The Word Laid Bare, Part III
Paul West

Continued from Part II of Paul West’s “The World Laid Bare,” published August 4, 1999.


Spanish anchova first shows its English face in Falstaff’s bill at the Boar’s Head: “Anchovies and sack after supper … 2s 6d” (I Henry IV, 1596). Not much is known, though this has not deterred theorists, one of whom holds that it comes from an Italian dialect word ancioa, from vulgar Latin apjua, filched from Greek aphue (“small fry”). Another view invokes Basque anchu, which perhaps means “dried fish.”


Initially there were no bells in the belfry since it was the word for a shelter in which besieging troops might hide from enemies and weather. Berfrey, as it was first spelled in English, began as a shed and became a moveable tower from which fire could be aimed; it also served as an observation post. So the tower becomes a turret, such as a watchman might inhabit, who thereupon requires nothing so much as a bell to give the alarm with. Contraction produced belfry, of church and bat fame. Once upon a time “bergfrith,” a compound meaning “protect peace,” tautological and therefore emphatic (like ack-ack for anti-aircraft?). Both French and English mouths found berfrey hard to say, so the first r became an l or dropped out. Modern French has beffroi, an oddly un-French-looking word, certainly for its bef (is there another bef in French?). The first reference to bell-tower was in an early English-Latin dictionary of 1440 called Promptorium parvulorum (Promptbook for Little Ones): “Bellfray,” it says, means “campanarium.


Not your everyday word, but for the Greeks, yes, since it described a mode of writing that reminded them of plowing. The method was to write one line left to right, the next right to left, the one following left to right again. This was how plowmen ploughed the fields: alternate furrows in opposite directions. From bous (cow, ox) + strephein (to turn). A later take-off that saved paper was to fill a page, fill it again at right angles and then even at one or two diagonals.

charley horse

If Charley is a standard name for a clapped-out old nag, lame but out to pasture for family use, this phrase for a painfully stiff thigh muscle that goes on feeling harder to the touch may have come from there. The image survives, perhaps for its blatant incorporation of a horse into a Charley and that into a human leg. The net effect is one of stunned abbreviation, a mutation of species and a rather comfy, cozy evocation of downhome family values.


New Latin, after Pietro Crescenzi (Petrus de Crescentiis), who died around 1310, giving his name to a genus of tropical American trees (family Bignoniaceae) distinguished in the main by unfortunate or undesirable features: crooked limbs, short trunk, droopy branches, purplish blotched flowers (one almost writes botched), and—the bonus—large globose fruits.


Almost a total mystery, odd in a word so much used. Clearly from Old French drogue, which may have come from Arabic durawa (chaff) or, more likely, from Dutch droog for “dry,” either through the phrase droge waere (dry goods) or droge vate (dry barrels). Or dry goods packed in dry barrels? About this word we gained in the fourteenth century, we just do not know. It covered its origin supremely well.


Two words hand in hand that do not join. “Cook in fat” is a different word from “young fish.” The former, from Old French frire and Latin frigere, has lost the roasting component the romans gave it and was earlier, in Indo-European bhreu involved with boiling (compare Latin fervere, boil). The Latin past participle, frictus, generated Vulgar Latin’s frictura, which gave us our fritter in the fourteenth century! Frizz may share the same ancestry. The other fry may derive from Anglo-Norman frie, from Old French freier, to spawn or rub, descending from Latin frigere. Sometimes the two words come together in a fish-fry, but one day soon, as human wisdom advances in one area while it atrophies in others, frying will be a lost delight, and such verbs as poach (one of them, anyway) will come into their own again.


If you have a lazy horse, stick a root of ginger in its anus to buck it up. Such is one approach to ginger. Another, compiled by my old professor of Anglo-Saxon, Alan S. C. Ross, the deviser of the U/Non-U distinction in British English, occupies seventy-four pages (published in 1952). The word’s origin is astonishingly complex, ultimately Sanskrit srngaveram a compound word formed from srngam (horn) and vera (body), used of ginger for the shape of its palatable root. There followed Sanskrit singabera (languages always on the move) and Greek ziggiberis, Latin zinziberi. The simplification of a word as it nears Latin is an almost soothing experience. After gingiber or gingiver, and Old English gingifer, English reborrowed the word, this time from French as gingivre. This was the thirteenth-century, when gingivre mingled with the surviving Old English form to make Middle English gingivere, whence modern ginger. Did there have to be so many stages? Palates and epiglottises said yes, as they mostly do, here exposed at their pickiest, their most dawdling, yet always with a word for what delighted them.


