We've spent a week tracing words with a particular kind of history. This week we'll be historical by looking at some interesting antiquated terms.
catchpole; catchpoll – a sheriff's officer, especially one who arrests debtors [also figurative, as in the dramatic final quote] Interesting etymology: from older French that literally meant 'chicken chaser'! This antique term would seem appropriate today for such unsavory minor officials as dogcatchers and truant officers.
… as reporter for a newspaper in a police court … I heard perhaps four hundred cases of so-called wife-beating. The husbands, in their defense, almost invariably pleaded justification, and some of them told such tales of studied atrocity and the domestic hearth, both psychic and physical, that the learned magistrate discharged them with tears in his eyes and the very catchpolls in the courtroom had to blow their noses. – H.L. Mencken, Mencken Chrestomathy
worship a goddess called Anna Kuari ... it is necessary to offer human sacrifices. In spite of the vigilance of the British Government these sacrifices are still secretly perpetrated. The victims are poor waifs and strays whose disappearance attracts no notice. April and May are the months when the catchpoles are out on the prowl. At that time strangers will not go about the country alone, and parents will not let their children enter jungle or herd the cattle. – James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (first publ. 1890)
June 19, 2007, 11:41
Interesting etymology: from older French that literally meant 'chicken chaser'!
Chico (Leonard) Marx got his nickname because he was a "chicken chaser", but I think it was a different kind of metaphorical chicken. Asked to describe his brother, Groucho once said "Chico introduced gonorrhea to the vaudeville circuit."
June 19, 2007, 13:11
Groucho once said "Chico introduced gonorrhea to the vaudeville circuit."
Just one more way to seek applause.
Clap clap clap.
June 19, 2007, 16:14
Hic et ubique
Don't give chase. Isn't it easier to sneak up on the chicken and catch it unaware, otherwise known as the pullet surprise?
June 20, 2007, 15:50
Credit for this week's words goes to a fine browsing-book, Forgotten English by Jeffrey Kacirk, who chooses his words so that he can then relate fascinating old customs, beliefs and practices from which those words arise.
pismire – an ant pissant – insignificant, worthless, petty; contemptible (noun: a person of that sort)
He loathed the civilian bureaucrats-pismires who ran to and fro in a futile attempt to prove they had some purpose. – John Jakes, North and South
You generals have all been educated at taxpayers' expense, and now you're not giving me any solutions for this damn little puissant country. Now I don't need ten generals to come in here ten times and tell me to bomb. – Lyndon Johnson, regarding Vietnam, quoted in Geoffrey Perret, Commander in Chief [etc.]
Piss means … well, just what you think it means. And pismire and pissant each refer to ant-the-insect, mire being an old word for 'ant'. (see also here).
Huh? What earthly connection is there between piss and the active little ant? (Yet there must be a connection, since many languages combine the piss and mire roots.) OED says "on account of the urinous smell of an anthill," and AHD says "from the smell of the formic acid that ants secrete." But that strikes me as nonsense: to my 2007 nose, ants and anthills have no particular smell.
So what is the ant-and-piss connection? Kacirk mention "a clue", though not what I think is the answer, when he mentions
…the smell of urine that was once believed to mysteriously emanate from anthills, a clue to which involved a medical test employed by Roman physicians. In this procedure, a patient’s urine was dripped near an anthill; if a high sugar content was present in the urine, ants would be attracted to it and diabetes was the likely cause.
My guess? Olden dirt roads were trod by horses, cattle, donkeys and other domestic beasts, who would give the road regular doses of urine. They would concentrate their deposits in particular spots (presuming that they prefer, as dogs do, to do their business at spots where others have preceded them), and ants would prefer to build their nests in the nutrient-enriched (and urine-smelling) soil!
