Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Secret Lives of Words.

First, I have to admit to stealing the title of this post directly from Isabel Coixet’s magnificent film The Secret Life of Words which included this haunting song on mortality and everyone's need for an anchor in their lives.

OK, the serious stuff over, let’s get down to business. As an ol-, ahem, mature and experienced linguist, though not so cunning a linguist as to be able to hide a rather salacious sexual innuendo in a text, I am indeed fascinated by the secret lives of words. For example, did you know that the suffix –ly in adverbs comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word lich or lych  meaning body? Hence the lych gate in churchyard, The body of the deceased would pause there on its final journey before entering the burial place.  Compare that with the Latin suffix -mente or –ment for forming adverbs in Spanish or French. This suffix means mind - as we can see, the English word is not too far removed from the Latin either. Briefly therefore we can conclude, as indeed did Salvador de Madariaga, that English is a language of action while Latinate languages are languages of reflection. This, he then went on to extrapolate, might also explain why English is a verb-driven language while Latinate ones are noun-driven

Buddhists and others believe in the transmigration and reincarnation of souls, a concept that I find, quite frankly, ridiculous – but then again I would . I sold mine for a run of green traffic lights on the way home from the cinema. Words however do have this ability to transmigrate and indeed transfigure themselves. I am not a serious etymologist – I prefer my etymologies to be objets trouvés. Here is my latest  favourite from – where else? – BBC Radio 4: for years I had assumed that the word git came from either the French gitain or Spanish gitano meaning gypsy. Bearing in mind the general impression of gypsies as rather discreditable fellows, it would seem a good explanation, but no! It is in fact from the Arabic word for pregnant camel and was brought back to GB by the troops serving in North Africa during WWII.

And this is what I want to talk about. After a long introduction, here is the anecdote.
I was born and bred in Liverpool and as such had a Liverpool accent. Vestiges of it remain, but having lived in Spain for nearly 30 years, it has slowly faded, even though it comes back pdq when I go back to the 'pool.

It was only recently, however, that one of the great mysteries of my childhood was solved. I had - and still do have - cousins in Gloucestershire and in summer my parents and I would frequently go on holiday with my uncle, aunt and their children.

These cousins would sometimes, in their rather quaint sheep-shagging acent, call me a “skarskit”, a term I never understood until recently when, re-watching an old episode of Till Death Do us Part, I heard the ranting Cockney Alf Garrnett call his son-in-law, played by Anthony Booth, Cherie Blair’s dad, a "blasphemious skarskit" (approx. 1.50). Retranslating this into Standard English, I realised that what he was saying was “Scouse git”. 

Another mystery solved. 

1 comment:

  1. A mine of useful information (continually expanded and updated) on the meanings and derivations of words is the Web site World Wide Words.

    Language is a fascinating phenomenon whether you treat it as a linguist (tracing its origins, relationships and evolution) or as a behaviourist interested in how people use and abuse language and the intentions they have in doing so.

    Anyone interested in etymology soon discovers that words become eroded and damaged just as the stones of ancient buildings do. They become traduced or lose their force, are deposed and replaced by upstart usurpers. Thus the lowly "worm" was once a mightier beast, a serpent, in fact, and the pungent verb "decimate" (meaning to kill one in 10 of the population as a punitive measure) is today heard more and more in the pale meaning of "destroy"...

    Words become redundant and sink into extinction or perhaps survive only by clinging by their finger nails to a cliché phrase. One such is the word "dudgeon", which my mother never understood. She would often describe a person in a state of annoyance as being "in high dungeon".