Doctor Johnson dismissed this word in 1755 in his Dictionary, noting it was “not now used except in ludicrous writing, or with some mixture of irony and contempt.” Deriving from the Germanic gliujam, which has a forceful, evocative sound, it originally had to do with “entertainment or having fun” (source of our modern joy, delight) and, more specifically, with musical get-togethers (hence the “unaccompanied part-song” of glee clubs). Going straight until the fifteenth century, it just about expired, but then came back, giving us gleeful, gleeman, and even gleesome. Perhaps because it was wider than mirth.


Latin grossus gave us this, via Old French gros, but it is unrelated to anything in German. Its link with physical hugeness has waned while its figurative destiny has increased, spreading it from “coarse” and “vulgar” to “total” and “entire,” as well as installing it as the verbal form of “144,” what the French call une grosse douzaine (= 12 x 12). Grocer comes form it, plausibly as a grocer used to buy his goods wholesale (engross), which means possess in toto, hence a book that is engrossing and for a while possesses you completely.


It is easier to build a shrine than to get a deity to come and haunt it. The Latin verb exorare means “to entreat earnestly,” even “to implore,” which is all very well if the gods are amenable to please, if they are there at all. If they prove inexorable, this means they cannot be earnestly entreated. The trouble comes about when the pleader cannot tell absence from refusal. Entreating human beings is a different matter, whether judges or colleagues; they are there to be watched. Yet perhaps treating with the gods who are or are not there may be better than dealing with the automatic, truly inexorable Furies, whose job is to take us by the short hairs and not let go. There is a calculated oration in orare, which implies the possible success of certain rhetoric, if you are good enough.

knuckle down

Mid-1800s. To get down to it and work seriously, from the act of setting your down to the taw or marble when preparing to shoot in a game of marbles. To go knuckle down before shooting is an index to your seriousness as a player or, metaphorically, a worker.


How do you get to be called a macaque? You go from general, monkey, to general again, as follows. Macaque is French, from Portuguese macaco, a Congolese monkey, possibly from Fiot makaku meaning “some monkeys” (ma, numerical sign, + kaku, monkey). Odd to become specific while moving from monkey to monkeys, to be defined by being pluralized.


Jean Nicot, the sixteenth-century French ambassador to Lisbon, in 1560 secured some samples of the new substance, tobacco, and sent them on to Catherine de Medici, the French queen. Fame ensued, with the tobacco plant named herba nicotiana in his honor (Nicot’s herb). Hence our nicotine, for the addictive alkaloid won therefrom. Never forget your queen, at chess, or otherwise.

Peach Melba

Around 1900, soprano Dame Nellie Melba’s career was at its peak, and the French chef, Auguste Escoffier, had just been decorated with the Legion of Honor by his government. In a flush of fellow-feeling, the best fawning on the best, he decided to laud her voice by creating peach melba, just peaches and ice-cream, occupying little creative time, and to serve it to her in a swan of ice at the Ritz Carlton in London after one of her performances in Wagner’s Lohengrin at Covent Garden. The peach, native to China, arrived first in Persia on its westward way, and acquired the name of Persian apple.


I did not knkow this unusual word until I read Martha Barnette’s account of it. Non-culinary, it denotes a traveler, a wayfarer, peddler, an itinerant onion-seller, say. Medieval Latin has pede pulverosus (dusty-footed), which gave the now vanished English word dustyfoot, which we can ill do without. There was a Court of Piepowders set up at medieval fiars and markets to handle disputes among those dusty-footed. They moved around, but the courts awaited their need. In 1614, poet and playwright Ben Jonson wrote about a fair “in whose Courts of Pye-poudres I haue the honour during the three dayes sometimes to sit as Judge.” Piepowder is related to such words as pollen, pulverise, and polenta, and its first three letters call upon the French pied, Latin pes, for foot. Something uncivilized and unpretentious comes to us through this obsolete, tolerant word.


Sportscasters interested in inflation rather than in inflated language use this word to denote psyching oneself up, prompting oneself to an extra effort that might win the day. Baseball announcers describing pitchers are especially given to this metaphor. The word’s etymology is unknown, but clearly this is an onomatopoeic term, originating in Northwestern Europe, unrelated to pomp


From the Greek word for fist, pugme, Latin pugnus (same root as pugnacious). Originally a measure of the distance from knuckle to elbow, yielding the word pugmaios for “dwarfish” (as if all the occasions on which the distance had been too short had amalgamated and generated a concept). Latin pygmaeus gave English its pygmy, anciently and medievally used to identify mythical and apocryphal races short in stature. Not until the nineteenth century did this fourteenth-century word denote the pygmies of equatorial Africa, now thus labeled.


