - 1714 edition|
An Old Norse word for a stool was skemill, which came into English as ‘scamble’, meaning either a stool or a bench. This became ‘shamble’, used mainly in the plural ‘shambles’, as the name of the benches from which butchers sold meat. In The 18 Pageant of Naaman of The Stonyhurst Pageants, from the first half of the 17th Century, the character Phronesium says,
“And to the shambles I am goinge meate to provide for supper.”
Many towns had their Shambles, although the most famous now are those at York, and from the mess made by the cuts of meat and the blood and guts, the word came to mean both a slaughter-house and a place of disorder or carnage. So if your house is ‘a shambles’, it looks like a slaughterhouse. And when we talk about someone who shambles or walks crookedly, it is because their legs resemble those of a stool or trestle.
“I saw a lean fellow, with sunk eyes and shamble legs,”
George Wilkins The Miseries of Enforced Marriage 1607.
|George Wilkins - The Miseries of Enforced Marriage - 1607|
Not related to, but similar sounding, is the dialect word for food – scran. It’s a word I use regularly, but its origins are unclear. The OED says its relationship to the Icelandic word skran – meaning odds and ends, or rubbish, is probably accidental. It may be related to the Dutch schransen, to eat greedily, to gorge, or the Irish scranta – a part or division. It appears in Nodal and Milner’s A Glossary of the Lancashire Dialect (1875), but without etymology.
|Nodal & Milner - 'Scran' - A Glossary of Lancashire Dialect - 1875|
The quotation from Edwin Waugh (called the Lancashire ‘Burns’) is dated 1879, which may seem odd in a book published in 1875, but The Chimney Corner was first published in 1874, so it’s just a typo. And just to tie up the loose ends and bring it all back home, in Tiw: Or A View of the Roots and Stems of the English as a Teutonic Tongue, by William Barnes, (1862), is an entry for Scranchum - thin brittle gingerbread. Which is another form of parkin. Lovely.
|William Barnes - Tiw - 1862|
Reet, it’s time fer mi scran. Sithee.