Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Feckless, Fed up Falcons

Not many things in life make me happier than unearthing an obscure derivation for an everyday word or phrase.

My well-thumbed copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology* (edited by the gloriously named Professor Onions**) presented to me on my 24th birthday by my Mum and Dad is one of my most treasured possessions.

Last week, I was watching a falconry display at Ludlow Castle with my family, a display in which Toby, the star peregrine falcon, (peregrine, from the same Old French derivation as pilgrim, (via latin, pereger, to journey), because the young were not taken like hawks from the nest, but caught en route from the breeding place: compare with peregrinations) soared off into the distance with absolutely no intention of returning to his perch for a paltry morsel of chicken. He often does this, the demonstrator explained stoically (stoically, from Greek, stoa, meaning the Porch from which Zeno taught at Athens). He disappears for days on end.  Maybe, we all wondered, Toby is trying to tell you something. A career in show business is just not his thing.  Surely there must be hundreds of wannabe peregrines out there who’d give their right wing for a chance to shine, but apparently, the feckless Toby  (feckless, from Scottish feck, meaning effect, or purport) has performed (or not performed) for the Sultan of Oman, (Sultan, from Arabic, meaning power, ruler, king) and at rugby internationals, for goodness’ sake!

But other than Toby’s disappearance, and a Harris hawk landing on Will’s arm, my favourite part was an account of some commonly used English words derived from the world of falconry.

Fed up: the birds are trained to hunt with yummy morsels – but once they’ve eaten enough, they just lurk around with an am-I-bovvered expression on their beaks, no longer interested in performing for treats.

Booze: from 'Bowse' or 'Bouse', describing the birds drinking water (sometimes excessively; although this derivation is not given by Onions.)

Cadge:  the portable perch used to carry falconry birds was called a cadge. The person carrying the cadge was often unpaid and had to beg, or "cadge" tips from the onlookers. This would often be an elderly falconer, or old codger.

I was particularly excited about the derivation of fed up because it’s a phrase I happened to use in the opening scene of The Mystery of the Whistling Caves - spookily enough, in the context of birds loitering around on chimneys looking bored (spookily, from Middle Dutch, spooc, meaning ghost)

“Stone Cottage was quite possibly the most boring place Jack Carter had ever seen. The walls were grey, the roof was grey, grey rain was falling from a grey sky; even the pigeons huddling on the chimney were grey and sort of fed-up looking.”

I’m sure I didn’t know that fed up was derived from bored birds when I wrote this sentence, but somehow along the way, perhaps this knowledge had seeped into my brain by some form of semantic osmosis?

(I know that in Cornwall those disconsolate birds on the chimney would more likely be seagulls than pigeons  – but Jack is a London lad. In his eyes, all large, thuggish, birds are pigeons. (thuggish from Hindi, Marathi, thag meaning cheat, swindle; gull, probably Welsh, gwylan, Cornish, guilan, hypothetically from Old Celtic voilenno)

Of course, these days, we don’t need to carry Professor Onions’ hefty tome around with us. There are some great word origin websites available, including:

And this one from the University of Nottingham has captivating short videos discussion the social and linguistic history of some interesting words in detail:

And this one has a fun blog about different aspects of language and culture. I thought their posts on language and food were especially good:

*Etymology. Not to be confused with entomology: I have only a passing interest in insects, although as a household we do receive a consignment of live locusts through the post each week, to feed Frankie the bearded dragon.

**CT Onions. As I was writing this, it suddenly occurred to me that Professor Onions himself could be the origin of a common phrase; to know one’s onions, so of course, I had to dash to the internet to see whether there was any evidence for this derivation. Sadly it seems not. From, I found the following information:

The English grammarian and lexicographer C. T. (Charles Talbut) Onions was an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1895 and continued to write reference works throughout a long and distinguished career. His last work was The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1966, which was published a year after his death. If I knew as much etymology as he did I could certainly claim to 'know my onions', and it is tempting to assume that this is where the phrase originated....
...While it is true that the phrase originated at a time when C. T. Onions had established a reputation, the match between the phrase and his name is just a coincidence. Know your onions is in fact an American phrase. There are many references to it in print there from the 1920s onward, but none in the UK or elsewhere until the middle of the century.

Oh well, it was a nice idea!