It used to mean a period of isolation lasting forty days (Latin quadraginta Italian quaranta, but since the seventeenth century the number drifted off and the term became an absolute.


Latin recalcitrare means kick back in the horse sense, from re (back, again) + calcitrare (kick), from calx (heel). Recalcitrant people are kicking back at what distresses them or holds them back. The verb came to us through French, but as no one seems able to pronounce it properly, it remains a tool of lawyers and headteacher, both of whom understand it although few others do. It’s an odd example of a needed word nobody can manage. A word of similar fate, suborn (as with perjury) is a relative of ornament and means “equip secretly.” Latin ornare means not only decorate, the sense we still use, but also “equip, get ready,” surviving in suborn. So: To suborn perjury, about which we hear too much, is to equip someone to be able to commit it. Suborn is the underhand version of adorn.


Eating in England isn’t the pleasure it should be, though crisp Yorkshire pudding and English trifle rank gastronomically high. What you can savor, however, are some of the names, given certain dishes in a frenzy of distractive allusion: get their minds off it while they chomp, even if to a greater source of disgust. A rollmops, spicy marinated fillets of herring coiled around a gherkin or onion and fastened with a stick, is supposed to cure hangovers. The name is German: rollen (“roll”) plus Mops (“pug dog”). Rollmops is a singular, so the plural should perhaps be rollmopses. Watching the locals polish off this waddling pug of an hors d’oeuvre may delay your appetite, but rollmops qua name is as nothing compared to spotted dick (“dick” an old word for, among other things, plain pudding, riding whip, and a hard cheese), sometimes called spotted dog. Then there is toad-in-the-hole, a battered sausage or crusty banger, and dog-in-a-blanket, a jam pudding or a rolled currant dumpling. The apple-like fruit called medlar they dub dog’s arse or open arse, not being a nation too squeamish or “nesh” to exclude any part of the body from so fleshly a habit as eating. In Romeo and Juliet, the noble, often understating Mercutio lets it rip when he observes of his fellow man-about-town:

     Now he will sit under a medlar tree,
     And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
     As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone
     O, Romeo, that she were, O that she were
     An open-arse, though a pop’rin pear.

In case anyone wonders, the medlar resembles a vulva and the Belgian pop’rin pear the penis.


Gaelic, from the costive, belligerent-sounding word, sluaghghairm from “war-cry,” formed from sluagh (army) and ghairm (yell). This is a suitable shout to accompany what the military call a war-face. The later use of slogan in advertising, while equally vociferous, began in the eighteenth century.


Those of us who use this word in English, and there cannot be many, may not recall its origin in a character named after a food: Tartuffe in Moliere’s play, Tartuffe. This religious hypocrite’s name comes from Italian tartufo, for truffle or terrae tuber: “truffle of the earth.” What Moliere had against the truffle, or why he attributed it to so human a vice as hypocrisy, we do not know; but we still use the word tartuffery. Perhaps Tartuffe the seducer and swindler, wearing the suit that came with birth, typifies someone of the earth earthy, fit for being nosed out by a pig.

Till all’s blue

Not blue as in the air was blue with bad language, but blue in a vaguely cerulean way, not bloodless but subject to the Rayleigh scattering that creates a blue sky when it can. This is the British equivalent of till hell freezes over, or to the bitter end, or many other hyperbolical impossibilities.


Literally, “unknown.” In Saxon law, a person entertained in the house of another was, on the first night of his stay, so called. As the laws of Edward the Confessor prescribed it, a man who stayed for one night was considered a stranger; on the second night, a guest; on the third night, a member of the family. These prescriptions bore on the host’s or the entertainer’s responsibility for offenses committed by the guest. (Compare with Twa night gest.


Some called him an anatomist, but Caspar Wistar (1761–1818), of the College of Pennsylvania, was also a professor of surgery and midwifery; also an obtuse, visionary experimentalist who brought a certain climbing woody vine from its favored habitat in the South and managed to make it loft its showy cluster of purple and white into all manner of surface winds. Named wisteria in his honor in the year of his death.


In the old Commedia dell’ Arte comedies, a clowning servant was a Zani, really an amateur clown whose behavior seems merely outlandish. Zani was originally a Venetian dialect word varying Gianni, short for Giovanni (John). In English, the word means a silly or fatuous person, although not without a tinge of envious admiration at any touch of originality in the performance.