English: the long, short and curly

An Irishman’s Diary gets to grips with the obscure origins of words

‘After centuries of insulating vulnerable body parts, therefore, the bracket now does a similar job with words. Of course it’s now a rather discreet representation of its former self, at least on my, er, laptop. But I can’t speak for all male keyboard users.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘After centuries of insulating vulnerable body parts, therefore, the bracket now does a similar job with words. Of course it’s now a rather discreet representation of its former self, at least on my, er, laptop. But I can’t speak for all male keyboard users.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Wed, Jun 19, 2013, 17:26

I’ve been reading a highly addictive book called The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. One of the more fascinating details in which concerns the Old Testament, and a story about Abraham trying to find his son a wife.

The only proviso, he tells the servant entrusted with the selection, is that the wife does not come from among “the daughters of the Canaanites”. So adamant is the old man about this that he asks the servant to take a vow. Saying, according to most translations: “Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh: And I will make thee swear” (Genesis 24:2).

Except that according to Mark Forsythe, author of The Etymologicon, Abraham didn’t say “thigh”. What he said was the Hebrew word Yarek. Which Forsythe translates, very loosely, as “soft bits”. And which I have also seen translated – less euphemistically, but with a certain poetry – as “the seat of procreative power”.

In other words, Abraham appears to have made the servant swear on his (Abraham’s) testicles. And in the ancient world, this may not have been inappropriate behaviour. On the contrary, says Forsythe, many scholars believe this was how oaths were taken then. Which would make the link between testicles and testaments even stronger than their shared root in the Latin for “witness”.

The logic of this escapes me slightly. I can understand how the holding of one man’s testicles by another demands a strong element of trust from one of the parties. But you’d expect the person held to be the one making any vows. I think of a famous picture of the footballers Vinnie Jones and Paul Gascoigne, for example. If either of them was swearing, it wasn’t Jones.

Anyway, it’s an idea for the Law Reform Commission to consider, at least. And before I get back to the book, this must also be one of those occasions – they only happen every five years or so – when I’m allowed to mention again an immortal quotation by the late BBC cricket commentator Brian Johnston.

Or alleged quotation – there’s no recording of it, unfortunately. But we do know that Johnston commented on 1970s test matches in which England’s Peter Willey faced the bowling of the West Indies’ Michael Holding.

So whether his magnificently plummy accent ever did broadcast the sentence “We welcome World Service listeners to the Oval, where the bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”, it should have done. Either way, the phrase deserves to be taught in English classes everywhere, if only to highlight the importance of commas.

But back to the book, which is full of vignettes like the one about Abraham. The recurring theme is that looking up the original meanings of words is like tracing your family tree. There can be some very odd, occasionally embarrassing, etymological ancestors. But like the anthropological ones, they usually help explain certain things about subsequent generations.

The examples are not all to do with genitalia, it should be said. I was equally fascinated, for example, to learn that the word “pool” – not the water variety, the one relating to sports events and betting – comes from poule, the French for chicken.

This betrays its origins among one of those charming rustic sports in which France abounds. All you needed was a chicken, a pot, and some stones. First a group of players placed equal amounts of money in the pot. Then they took turns to throw stones at the chicken. The first to hit the bird scooped the poule.

Elsewhere, the book explains such mysteries as why the Vikings’ word for “cloud” became the English “sky”: because, as the author says, “there was simply no difference between the two concepts”. It tells us why “soon” used to be the Anglo-Saxon for “now”. And it explains how “down” came to mean “up” in England (eg the Sussex Downs, a well-known high spot).

But genitalia do feature rather prominently, as it happens. So, getting back to Abraham’s thigh area, the book also mentions how the innocuous punctuation mark used in that last paragraph (ie the bracket) is in fact the pictorial representation of a gentleman’s codpiece.

Yes, brague was the old French word for trousers. Which led to braguette, or “little trousers”. Which led to brackets. After centuries of insulating vulnerable body parts, therefore, the bracket now does a similar job with words. Of course it’s now a rather discreet representation of its former self, at least on my, er, laptop. But I can’t speak for all male keyboard users. It may be worth noting that the literal meaning of “braggart”, a word still very much with us in English, is a man who enjoys showing off his codpiece.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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