Sunday, 29 June 2014

Goat and Compasses

When discussing the origin of words, and in particular place names and pub names, it is amazing how often I hear alternative explanations which have no truth in them whatsoever. Irritatingly these alternatives are invariably far more entertaining than the true explanation, thus making them virtually impossible to eradicate. Some months ago I discussed the origins of the Elephant and Castle on this blog and recently came across another pub name which has had several explanations offered, all of which are quite wrong but are far more interesting than the truth.

Even if taken completely out of context the unique language which produced the name of the Goat and Compasses can only refer to a pub. Typically with such apparently nonsense names there have been several suggestions as to its origins, the only link between them being they all agree there has been a corruption of at least one of the elements. The most common explanation suggests this began as ‘God encompasseth us’, this entirely down to the nineteenth century novel Framley Parsonage where Anthony Trollope states this as the origin of this apparently meaningless name. Note this is a work of fiction and so is the explanation.

A second explanation accepts the ‘Goat’ and suggests this has exactly the same origin as the term ‘scapegoat’. Many cultures once believed the goat a boon for any farmer to keep alongside other livestock, this suggesting it could well have its origins almost at the very beginning of farming. The very presence of the goat meant any ailments, misfortunes or bad spirits would be attracted to the poor goat, while the rest of the livestock could enjoy life to the full. In later years a goat would be led around a house where sickness had taken hold and for the same reason.

The real explanation is hardly so convoluted. As with so many pub names the answer is heraldic, in particular the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers. Examine the image and note the chevrons, quite easy to see as a pair of compasses used by many tradesmen including the cordwainers or leatherworkers, alongside the head of a goat. The earliest cordwainers used the hides of goats from Cordova in Spain, which is how they got their name and how the pub became the Goat and Compasses.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Richard III - Etymologically Speaking

I’m always open to suggestions for this blog, at least from an etymological viewpoint. This post is the result of a suggestion by Rosalind Adams. Her Children’s History of Leicester of a couple of years ago is being followed by The Children’s Book of Richard III, which will be available this week.

Now if you want to read the story of King Richard III, I recommend clicking here, which will take you to Rosalind's book on Amazon. Here I intend looking at etymology of the words associated with this monarch.

Richard – a Germanic name from ric meaning ‘power, rule’ and hard or ‘brave, hardy’.

Plantagenet – is of Latin derivation, from planta genista or the ‘sprig of broom’ said to have been a part of the crest of the House of Anjou.

Bosworth – the name of the battle where Richard lost his life is derived from Old English bar worth or ‘the enclosure near where boars are seen’. Interestingly Bosworth is the name given to a four-handed version of chess created some 20 years ago.

Leicester – where Richard’s remains were found and ‘the Roman stronghold associated with the Ligore’, this the Romano-British tribe associated with this part of the world.

King – generally said to come from Old English cyning, however the word is common to just about every nation whose language derives from the Proto-Indo-European tongue. That word is unknown but must have been denoting a ‘ruler’, ‘leader’, or similar.

Richard III was also a play by William Shakespeare, written around 1592. Less well known is the version by Colley Cibber in 1699 and another in 1852 by Victor Sejour. There have also been four films of this name, 1912, 1955, 1995, and 2008; and a song by Supergrass.

Thank you for your suggestion Rosalind, I’m sure your book will be of great interest to children young and old.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Judicial System

I have recently returned to something approaching normality after a couple of weeks jury service. A lot of the time was spent sitting around, with some roaming about in the jurors waiting area. Innumerable notices adorned the walls (I proofread them all) but it was not until the second week I found a notice referring to the origins of the judicial system in this country (and thereafter in many parts of the world), saying it was largely unknown but had existed much as it does today for several centuries.

There will be many more qualified to write on the subject of the system and my thoughts, somewhat predictably, turned to the terminology. Indeed some indication of the etymology of these terms may even give some clues as to the origins of the system.

Court – from Old French cort, itself derived from Latin cohors hortis ‘the yard retinue’. Note this refers to the whole assembly and not the room which we should correctly refer to as a courtroom.

Judge – again came to English from Old French juge and ultimately from the Latin judex judicis where jus is ‘law’ and dicus ‘speaking’.

Jury (and thus juror) – from Old French juree and ultimately from Latin jurare meaning ‘oath, swear’.

Barrister – is correctly a barrister-at-law, a term used mainly in Britain for an advocate in the higher courts and ultimately derived from the use of ‘bar’ to refer to the enclosure where a prisoner is held in a court of law. The additional ‘-ister’ is understood to have been likened to ‘minister’. Obviously the ‘bar’ in the court is used much the same as any dividing line.

Solicitor – another chiefly British term, at least from the legal perspective, and referring to those dealing with conveyancing, wills, acting in lower courts, and advising barristers. It clearly comes from ‘solicit’, from Old French solliciter. Ultimately these are from Latin, where sollicitare ‘agitate’, sollicitus ‘anxious’, and derived from sollus ‘entire’ and citus ‘set in motion’.

Prosecution – again this came to English through Old French from Latin, in English derived from ‘prosecute’. Here the origin is prosequi and used in the same sense as ‘to pursue (as in an inquiry)’ coming from Latin pro sequi.

