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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Monday, 12 November 2012

Hiccups, folk etymology, and a treatment for the plague


It was while looking at Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1823 edition) during a workshop on change in English that we found ourselves discussing hiccups (we being myself and students and staff from Redborne Upper School).

Walker gives two pronunciations for the word spelt as ‘hiccough’ – hik-kup and hik-kof (his spellings, but without the stress marks or vowel sound indicators). Given that the previous usual words for this were ‘yexing’ and ‘hickit’, which were clearly onomatopoeic, it looks likely that ‘hiccup’ was also onomatopoeic, but given a folk-etymology spelling; this would be on the basis that ‘hiccup’ did not mean anything, but could be thought of as fairly close to ‘hiccough’; and as the phenomenon happened more or less in the throat, ‘cough’ was an extremely plausible word to bring together physical location, sound and spelling. Keep the spelling ‘cough’ and the pronunciation ‘cup’ and all requirements are satisfied.


This seems to be the way that folk etymology works. Generally you have a spoken word to describe something, and the linguistic signifier has no integral connection to the signified thing/action/feeling/whatever. But in some cases there appears some sort of magnetic urge to bring together the received sound and some known word or words to try to make sense of the thing in your hand.

For example, you have something looking like a nut that comes from Spain or France, where it is called castaña or châtaigne, both of which sound vaguely similar to the English words ‘chest’ + ‘nut’; the thing looks enough like a nut (though it is not), to justify creating a word made up from perfectly good English components that we can all understand, though the combination is meaningless, even misleading. The fact that the combined meanings may have little or no sense does not matter at all – asparagus used to be called sparrow-grass, despite there being no basis for any connection between the plant and sparrows; and it is not a grass. Occasionally there occurs a made-up word or phrase in which the vague similarity of sound is reinforced by some other similarity – avocado pears were for some time ‘alligator pears’, the similarity of the skin between animal and fruit urging the usage of ‘alligator’. Its phonic distance from ‘avocado’ isn't so far - two similar vowel sounds in the right place, and the same number of syllables.

My most alarming recent folk-etymology find has been a medical one, in a treatment for the plague. A Joyfull Jewel, T Hill’s translation of Leonardo Fioravanti (1579), recommends dealing with plague buboes thus:

Also you shall open the sores quickly that the matter may come forth, and when they are broken you shall put therein our caustic once only, because it purgeth it divinely.

I have updated the spelling, but the original of ‘caustic’ was ‘cow-stick’. I imagine a printer for whom this was an unknown word (and of course spelling at this time was a free–for-all), working from a mysterious spelling and getting the pronunciation, and from this building a word made from known components. What this led to in terms of possible actual treatment is very scary. I assumed that a cowstick would be a long, pointed stick used for prodding and guiding cows. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries cows were not uncommon in city streets, and would need to be guided and herded around – with cow-sticks.

What stopped me at first seeing the folk etymology was the possible scenario in which it would be advisable, when dealing with a bursting bubo, to use a long stick. A bursting bubo sometimes would visibly spray outwards, so it would be natural to want to keep your distance to avoid infection – or at least unpleasantness. Given that most physicians at this time wore long black gowns, broad hats and beaked masks, the use of a cow-stick would have been by no means the most disturbing aspect of treatment. Once again, it’s good to be alive in the twenty-first century.

By the way:

Take thy finger ends, and stop both thine Ears very hard, and the Hickop will surcease immediately.

A Rich Storehouse or Treasurie for the Diseased, 1607

I tried it and it works. Don’t be tempted to use a cow-stick.

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