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Gelett Burgess and the nonsense machine, ca 1912. (Image: wiki)


WE LIKE TO get to the bottom of things. We like to stare at an apple-pie and see quarks and electrons. We like to ponder a ruin and see the building in all its elevated glory. We look up at the stars and conjure their origin in the Bing Bang. We consider a tangled modern psyche, and trace our way back through its labyrinth until we get to primal causes, confusions and overdeterminations. And we certainly like to etymologize; to look at a word in the present and see how it appeared at the get-go.

Even when we thought the heavens were filled with gods and goddesses, we could still track and trace them with more effect than we can currently track and trace our mutant viruses.

Even when we thought the heavens were filled with gods and goddesses, we could still track and trace them with more effect than we can currently track and trace our mutant viruses. Maybe the virus is our new god; we certainly fear it. And it structures our life as much as the triune deity once ordained the life of a medieval monastery. The terminology of the ancient gods still directs our science. If we describe a type of light as ‘iridescent’, we are still adverting to the goddess Iris whose etymological home is in that word. She was a messenger of the gods, whose physical attribute was the rainbow. And of course we have Woden, Thor and Freya lurking in our days of the week, and the two-faced god Janus inhabiting the boundary-month of January. Secularization always leaves a lot of gods behind, because the language never renounces its ancient science or its superstitions. That’s why we still use those Ptolemaic terms sunrise and sunset. It’s why if we employ the word disaster (however unastrological we may be) we are summoning an ill-positioned star. It’s why, if I describe someone as ‘jovial’ or ‘saturnine’ or ‘mercurial’, the language is asserting through me that the planetary influence on one’s personality is never far away.

So when we go out etymologizing, we are on a god-hunt. It used to be wildly speculative. But it has been tamed into something like a science. Staring at the word curmudgeon, which owns up to no genealogy, Samuel Johnson in his great Dictionary of 1755, speculated. He reckoned it might have come from the French coeur méchant, or naughty heart, and then been Englished. No evidence for this has ever been found, yet that speculative birth has now grafted itself on to the word. And there are plenty of words awaiting explication. The phrase ‘to peter out’ appears to come from American mining in the 1840s, meaning to come to the end of a seam. No one knows what lay behind the usage. It could be something to do with stone, since petrus is the Latin for a stone. Jesus famously re-named his apostle ‘Simon’, and called him either Petrus, or Cephas (the Aramaic equivalent), quipping that he was the rock upon whom he would build his church (though he could not have used that word at the time). He also predicted that Peter would betray him three times. The rock of his church duly did just that, thrice, then he heard the cock crow, and went out into the street to weep bitter tears. So, who knows? Maybe the mining boys in one area were particularly steeped in the Bible, and knew that when Peter petered out, he wept outside at his own disloyalty. It’s as good a guess as coeur méchant.

But etymology is mostly strict and scholarly these days. Even to the point where it contradicts our presuppositions. Faced with the word ravenous, we might reasonably suppose that a raven lives there. After all, this is a big, commanding, eye-plucking bird. Pruk-pruk. It used to make a feast of our dead, lying around after battle – maybe it will again one day. But here the etymology disappoints. The raven never left the Tower to make a linguistic nest in this word. Instead the French language preempted with raviner, to ravage. Our Old English hraefn never got a look in. Although perhaps, like the cuckoo, it nested where it shouldn’t and added to the etymology? Words and their meanings can, after all, accrue. Perhaps we should entertain the notion of a synthetic etymology, one in which as Joyce had it, some of us are fullstoppers and some semicolonials. That last quip on the word semicolons has now entered the sociological lexicon. Joyce was knowing enough: he knew what it was to be jung and freudened

Some words we can locate precisely. Some we must employ conjecture to unfathom. Blurb is easy enough. Invented in the 1900s by Gelett Burgess (whose photograph, taken as he worked his ‘nonsense machine’, decorates the top of this page), the word has proved itself supremely suited to its purpose. Serendipity is another. Horace Walpole coined it in 1754, after the story ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’. Every time these lads of Ceylon wandered out in the world something unexpectedly wonderful happened to them. Serendipity makes for happy days. Kodak is an unusual one: a word constructed to signify nothing at all. Simply to register as a brand. Not attached to anything else. And Milton was a great inventor of words. He had vast swarms of fallen angels brought together, so he called the meeting pandemonium. He also gave us sensuous, a state of which he strongly disapproved.

And words sometimes anagrammatize themselves. This happens a lot in Joyce, and in the Armed Forces. There the term SNAFU is known to one and all: Situation Normal – All Fucked Up. Or here’s Nabokov: Eros, the rose and the sore. That one really stings. Sometimes words get worn into usages, like pebbles rounding out on the shore. So the old God Sibs (the siblings of God) were the people in a family who came together for a christening. Often hadn’t seen one another for a long time. A lot to catch up on. So they Godsibbed. And soon enough they were gossiping. Thus does the sacred render itself profane.

The word silly, like the word nice, has degenerated. The one once meant blameless, immaculate, and the other indicated a precision. But it is no use hungering after earlier usages. As Johnson sadly observed in the Introduction to that great Dictionary of his, usage always wins in the end. If enough people say the word, meaning this, it will sooner or later mean this. Disinterested is currently in the process of becoming indistinguishable from uninterested, which is a shame. And what about decimate? It once meant to kill one in every ten. This seems pretty specialised and relatively unusual. Not if you were a rebellious Roman legion. That was a specific message: we kill one in every ten of you mutinous soldiers. There are still nine left. And, believe me, you’re equally killable. The word had an afterlife. It became a tithe in the Middle Ages, and later still when Cromwell taxed the Royalists in 1655. Now it just means killing a large number. Imprecision has re-wilded the language.

During the mad cow disease outbreak, one newspaper ran a headline asking: ‘Should Cows be Vaccinated?’ This was a more interesting question than the paper appeared to realise. During the dark days of smallpox in Britain, Jenner had noted that farmgirls, milkers of cows, tended to be immune. So he engaged in vaccination, so called because a small amount of cow (vacca in Latin) was injected into the human body. If you vaccinate a cow, you are putting the cow back into the cow. Perhaps a more modern equivalent would be Vietnamisation. This consisted of letting Vietnam be Vietnam again by pulling out your American troops.

Until the nineteenth century etymologies could tend to be fanciful. So we have Edmund at the opening of King Lear. Now, Edmund is a bastard, and he is not shy in owning up to his state of bastardy. But he acknowledges how dim a view others take of his unorthodox parenting by finding the word base in there. That is a false etymology. There is no base in the original bastardus, though there might well be a packsaddle, and a random son. Edmund’s rhetoric is still magnificent, however shaky his etymology:

Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? Base, base?

It’s doubtful that Edmund would feel more uplifted if it were pointed out to him that the word actually derives from a huckster on a horse, coming at night and leaving again by early morning; leaving a remnant of himself in a womb. Some etymologies seem too obvious to ignore. After all, the heavy drinker forbidden drink knows only too well which evil etymologist has put the sob into sobriety

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

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