A word to the wise

By: Gerald Waite

Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient
“Be not careless in deeds, nor confused in words,” goes an epigram by the old Roman, Marcus Aurelius. Easier said than done, Marcus. Looking over the tangled origins of some English words can lead you to wonder how their original meanings ever could be confused with their current senses. Let’s elucidate some amazing etymologies this month.
The common word glamour, for instance, is, of all things, a corrupt form of grammar. Not only that, but not long ago the words could convey magic or a particular kind of writing associated with spells. Here’s Scotland’s Robert Burns in 1789 declaiming on “ye gypsy-gang that deal in glamour, and you deep read in hell’s black grammar, warlocks and witches.” From this wicked connotation, glamor transmogrified during the 1800s to suggest an enchantment, curiously drawing closer to its modern sense.
Rubric today conveys a heading or a category, or more traditionally a rule, such as an instructive note for a religious service. John Wesley had the latter sense in mind here: “As a minister, I teach her doctrine, … I conform to her rubrics.” Many centuries ago, rubric meant red earth or a rouge, from the Latin ruber for red. And it so happens that manuscript scribes came to use red ink whenever including special instructions in a document. Soon the rules themselves were called rubrics. Further, holy days on calendars were also written in red. Today, we still refer to “red letter days.”
To truckle to or truckle under means to act submissively or obsequiously, which is how diarist Samuel Pepys used it in 1667: “He …will never truckle under anybody or any faction, but do just as his own reason directs.” Truckle originally referred to a small wheel, like a castor. Such wheels came to be used to roll truckle-beds, or trundle beds, underneath higher beds. From here, it’s easy to see how he who reposed in the lower bed might be considered subservient.
Sabotage is linked etymologically to sabot (sa-BO), the wooden shoe of the Dutch. The term sabot then was also used for a shoe-shaped wooden device that held a projectile in place in a gun or cannon. Later still, the word was used for a metal contrivance that secured rails to railroad tracks. By early 1900, destroying these metal sabots became known as saboter, or in English, sabotage.
Churlish, a nasty adjective meaning vulgar and lacking civility, is from the honest old English word churl, simply identifying a man without rank, the lowest caste of freemen in feudal times. Churl in more modern times became identified as the antithesis of noble or gentle, and was so used by Emerson in the nineteenth century, describing “graces …which are lost upon the eye of a churl.”
Lampoon is either a noun meaning a satire, or a verb, to ridicule. Thomas Shadwell, best known as the butt of Dryden’s own wonderful lampoon in Mac Flecknoe, illustrates the word in his 1689 line: “I pepper’d the court with libels and lampoons.” The word has a startling origin as a toast in the French lampons, meaning “to guzzle” or “let’s drink.” It later acquired the sense of the ridiculous, perhaps not too surprisingly. It came over to England in the seventeenth century to mean a satirical spoof.
The word carouse, while we’re on the subject of reveling and drinking freely, originated with the still extant German guzzling expression gar aus, or “all out.” The French borrowed it in boire carous, “to drink all out,” to quaff the cup. It was Englished to carouse by Shakespeare’s time. In Othello, we’re told the love-drunk “Roderigo…to Desdemona hath tonight caroused potations, pottle deep.”Word for the month

Pottle (POT-el), was an old English unit of measure amounting to two quarts, wet or dry. Can’t you just imagine the churls in this ancient poem, as they lean on their scythes? “We’ll drink it out of the pottle, my boys. Here’s a health to the barley-mow.” Gar aus. Prosit. Lampons. Salud. Skal. Nazdorovia. Slainte. And cheers.
— Gerald Waite

Editor’s Note: Questions or comments are welcome by writing MM or at marquettemonthly@marquettemonthly.org

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