The process of change in language includes the drift of meaning, the invention of new words, and the obsolescence of existing words. It is interesting to survey a list of words once disparaged by the arbiters of language as “not proper English words”. In 1818, Dr Todd published the first revised edition of Johnson’s Dictionary. It was the first edition of the Dictionary which had not been supervised by Johnson himself. It draws on an annotated folio edition which had been owned by Horne Tooke, the politician and pamphleteer. Tooke had compiled a list of words found in Johnson’s Dictionary, which he regarded as “false English”. This list is reproduced in the Todd edition. It includes such curiosities as abditive, acatalectic, conjobble, dorture and warhable.
However, it also includes justiciable, fragile, mandible, mobile, cognitive and horticulture. How the fortunes of words can vary!
Most of the words which perish, disappear leaving no trace except in the dictionaries. Some others leave a reminder of their former existence, in a variant modified by a prefix or a suffix. Gruesome, noisome and cumbersome are all in daily use. Oddly enough, grue, noy and cumber all existed once but have fallen from use. To grue is to feel terror or horror, to shudder, tremble or quake. To cumber is to overwhelm or rout; also to harass, distress or trouble. To noy is to trouble, vex or harass; it is an aphetic form of annoy.
Many words which still bear their original meaning take a form which has drifted from the original. The corruption of form is generally due to difficulty of pronunciation coupled with frequent use, or confusion of an unfamiliar term with a similar but familiar term.
One of the commonest forms of corruption is aphesis: “The gradual and unintentional loss of a short unaccented vowel at the beginning of a word ” [OED2]
Cute is an aphetic form of acute; longshore is the truncated form of alongshore. This explains the American usage longshoreman for our stevedore. Stevedore is itself an aphetic adaptation of the Spanish estivador, which drives from estivar: to stow a cargo.
Likewise, sample is an aphetic form of example; backward is an aphetic form of abackward; and vanguard was once avauntguard, from which avantguard also derives.
Ninny is an aphetic and abbreviated form of an innocent. More recently, we have squire from esquire, specially for especially. In the language of the law, several ambiguous forms survive: vow and avow; void and avoid.
The goanna was originally the iguana. The opossum is now the possum. However, it is difficulty of pronunciation which gives us bandicoot from the Telugu word pandi-kokku, meaning pig-rat. (The pandi-kokku is a very large, very destructive Indian rat, the size of a cat. Our bandicoot is a different species, but somewhat resembles the Indian rat).
The process also happens in reverse, by which the original form takes on an additional letter, typically the n from the indefinite article. An example of this is apron which originally was a naperon. Its connection with napery and napkin is obvious. Equally obvious is the spoken sound of a naperon coming to be spoken as an apron. It is odd that we do not say apkins, specially since most of us use them more often than we use aprons
Another example is orange which comes originally from the Arabic naranj, in Persian. narang, naring: cf. late Sanskrit. naranga, Hindi narang; and Persian. nar pomegranate. The Italian was originally narancia but is now arancia. The Spanish is still naranja.
That hallowed hero of the sporting arena, the umpire, used to be the numpire. The word comes from the Old French non pair – “not equal”. Its earliest recorded spelling in English was noumpere (so spelled in 1364, and also in Wyclif’s Bible, 1420). The corrupted form emerged soon afterwards, and went through a variety of spellings during the next 200 years (owmpere, ovmper, ompar, umpere, vmppere, umpeer, umper, unpar, umpyer, impier, umpyre), until it stabilized on the current spelling in about the 17th century.
We have a much more recent expression of closely similar derivation: au pair. It has not quite become naturalised in English. It means literally on equality or on equal terms. Its first recorded use in English dates from late last century:
1897 Girl’s Own Paper 16 Oct. “An arrangement..frequently made is for an English girl to enter a French, German or Swiss school and teach her own language in return for joining the usual classes. This is called being au pair.”
Examples of other agents of word-corruption abound. The Australian plonk meaning cheap wine comes from the French vin blanc, notwithstanding that it equally (or more frequently) refers to red wine or other liquor.
That great and traditional accompaniment to festive occasions in Australia, the saveloy, is a corrruption of the French cervelas: a highly seasoned cooked and dried sausage. We have corrupted the thing as much as we have corrupted the word which signifies it.
That fabric so loved by American tourists, seersucker is an East Indian corruption of Persian shir o shakkar , literally ‘milk and sugar’.
The strange glow which sometimes surrounds a ship’s mast at sea is called Saint Elmo’s fire. This is a corruption of Saint Erasmus, an Italian bishop who was martyred in 303 AD. He was the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors. It comes to us by way of Sant Ermo, San Telmo and Sant Helmo.
Devotees of square dancing or Nashville sounds will recognise do-si-do as one of the caller’s instructions. It is a corruption of the French dos-à-dos and describes a figure in which two people pass around each other back to back and return to their places.
The word nickname has always seemed a curious construction. It has been suggested that it is an invocation of the Devil (“Old Nick”). However, that piece of folk etymology is wrong. Originally, it was an eke-name. To eke is to supplement; so the person who ekes out a living doing odd jobs is supplementing their other income. It is widely misused. An eke-name is a supplementary name. By the 15th century, its corrupted form was emerging: the OED gives an instance from 1440, which refers to “… neke name or eke name…”
Real estate agents, who offer penthouses for sale as the very height of luxury living at the very top of a building, might be forgiven for not knowing that it was originally a lean-to or covered-in walk-way. Penthouse combines the effects of several agents of change. Its earlier form is pentice, which comes from Old French. apentis, apendis, from medieval Latin appendicium, “a small sacred building dependent upon a larger church”. From that original meaning and form, it came to mean any small dwelling attached to a larger one. In 1592 the records of the Manchester Court Leet refer to “…settinge upp a slated pentis or hovell”. The recent development of the word may be discerned from the following quotations from OED 2nd edn:
1921 Country Life Apr. 65/1 Two of the elevators were designed to run to the roof, where a pent-house..was being built.
1937 Sunday Dispatch 28 Feb. 2/7 You all know from American lyric writers that a pent-house is a thing stuck on a roof. It may comprise one or two floors.
1945 E. Waugh Brideshead Revisted i. viii. 194 They’re going to build a block of flats, and..Rex wanted to take what he called a ‘penthouse’ at the top.