The transformation of asparagus into sparrow-grass, as mentioned yesterday, is understandable and this has led me to think about other words that have altered over time, often disguising their origins. Take, for example, the name of one of our commonest flowers – the dandelion.
It would be perfectly understandable to assume that this name is a compound of dandy and lion, with dandy denoting something showy or fancy (as in Yankee Doodle Dandy), and lion relating to the big cat – hence a bright, showy flower with a fine leonine mane of petals. Except it isn’t. The name actually derives from the shape of the leaves, which have tooth-like indentations along their edge, called in French dent de lion (Lion’s tooth), and in mediaeval Latin dens lionis. In fact, in England, the plant was once called piss-a-bed, a reference to the diuretic property of the plant.
Turning to another plant, the artichoke, this name comes through the Italian articoccio, the French artichault and Spanish alcachofa, all from the Arabic harsaf, harziaf and harsciaf. When folk etymology gets to work, there are derivations invented that link the word to arci – arch (great), and cloffo – horse-collar, other place the word in hearty and choke, either something that chokes the heart or sticks in the throat; or something with a choke, or a chock, at its heart. Other theories turn to the French, with haut – high, great, and chaud – heat, warm, or even changing the chau to chou – cabbage.
The Romans ate artichokes (it’s just that we don’t know which bits of them), and called them carduus, a cover-all word for thistles, and from which we get the word cardoon, the modern word for the wild or uncultivated artichoke. Sharing a name, and distantly related, is the Jerusalem artichoke, which you might be forgiven for thinking comes from the Holy Land. Nope. Afraid not. The name is a corruption on the Italian name of the plant – girasole artichoke – gira al sole meaning sun-flower, and with the usual English gift for garbling foreign languages this became Jerusalem.
There is a story that, when the Crystal Palace was being built, a large number of sparrows became trapped inside, roosting in the trees and beams, and threatening to besmirch the visitors with their copious droppings. Various solutions were attempted to rid the Great Exhibition space of the unwanted visitors, all to no avail, until things got so bad that there was only one alternative – consult the Duke of Wellington. Old Nosey turned up, took one look, and provided the answer –
So, sparrow-hawks, hawks that hunt sparrows, right? Wrong. It comes from spar-hawk, spar is an old word for rock (as in feldspar or fluorspar), and the bird is a rock-hawk (another name for the pigeon is rock-dove).
Staying with birds, we talk about larks and larking around, meaning fun and fooling about, it’s common enough in Dickens,
‘We should be as gay as larks’
says Mr Brass, in The Old Curiosity Shop. It makes sense, we are as carefree as the merry bird of dawn, singing and gambolling with no thought of tomorrow. But lark is a corruption of laik, a common enough word in northern English dialects (I use it myself frequently), which comes from Old English lāk and the Anglo Saxon lác, meaning to sport, to play or simply to mess about.
I hope you are never troubled with thrush, the fungal infection oral candidiasis, but can there possibly be a link to the bird? Yes, there is – thrush, the bird, takes its name from throstle, a name still used in northern England, from Anglo Saxon þrosle; the disease takes its name from þrot-swyle – throat swelling, with an old name for the wind-pipe being þrot-bolla, throte-bolle, which we find in Chaucer,
“And by the throte-bolle he caught Alein.”
To return to foodstuffs, you may be familiar with the term forcemeat, which is used to make pates, quenelles, sausages, roulades and galantines. So, does the name come from the action of forcing the meat into a skin or a mould, or does it come from the forcing, or concentrating, of flavour in the meat? Well, it’s neither. Originally, the word was farced-meat, from the French farcer, to chop or mince. And by the by, the name of hash, as in corned beef hash, does not come from hash, as in to make a hash of something, a mess or lumping together, but again from the French hacher, to chop or mince.
Apple-pie order, meaning the opposite of a hash and referring to something that is perfect and proper, has nothing to do with food and derives from the French too, cap-à-pie is a term applied to a soldier fully caparisoned from head to foot; the schoolboy prank of the apple-pie bed, were the sheets are rearranged to bring the top and the bottom closer together, also comes from the head to toe idea.
Speaking of tops and bottoms brings me to the bitter end – not as you’d think referring to the dregs of something, the sour remains that have been left over, the part that might leave a bitter taste in the mouth. The bitts (or bits) are spars to the fore of a sailing ship, around which bights, chains or cables are secured, and when these ropes are played out (as when an anchor is lowered), the part that remains aboard the vessel is the bitter’s end, changed in time to the bitter end, the end of a rope where no more remains to be played out.
|Playing it out to the bitter end|