Clerk – both Old English cleric and Old French clerc and from Latin clericus and ultimately from Greek klerikos ‘lot, heritage’. This is easy to see how those recording events in the courtroom were likened to those reading and writing on behalf of the church.

Magistrate – a term which came to English from Latin magistratus ‘administrator’ and describing perfectly the role such officers play in the court system.

Usher – correctly usher-of-the-court, the term is used to refer to those showing people to their seats in a theatre and at a wedding. This came from Old French uissier and ultimately from Latin ostiarius and ostium ‘door’.

Prisoner – clearly derived from ‘prison’ and coming to English from Old French prisun and Latin prehensio ‘the lay hold of’.

Dock – the most recent of all the terms, which is unknown in English (in this context) before the sixteenth century. It seems its original use is as a slang term and derived from the Flemish word dok or ‘cage’.

Chambers – the term used for the private quarters for barristers and judges came to our language from Old French chambre, ultimately from Latin camera meaning ‘vault, arched chamber’.

Plea – from Old French plait ‘agreement’, from Latin placitum ‘a decree’ and ultimately from Latin placer ‘to please’.

Guilty – whilst we can trace this back to Old English gylt we have no idea of its origin.

Alibi – absolutely identical to the original Latin alibi meaning ‘elsewhere’.

Evidence – sharing an origin with ‘evident’ ultimately this is from Latin videre ‘see’.

It seems the etymological evidence suggests this was brought to our shores by the Normans. As these people were descended from the Vikings who invaded the French coast and assimilated as much of the French culture as they could, the judicial system in this country will have been based on the system used in Gaul.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Dr Samuel Johnson

Many things have been written about this most famous of Lichfield’s sons, indeed much more has been written than he ever wrote himself. One of the most-often quoted ‘facts’ is how this lexicographer wrote the first dictionary. However his A Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755 was merely a milestone, albeit a significant one – indeed the most significant dictionary until the first copy of the Oxford English Dictionary appeared 173 years later.

The very first dictionary of the English language appeared in 1604, although whether we would see it as a dictionary in the modern sense is doubtful. Written by schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey, the only surviving copy of A Table Alphabeticall is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This dictionary numbered just 120 pages and 2,543 words, some definitions of which were just a single word. Those included were seemingly chosen at random and many are highly obscure.

Of course no early 17th century book had a title of just three words, this was released as A table alphabeticall conteyning and teaching the true writing and understanding of hard usuall English words, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French etc. With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit and helpe of ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easily and better understand many hard English words, which they shall heare or read in scriptures, sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to use the same aptly themselves. (Personally I am delighted today’s titles are no longer effectively the blurb.) The book appeared in the form of a table where the reader was given some idea of how to use the word in context. What follows is a selection of entries listed alphabetically. Many will spot there are only 19 examples owing to there being no listings for words beginning with the letters J, K, U, W, X, or Y (how on earth he managed to omit every word beginning with ‘W’ is beyond me!)

ABBA – father

BISKET – bread

CIRCUMLOCUTION – a speaking of that in many words, which may be said in few

DECOCTION – liquor, wherein things are sod for phisicke

EMBLEM – a picture shadowing out some thing to be learned

FASTIDIOUSNESs – loathsomeness or disdainfullness

GLOBE – any thing very round

HECTIC – inflaming the heart and soundest parts of the body.


LETHARGY – a drowsy and forgetful disease

METEORS – elementary bodies or moist things engendered of vapours in the air above.

NICE – slow, lazy

OFFICIAL – belonging to an office

POEM – verses of a poet (he then defines POET as ‘a verse maker’)

QUEACH – thick heap

RECEPTACLE – a place to receive things in

SEX – kind

TABLET – a little table

VENTRICLE – the stomach which receives the meat

ZODIAC – a circle in the heaven wherein be placed the twelve signs and in which the Sun is moved.

The Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield. Informative, friendly staff, an excellent literary experience and it's all free, too.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Football's World Cup

With football’s world cup kicking off this month re-runs of previous competitions have been on our televisions for the last few weeks. Of course the most popular clip has been a certain day in 1966 when the host nation proved victorious.

Much as I enjoyed seeing this particular moment again, it was the terminology which intrigued me. To this day Geoff Hurst is still the only man to have scored a hat-trick in the final. What I was wondering was where this term for three goals scored by one player in a match (it is also used in cricket, rugby and other sports).

Hat-trick began as a cricketing term and first seen in print in 1879. The player, always the bowler, having taking three wickets with three consecutive legal deliveries is awarded a cap to mark the achievement. It was another thirty years before association football saw the first use of this terminology.

Brace is another on the subject of more than one goal in a match. Here the player scores two goals. Again the term has been borrowed from elsewhere and was first used, not for the two animals caught by the hunt but, for the brace or pair of dogs and was in use by around 1400.

Dribble used in the sense ‘to move erratically’ it began as a variation on the verb ‘to drip’ and first used in association football in 1863.

Underdog is not seen until 1887 when it was first used as a comparative for the term ‘top dog’, already in use to refer to a dominant individual.