Slew

Apologies for dishing up another apparently gruesome post. The word in the title of course can be the past tense of the verb slay, but it also has another meaning and another derivation. According to the OED it means ‘a very large number of’ or ‘a very great amount of’, and was originally a U.S. colloquialism. OED’s earliest reference is from 1839 in a work about the Green Mountain Boys in what is now the state of Vermont. The word derives from Irish (and Scots Gaelic) slua or sluagh, meaning ‘a host’, ‘an army’. The word is found in the compound sluagh-gairm, meaning ‘war cry’, which eventually gave rise to the English slogan.

There are cognate words in other Celtic languages. Welsh has llu, meaning ‘a troop’. Cornish has lu, meaning ‘army’ or ‘fleet’. Breton lu means ‘army’. (Thanks to JDL for this last piece of information.)

News of my wife: Her fracture has mended well and the plaster cast has been taken off. She is now wearing a boot that looks as if it were Star Wars surplus issue. She had a trip home for the afternoon yesterday and will come again today for a few hours. We hope she will be home permanently very soon.

Photo credit: Jmhullot. Used under this licence.

Kibosh

The long silence has been caused by a domestic crisis. My wife, who is increasingly disabled because of a neurological condition, had a fall over a month ago and broke her ankle rather badly. She spent two weeks in hospital, underwent surgery on her ankle, and is now in a nursing home. The resulting mayhem rather put the kibosh on any attempts to blog.

Anyway, kibosh is the topic of this post. A splendid word, I think, but one whose origin I had no idea of. If forced to guess, I would probably have said it came from India. I pronounce it ˈkaɪbɒʃ, but there are alternatives. The spelling has several different possibilities too. In the phrase to put the kibosh on it means ‘to put an end to’, ‘to ruin’.

The OED offers little help other than suggesting Yiddish or Anglo-Hebraic as the source. I have now found an alternative etymology, however — rather a gruesome one, I’m afraid. It is Irish. Caipín (or caip) bháis means ‘cap of death’. One explanation is the tradition of a judge donning a black cap when pronouncing a death sentence. If that were not gruesome enough, the alternative is a particularly barbaric way of executing someone. That is by pouring boiling pitch over their head.

With that charming thought, I will leave you to go and visit my wife.

The whimsical warning whitebeam of Watersmeet

Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Gerard Manley Hopkins
The Starlight Night

This is about a rather pleasing example of whimsicality. The picture shows the leaves and flowers of Sorbus aria – the common whitebeam. The second element of the common name derives from Old Englsh bēam “tree”, which is cognate with German Baum and Dutch boom. Other tree names which contain this element are quickbeam and hornbeam.

In the 1930s the botanist E.F.Warburg discovered what he thought was a new variety of whitebeam by the side of a road near Watersmeet in North Devon. He was not completely convinced that his discovery was a new species, however. In 2009 a research project headed by the National Museum of Wales concluded that it was indeed a new species and were left with the question of what to name it. The first specimen that Warburg found had a “no parking” sign nailed to it, so the first thought was to call the species Sorbus no parking. They chickened out on this proposal and finally the species was named Sorbus admonitor – “Warning Sorbus”.

By the way, isn’t whimsical a splendid word…

Photo credit: J.F. Gaffard. Used under this licence.

Great what?

In the picture you can see Onopordum acanthium, otherwise known as Scottish thistle (among other names). I suppose it was the New Year’s celebrations which prompted a question in my mind: why are there so many different words for things from north of the border?

Apart from Scottish, which I suppose is the most general term, we have:

  • Scotch: applied to whisky, eggs and bonnets
  • Scots: as in the Flying Scotsman
  • Scot: as in He’s a Scot.

There’s no use wondering about the term scot-free, however. That has nothing to do with Scotland. It derives from a Middle English word meaning, according to the OED:

A tax or tribute paid by a feudal tenant to his or her lord or ruler in proportion to ability to pay; a similar tax paid to a sheriff or bailiff.


Photo credit: Unknown author. Used under this licence.

Mooch

This is going to be a tangled tale, which connects blackberries, a jazz singer, smoke and hares and rabbits.

To me the word mooch (muːtʃ) means to loaf about in a bored manner. However, it appears to have another meaning which is a bit difficult to connect to the first. The word can also mean ‘to scrounge’, ‘to sponge off people’. I assume this is the meaning intended in the song Minnie the Moocher by the US jazzman Cab Calloway.

A third meaning is ‘to play truant’ and this appears to be connected to a now rare word mitch. One of the meanings of this, according to the OED, is To shrink or retire from view; to lurk out of sight; to skulk. This is, I suppose, not too far from the loaf about meaning I started with. The OED says: Apparently < Anglo-Norman muscer, muscier, mucer, mucier, muscher and Old French mucier…

The next twist in the path involves the word meuse (mjuːs or mjuːz), OED: A gap in a fence or hedge through which hares, rabbits, etc., pass, esp. as a means of escape; This apparently is thought to derive ultimately from an unattested Celtic form which gave rise to Irish múch and Welsh mwg, both meaning ‘smoke’, but I for one fail to see the semantic connection.

Ah, and the blackberries. An extended meaning of the ‘play truant’ sense is to bunk off from school in order to pick blackberries. Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary gives the meaning ‘a blackberry’, attested in Gloucestershire and Devon.