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Words, Words Words: Going But Not Quite Gone

If someone gives you short shrift in a new fangled way it probably puts you on your mettle because you don’t want to eat humble pie or be hoist with your own petard.  Common, easily understood expressions – but have you ever stopped to think about shrift, newfangled, mettle, humble pies and petard?

It’s actually very odd how often we unthinkingly use words without knowing what they mean.  We’re confident that getting away with an exploit scot-free is  to achieve something vaguely risky without incurring any penalty, payment or injury but  what exactly was, or is, a scot (as opposed to a Scot which is a native of Scotland)? It was an English municipal tax, or the payment or levying of it, and it comes from an old Norse word skot meaning a shot or contribution.

Words are organic. They develop. They are born, they live and they die. The life cycle of a word often spans a millennium or more.   But sometimes they retain a last gasp of immortality by living on in the language idiomatically, the lexical equivalent of a biological throwback.

‘My teenage children  are  beginning to kick against the traces’ you might hear a parent say.  Kicking against the what? A trace was one of two straps chains or lines of a harness for attaching a horse to a vehicle and the word comes via Old French from the Latin word tractus, which is the past participle of the verb trahere to pull or to draw. A lad (or lass) who is kicking over the traces is therefore resisting restraint. Still in the realms of bestial metaphor, he or she might just as easily be kicking against the pricks – or not responding to being prodded by the sort of spurs or goads used to control domestic animals in the past.

So what actually was short shrift? Remember Romeo and Juliet? The Nurse has to find a plausible way of getting Juliet out of the house with minimum supervision and fuss as cover for her secret marriage to Romeo. ‘Have you got leave to go to shrift today?’ she asks in perfectly balanced iambic pentameter. Shrift was confession of sins and the granting of absolution so it meant a convenient private appointment with a priest. The past participle of this delicious word was ‘shriven’ and the associated adjective ‘shrove,’

In Britain the Tuesday before the first day of Lent (Mardi Gras in most of Europe and the US ) is still called Shrove Tuesday because it was the day on which it really was essential  to get a sin-free clean slate with which to begin  of the Lenten fast.

Anyone who got ‘short shrift’ received very little time and sympathy from the priest and so felt put out.  And that’s what getting short shrift still means. Someone who gives it to you is not giving you the time and attention you think you deserve.

New-fangled is a nice word too.  Laden with negative connotations, it means, of course, modern and unnecessarily complicated or gimmicky. It stems from the Old English word fangen, the past participle of fon – to take or seize. Thomas Wyatt’s early 16th century poem ‘They Flee From Me’ describes his former lover leaving him to ‘use newfangleness.’

Mettle – that you might be put on – is just an alternative to ‘metal’ meaning strength or defensive, but humble pie and that petard that you, like Hamlet, might be hoist with, are interesting.

Obliged to eat humble pie, means you have no choice but to abase or humble yourself by apologising. The expression is actually a pleasing pun on an obsolete word. ‘Humples’ were the offal of deer and anything made with them was very lowly, or humble, food. So if you put yourself in the wrong you must swallow your pride as if you were eating this unglamorous dish.

A petar or petard comes form a jolly, Early French word peter which means to fart.  It was a case for carrying explosives for military detonation and later it came to mean a firework with a loud report. To be ‘hoist’ with it means in effect that you’ve blown yourself up with your own bomb or yourself suffer  from a misfortune you were planning for someone else. Hamlet, through whom Shakespeare coined the phase, meant that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are in the pay of the King Claudius to despatch Hamlet to a watery grave in the middle of the North Sea, would be outwitted and themselves drown instead.

And while we’re on the subject of Hamlet, what about that useful old suffix  –monger from Old English manger, itself from the Latin mango, mangonis – a dealer, especially in slaves.  It now means a trader or dealer, or a person who attempts to stir up something petty or disreputable.  That’s why Hamlet, in his simulated madness, pretends to think that the obnoxious Polonius is a fishmonger. The old trade names such as fishmonger and ironmonger have all but died out now, but we still use the suffix in coinages like war-monger or lie-monger.

One of the interesting things about the mangere-derived monger is that, surprisingly, it has no etymological kinship with the two separate meanings of ‘mangle.’  A mangle, meaning a  machine with rollers for pressing the water out of laundry, comes from a Dutch word mangel via High German and Middle High German and originally from Latin manganum  from the Greek manganon, a pulley block.

Mangle, on the other hand, meaning to hack, crunch or spoil, comes from an Old French verb maynier to maim.

Another delightful word which survives idiomatically, but not otherwise, is fettle. If you’re in fine fettle you’re fit and ready for action. It originates in the Middle English verb fetten, to shape or prepare, which in turn developed from the Old English word fetel, a girdle. So the sense is that if you’re appropriately belted you’re ready for anything. But don’t try taking your filthy lucre (from the Latin lucrum, a gain and related to ‘lucrative’) and asking for a fetel in your local department store.

If you do, you might end up with a pig in a poke – the most attractive thing about which is the monosyllabic alliteration.  What use would a pig be to anyone if it were small enough to fit in a pocket? A poke – which often had female sexual connotations because of its hollowness – is an old form of the word ‘pocket’ and both are related to ‘pouch’ from the Middle English poket and Early French pokete.

 And while on the subject of alliterative plosives do you ever describe anyone or anyone as ‘plain as a pikestaff’? If so, do you actually know what a pikestaff was? It was a spiked walking stick for use in picking your way across slippery ground – a practical safety device, not renowned for beauty. It was also the staff of a foot soldier’s pike, a weapon consisting of a long rod with a pointed steel head. An unlovely item, its name derives from early French piquer, to pick and originally, rather charmingly, from the Latin word for woodpecker picus.

 Ramshackle is a faintly onomatopoeic word meaning badly constructed, in need of repair or falling down.  It is the past participle, and only surviving part, of the obsolete verb to ransackle [sic] although we still have the parent verb to ransack. Ransackle took a –le suffix because it was a frequentative. To ransackle was to ransack often, just as to suckle was to suck repeatedly and to sparkle was to spark again and again.

‘I believe in the quick and dead’ states the Apostles’ Creed. Quick meant living from Old English kwic, alive. That’s why, until recently, a mother or midwife would talk of an unborn baby ‘quickening’ once the pregnant woman had felt foetal movement. It also accounts for the expression ‘It cuts me to the quick’ meaning that the speaker is so deeply hurt that it’s as if living flesh is damaged.

So one way and another you probably need to watch what you say – or mind your Ps and Qs. Your what? There are three possibilities.  Perhaps the expression came from telling children learning to write to take particular care with two easily confused letters. But the explanation that in ale houses customers would order pints and quarts (two pints) and have therefore to look carefully at the bill when it came, is much more fun. Better still is the theory that Ps and Qs were pieds (feet) and queues (wigs) at the French court of Louis XIV who reigned from 1643 to 1715. Dancing masters would tell their pupils to mind their Ps and Qs when bending low to bow formally.


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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