So though Kacirk speaks of a urine-smell "that was once ‘believed’ to ‘mysteriously’ emanate from anthills," the smell was not a belief but a fact, and not mysterious at all. Our ancestors were not superstitiously imagining the smell. We’ve forgotten that fact because, as animals no longer hoof it along our road, the modern nose is not exposed to their by-products.This message has been edited. Last edited by: wordcrafter,
June 21, 2007, 18:36
toad-eater – a fawning flatterer, parasite, sycophant (also called a toady)
Toads were thought to be highly poisonous. A quack salesman, to demonstrate to his dupes – er, audience – that he could cure poison, would have his assistant (his toad-eater) eat a toad, go through entertaining contortions as if suffering an agony of poisoning, and then be cured by the master’s skill.
An election is the grand trial of strength, the decisive battle when the Belligerents draw out their forces in martial array when every leader burning with warlike ardour, and encouraged by the shouts and acclamations of tatterdemalions, buffoons, dependents, parasites, toad-eaters, scrubs, vagrants, mumpers, ragamuffins, bravoes and beggars, in his rear, and puffed-up by his bellows-blowing slang-whangers, waves gallantly the banners of faction, and presses forward TO OFFICE AND IMMORTALITY! – Washington Irving, quoted in Andrew Burstein, The Original Knickerbocker
You know what a Toadey is? That agreeable animal which you meet every day in civilised society. – Benjamin Disraeli, Vivian Grey
June 21, 2007, 20:14
I have really enjoyed the theme this week, Wordcrafter. I used to have a friend who would always use the word "toady," and I hadn't heard it that much either before or since then. Is it more a regional word?
June 21, 2007, 20:56
I think it is a pretty antiquated word. David Eddings uses it fairly often in his fantasy novels, but he was trained in classic epic fantasy, and has described his attempts to use such words (like leagues, instead of miles) to make you feel more into the time period.
June 22, 2007, 02:41
Now that's a nice phrase!
Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
June 23, 2007, 07:56
Gandermooner is on many wordlists, but did the writers know what it meant, or just speculate or copy from each other? They had few usage examples to work from, and they give inconsistent definitions and unconvincing (to me) etymologies.
That looks like speculation, so I feel free to offer my own speculation. (Detailed rationale to be set forth on the board, lest you be bored with it here.) The authorities teach that moon refers to a certain time one month long, but I think it refers to a certain once-a-month event.
gandermooner – a husband who strays each month, during the "time of month" when his wife is "unavailable"
An erudite 1889 slang-dictionary comments,
Gander, a married man … It may be remarked in this connection that geese or gheeze in Dutch slang means a young girl, any girl; also a lady of pleasure. It is very probable that there is an undercurrent of meaning in reference to these slang words in the nursery rhyme:–
"Goosey, Goosey Gander, Whither dost thou wander? Up stairs, down stairs, In my lady's chamber."
June 23, 2007, 19:49
I'm being careful not to claim more than I know here. Today's word is used in several old writings with the meaning "to make lively; to spruce up; to polish up."
It may have had a memorable related meaning, in the trade-slang of horse dealing. Grose's old glossary lists this sense, but I can find only one usage-example more or less on point. (Other glossary-writers note it too, but apparently just took it from Grose. It's the sort of thing that they – and I – would like to include it.) Admittedly, the meaning Grose gives is hardly one likely to used in writings valuable enough to be preserved.
feague – (of a horse) to put ginger up a horse's rear end, to make him lively and carry his tail well
Her noble protestant has got a flail, Young, large, and fit to feague her briny tail; But now, poor wench, she lies as she would burst, Sometimes with brandy, and sometimes with lust. – A Satire by the Earl of Dorset: A Faithfol [sic] Catalogue of Our Most Eminent Ninnies (1683) [written during the unrest regarding Charles II and James II]
Horse-dealers were notorious for shifty dealing. As Shakespeare noted in King Lear, "He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse's health, a boy's love, or a whore's oath."
June 24, 2007, 16:23
A man on horseback can "drive" home from the pub though thoroughly drunk, trusting his horse to know the way home. So why not take one last drink, what we'd call "one for the road'?
stirrup-cup – a drink handed to a man already on horseback setting out; a parting glass. Also called deoch an doris, Gael. for 'drink at the door'.
