Tuesday, June 04, 2013

`Reading This Thing Like a Potboiler'

A longtime reader writes: 

“Earlier today, during some idle banter with my wife, we speculated about a connection between the words ‘Humility’, ‘Humor’, and ‘Human’ (apparently none, or if so then pre-Latin). In the process of Googling, we found this volume. Folk-Etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy, by Abram Smythe Palmer (New York 1890). It is now 5:30 on Saturday afternoon, and we have frittered away the afternoon reading this thing like a potboiler. If you have not come across this one previously, you are in for a treat.” 

That’s my kind of frittering. From the library I borrowed a 1969 reprint of Folk-Etymology that hasn’t circulated since 1994. Abram Smythe Palmer (1844-1917) takes his place among those monstrously industrious Victorians for whom the world is a body of knowledge to be conquered. Among his other books are Leaves from a Word-Hunter's Note-book, Being Some Contributions to English Etymology (1876) and The Samson-Saga and Its Place in Comparative Religion (1913). In the first sentence of his introduction, Palmer defines folk-etymology as “the influence exercised upon words, both as to their form and meaning, by the popular use and misuse of them.” He elaborates: 

“In a special sense, it is intended to denote the corruption which words undergo, owing either to false ideas about their derivation, or to a mistaken analogy with other words to which they are supposed to be related.” 

His language turns medical: “verbal pathology and its symptomatic features.” And then refreshingly moralistic: “In every department of knowledge a fertile source of error may be found in the reluctance generally felt to acknowledge one’s ignorance. Few men have the courage to say `I don’t know.’” 

Palmer is nothing if not courageous. He writes variously with granite-like conviction, in a spirit of inspired speculation, and with admissions of utter bafflement. His dictionary is a work-in-progress now frozen on the page. Were he writing today, surely he would go digital and encourage reader participation. Here’s his entry for “Jack Robinson”: 

“`Before one could say Jack Robinson,’ is a way of saying in an instant or jiffy. Halliwell quotes `from an old play,’ without further specification: 

“`A warke it ys as easie to be done,
As tys to saye, Jack! robys on.’ 

“So, the original phrase would mean, Jack, on with your clothes! This needs confirmation.” 

If not linguistically rigorous, Palmer clearly is at least having a good time and communicating his sense of fun to the attentive reader. “Mother” he defines as “the dregs or cloudy sediment formed in vinegar,” a corruption of the Low German mudder, meaning “mud.” He adds, apropos of nothing but his own polymathic learning: “A curious coincidence is Gk. graus, (1) and old woman, (2) scum of liquor.” 

I was prepared to be offended by Palmer’s possible anti-Semitism when I saw entries for “Jew’s-Beard” and “Jew’s Ear,” but I was mistaken. Both references are botanical and harmless. The former is “a local name for the plant house-leek,” which he says is “a corruption of Fr. jou-barbe, `Jove’s beard.” The latter is “a popular name for a certain fungus resembling the human ear…a corruption of Judas’ ear, it grows usually on the trunk of the elder, the tree upon which Judas is traditionally reported to have hanged himself.” If there’s a whiff here of anti-Semitism, it’s not Palmer’s.  He writes, winningly: 

“The uneducated shrink from novelties. A thing is new, i.e. not like anything in their past or present experience, then it is `unlikely,’ unsafe, untrue.”

1 comment:

George said...

"Mother" is not merely dregs, but what you need to start your own batch of vinegar