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  • Lost in Transmission May 4, 2012

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    Words echo through the centuries like coins dropped down an infinite well. And as they are passed on they are smoothed and confused in the mouths of the people. The best examples we have of this are, of course, placenames: in the space of eighty generations Londinium becomes London, Mamucium becomes Manchester and Euboricum becomes York. After a while the words cease to make sense: people no longer realise that when they say York or (Eourwic or one of the in between states) that they are talking about a yew tree.

    Now this collapse of knowledge is particularly evident with place-names, but it can also be found elsewhere when words are dumbly repeated. A random example: in the mid-nineteenth century a Devon folklorist comes across the following verse at the end of apple harvest:

    ‘What zeal! What zeal is in all our town!

    The cup is white and the ale is brown’.

    Understandably she suspects that ‘zeal’ (pronounced ‘aus-ale’!) is not really zeal at all. Could it be, she suggests, ‘wassail’ (waes hael), the punch-like drink that is made (usually with ceremonies) and that takes place (you’ve guessed it) after apple harvest. She is almost certainly right. Somewhere, let’s surmise, c. 1750 wassail had dropped out of use in this corner of the county and the Devonian rustics were repeatingm empty syllables that they turned into something that they could at least understand. Zeal appears in a couple of south-western placenames, where it has been corrupted from Old English sele, ‘hall’: so the word is not as erudite as it might at first seem.

    Another example, this time from Cornwall at the end of the nineteenth century. A doctor is visiting a patient out in the sticks and gives her some news.

    My chief piece of intelligence on the day in question was that a relation of my own, whom she had once seen, was about to be married. The old woman was greatly interested and asked the name of the bride. On hearing that it was Margaretta, she at once assured me that was a lucky name, and begged me most earnestly to let the bride-groom known how to reap the full advantage of the luck; he must, it seemed, pluck a daisy on the eve of the marriage, draw it three times through the wedding ring, and repeat each time, very slowly, the words, ‘Saint Margaretta or her nobs’.

    And what enough does this formula mean. Beach was slow here though not as slow as the doctor who was almost home when it clicked.

    It was not until far on my homeward journey that it flashed suddenly into my mind that the words were a prayer, ‘Sancta Margaretta, ora pro nobis’, a genuine Latin intercession, handed down from Catholic times [almost four hundred years before]. Who knows with what rapture of devotion in days long past Saint Margaret’s prayer had been repeated in that very farmstead by the lips of men and women taught to feel a personal devotion to the Saint; and though now even the holy character of the words is forgotten, yet the fact that they have been kept in memory through so many generations, in never so corrupt a form, proves the strength of the feeling which once sanctified them, showing that in some one’s mind the prayer was stored up not to be forgotten, with a lingering trust that it would bring a blessing yet.

    The inhabitants of that house are unlikely to have had any heirlooms that were three hundred and fifty years old: apart of course from ‘Margaret and her nobs’ that will have died with the old lady.

    Beach is on the search for other examples of repeated phrases that have no meaning (anymore). It strikes him that a particularly fertile place to look would be where languages collide: after all, misunderstanding is at the root of most of these re-renderings.

    Beach spent some time in his teens on a ranch in North America where third-generation Norwegians spoke to their cattle in garbled phrases that clearly came from the tongue of their ancestors who had crossed the great water sixty years before.

    ‘Hokey pokey’ was (before it became a dance) the word for ice-cream on the streets of London and New York: ‘here come the ‘hokey-pokey men!’ the children would scream.  The etymology of this phrase is much debated but it is probably an Englished version of the Italian ‘Ecco un po’!’ [here’s a little], uttered by the ice-cream sellers.

    Any other examples? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    5 May 2012: Patty writes:  one that gets me here in the states having grown up hearing the full? version:  “The proof is in the pudding” from “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”. One that I did hear a lot growing up was “Waste not, want not”, which makes perfect sense as is, but my grandmother would add “the old lady said as she piddled in the sea”.  I’m sure there were many colourful variants to the first quote!’ Then Wade: In further searching for phrases that have lost their original meeting, I found this blog site. I included a couple of interesting posts. It struck me that it is somewhat similar to Bizarre History, but focused on language. Seems pretty interesting, and I thought you might like to bookmark it.Thanks Wade and Patty!

    5 May 2012: Rayg writes: ‘What zeal! What zeal is in all our town! The cup is white and the ale is brown’. To middle-aged folkies, that’s instantly recognisable as what’s generally known as the Gower Wassail (from its 1947 collection by A.L.Lloyd) or the Somerset Wassail (from its 1895 collection by Baring-Gould). It’s kind of hard to believe “wassail” could drop out of use in Devon; it being cider country, there are wassail traditions all over. More likely the folklorist just didn’t “get” the accent: I’ve heard elderly local people here pronounce “s” in exactly a way – “s” as “z”, with a slight glottal stop in front – that could make “wassail” sounds like “what zeal”,. I hesitate to mention a classically-cited example: the one that the Hokey-Cokey is a parody of Catholic mass (“Hoc est corpus”). It’s just too damn pat, and I don’t think the attribution trail is terribly convincing. The ones I always like are Billy Ruffianisms – the rendering of foreign names into Anglicized soundalikes, as classically done by Nelson-era sailors: the Bellerophon becoming the Billy Ruffian, Amphitrite – ‘Am and Tripe, Iphigenia – Niffy Jane, etc.’ Thanks Rayg!

    6 May 2012: Word Angel writes in with this quotation from Rustic Speech by Wright. ‘A few Latin phrases have made their way into the dialects, where they have assumed curious forms and meanings. For example : hizy-prizy (Nhb. Yks. Chs. Der. Som. Dev.), a corruption of Nisi prius, a law-term. It is used to signify any kind of chicanery or sharp practice, or, used as an adjective, it means litigious, tricky ; and in the phrase to be at hizy-prizy, it means to be quarrelsome, disagreeable. The plural form momenty-morries (Nhb.), skeletons, stands for memento mori, remember that thou must die, the name given to a small decorative object containing a skeleton or other emblem of death, cp. ‘ I make as good use of it as many a man doth of a Death’s-head or a memento mori,’ 1 Hen. IV, in. iii. 35. The Latin nolens volens appears as nolus-bolus (Wil.), nolum-wolum (Wil. Dev.), hoylens-voylens, oilins-boilins (Cum.). A mother sending off an unwilling child to school will say : Oilins-boilins, but thee shall go. Nominy (Nhb. Dur. Yks. Lan. Chs. Der. Nhp.) represents the Latin nomine in the formula In Nomine Patris, &c., the invocation used by the preacher before the sermon. It means : (1) a rigmarole, a long rambling tale, a wordy, tiresome speech; (2) a rhyming formula or folk-rhyme. Stan over at Cowpath writes meanwhile: One that comes to mind is Riding, Farthing, Reeve & Sherriff  Related to this phenomena is true folk etymology – where a foreign sounding word is changed to familiar sounding words even if they make no sense. I wrote about them August 10. Thanks Word Angel and Stan!!

    14 May 2012: John writes in: ‘I think we could find a lot of these words in the way people communicate with farm animals — the ‘sounds’ that we make to soothe/call cattle and horses might have their roots in older languages with the sound form lingering on past the meaning… I remember my mother telling me the proper way to call cattle, and thinking it made no sense at the time.  This is from rural Ontario, from a family seven generations from Northern Ireland, but the words still remained. The approved cattle call was: ko boss…….    I know that bos is an old Indo-European root of the word cow (hence bovine …).  What other forms of addressing farm animals might hold ancient roots?’ Thanks John!