[Note: This article first appeared in Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Autumn 2005), and is reprinted here by permission. —Eds.]
I used to look words up in a good dictionary whenever I was curious about their origins. Time and again, what I found was that words that looked like they were related were in fact completely unrelated; while other words, which to the naked eye seemed to have no excuse for anything other than a passing acquaintanceship, were in fact on rather incestuous terms.
I’ll never forget the day that the dictionary thumb-
After I had recovered from the shock, my indignation turned to resolution. I can do this myself, I thought. And now, when a question arises regarding the etymology of a modern English word, I am proud and delighted to furnish an etymology that I have completely made up. Call it a vice, if you must; I prefer to think of it as an affectation.
Q. How did a smart-
A. As might be expected, neither of the ostensible components of this word are really what they appear. The acre in wiseacre was originally yaeger, which meant “fool” (yaeger is related to jester). And the wise isn’t, etymologically speaking, so very wise at all. It’s actually oise, a goose-
Q. I’ve always assumed that pussyfooting derived from the fancy feline footwork it so readily evokes. But now I’m worried that I’ve been wrong all these years, and my appearance here in your column would seem to confirm that fear. I’m not sure I have the heart to tell my three cats that I’m merely a straw man in a spurious language essay; but, pray, do proceed with your answer.
A. Thank you, with your kind indulgence I shall.
Q. Not at all.
A. By choosing the participial form, you have saved us some trouble. Pussyfooting is nothing more than a linguistic reversal of the Middle English fussy-
By the sixteenth century, the fussy-
Ah, to see my cherished Source ablush
pudding essays wisdom cloak
Would that I with herb and onion1 held
Olympic bowls2 to crinkle3 gauzèd4 light5
It is in the eighteenth century that we find the first references to someone metaphorically pussyfudding around a delicate issue. Why the reversal happened is, according to scholars, none of our business. In any case, from that point on it was but a short, feline step to the modern spelling.
A. Nobody asked, but I have further decided that our modern phrase greasy spoon bears no etymological relation to the words greasy or spoon. In Chaucer’s time, a grace y spon (literally, “elegance and space”) was an establishment that boasted beauty and roominess but not, alas, delectable meals. This has come down to present-
Adv. My soon-
The word made it (through the usual channels) into English as pickle and survived into the nineteenth century, by which time it was chiefly applied to food
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Footnotes omitted. If we have to explain it to you, it really won’t be funny.
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