By Scottish custom this drink is provided free of charge – which is key to a story told in Sir Walter Scott's Waverly, ch. XI. Here's a later retelling:
It was an old custom in Scotland for the landlord, as his parting guest stood at the door, to present him with a farewell drink called the stirrup cup. Now Luckie Jamieson had brewed a peck of malt, and set the liquor at her door to cool. Luckie Simpson's cow came wandering by, seeking what she might devour, was attracted by the foaming beverage, smelt, tasted, and yielded to the tempter. The unaccustomed drink mounted to the animal's head, descended to her legs, and affected her understanding in both directions, so that her guilt was apparent to the enraged alewife, who demanded of Luckie Simpson the value of the brew. Litigation ensued, the Bailie heard the case and then enquired of the plaintiff whether the cow, had sat down to take her drink or imbibed it standing. It being admitted that the cow had committed the deed whilst on her feet, the Court adjudged the drink to be a stirrup cup for which no payment could be demanded and dismissed the suit. – John Marshall Gest, The Law and the Lawyers of Sir Walter Scott, in The American Law Register, vol. 54 (1906)
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June 25, 2007, 16:29
Our last quote, long but lovely, illustrates the original sense, which today is uncommon.
originally: a misshapen mass in the uterus (thought to be caused by the baleful influence of the moon); a false pregnancy; also, from this: a monster
more commonly: a born fool; a simpleton; or one given to absent-minded daydreaming (but coming to be used in the sense of "someone sentimentally love-sick")
It was a little pathetic, really. Sidonie, often impulsive but rarely stupid, was turning into a mooncalf. – Liz Carlyle, The Devil to Pay
... this one might have provoked pity in anybody. He had a large, shabby umbrella, which constantly fell on the floor. He did not seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket. He explained with a moon-calf simplicity to everyone in the carriage that he had to be careful, because he had something of silver ... in one of his brown-paper parcels. – Gilbert Keith Chesterton, The Blue Cross, in The Complete Father Brown
I had no idea that it was there at all until I was in love so deep that it was a pain in my heart. ... I left soon after. I was afraid of giving myself away, though perhaps I had been gaping at her like a moon-calf for weeks before. – Patrick O'Brian, Testimonies
And the original sense, from a tale told by a man who ages backwards:
. . .Inside this wretched body, I grow old. But outside-in every part of me but my mind and soul-I grow young. . . .There is no name for what I am. Doctors do not understand me; my very cells wriggle the wrong way in the slides, divide and echo back their ignorance. But I think of myself as having an ancient curse. The one that Hamlet put upon Polonius before he punctured the old man like a balloon. . . .That, like a crab, I go backwards. . . .For even now as I write, I look to be a boy of twelve. At nearly sixty, there is sand in my knickers and mud across the brim of my cap. I have a smile like the core of an apple. Yet once I seemed a handsome man of twenty-two with a gun and a gas mask. And before that, a man in his thirties, trying to find his lover in an earthquake. And a hardworking forty, and a terrified fifty, and older and older as we approach my birth. . . ."Anyone can grow old," my father always said through the bouquet of his cigar smoke. But I burst into the world as if from the other end of life, and the days since then have been ones of physical reversion, of erasing the wrinkles around my eyes, darkening the white and then the gray in my hair, bringing younger muscle to my arms and dew to my skin, growing tall and then shrinking into the hairless, harmless boy who scrawls this pale confession. . . .A mooncalf, a changeling; a thing so out of joint with the human race that I have stood in the street and hated every man in love, every widow in her long weeds, every child dragged along by a loving dog. – Andrew Sean Greer, The Confessions of Max Tivoli
July 12, 2007, 16:10
Originally posted by wordcrafter: Gandermooner is on many wordlists, but did the writers know what it meant, or just speculate or copy from each other? They had few usage examples to work from, and they give inconsistent definitions and unconvincing (to me) etymologies.
gandermooner – a husband who strays each month, during the "time of month" when his wife is "unavailable"
your old friend Ammon Shea defined it as a "man who chases women during the month after his wife has given birth," and marvels at the specificity of the term!