Friday, 6 March 2015

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates.


Tur-muh-guhnt: Noun: (1) a violent, turbulent, or brawling woman; a shrewish woman; scold; (2) (initial capital letter) a mythical deity popularly believed to have been worshipped by the Muslims. Adjective: violent; turbulent; brawling; shrewish.

Related forms: termagantly, adverb; termagancy, noun.
From Old French, Teruagaunt or Tervagant, a proper name that appeared in "Chanson de Roland” (which is your Song of Roland), an epic poem running to some four thousand lines and the oldest surviving major work of French literature, having been written somewhere between 1040 and 1115, though the events involved go way back to 778 and the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. This was fought high up in the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain during the reign of Charlemagne, with Pepin the Short having something to do with it too (he should actually be Pippin the Younger but it got translated wrongly and then it kind of stuck – getting things a touch wrong being something of a theme herein). Certainly the misfortunate Roland himself got it startlingly wrong when, as Prefect of the Breton March, he went steaming in against the Basques only to end up getting defeated and killed by them, not exactly the sort of heroic deeds of derring-do normally associated with this kind of chanson de geste that was all the rage just then. Over time, oral tradition turned the battle into a major conflict between Christians and Muslims, which is about as accurate your average Ukip spokesperson, seeing that both sides were relentless Christians but, as Pippin the Younger (and Ukip) found out, mistakes tend to be mighty hard to shake off.

“Embowelled! if thou embowel me to-day, I’ll give you leave to powder me and eat me too tomorrow. ‘Sblood, ‘twas time to counterfeit, or that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot too.”

There’s the word turning up in Shakespeare, no less, spoken by Falstaff (the corrupt drunkard) in Henry IV (that’s Bolingbroke, of course, the usurper) Part One (1597), Act V, Scene IV. Not only is the word already spelt wrongly but the termagant Scot herein is a man, Archibald, the 4th Earl of Douglas. In morality plays of the Middle Ages, the stock Termagant character was always depicted in long, flowing feminine gowns so English audiences (say no more) mistakenly got the idea that the Termagant, though portrayed by male actors, was somehow female. As a result, termagant came to mean “a shrewish woman” who was a common scold. Thus the word actually comes from a medieval invented name for something erroneously ascribed to the Muslims and mistakenly thought to be attributable to women. The Bard does at least get it half right, seeing he used the word twice – it crops up in Hamlet too – and both times he was referring to a man. Chaucer also uses it in the Canterbury Tales, in the Tale of Sir Thopas (supposedly being told by Chaucer himself) but again spelling it wrongly, though Chaucer’s spelling never was much to write home about, as we can tell from when Harry Bailey, the host, interrupts this story to inform the hapless narrator that, “thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord.” Bit harsh really.
We’d best make it clear right away, particularly for the benefit of our overseas followers who may be using these columns to brush up on their English vernacular, that this word is one for using exceeding sparingly and certainly not within earshot of the intended subject, unless you do happen to be wearing a stout pair of running shoes at the time. There are, in fact, a staggering number of derogatory terms intended to imply your less than absolutely desirable female companion, though most of them have only been feminised through common usage, having originally been equally applicable to either sex. It’s almost as if it had been us chaps thinking up the words all along. (A chap being a customer, someone who buys stuff from a chapman, an itinerant seller). You’ll probably have noticed that termagant has already been defined several times (by the Dictionary) as someone – well, a woman, actually – who is a shrew or shrewish (for good measure and in a rather circular fashion, a shrew is likewise defined as “a termagant”), and Shakespeare himself uses it for one of the more contentious titles of his plays, the Taming of the Shrew, whilst Doctor Johnson defines a shrew as a “peevish, malignant, clamorous, spiteful, vexatious, turbulent woman,” even though it originally meant a spiteful person, man or woman. All of which seems a tad strange, given that sorex araneus is such a lovable and harmless little creature, until you discover that our uninformed medieval brethren (you can bet on it being us blokes again) of the thirteenth century got the idea (who knows where from, seeing it’s nothing but an old wives’ tale) that shrews had a venomous bite and thus were held in superstitious dread. From which we get (now sadly consigned to desuetude) beshrew, meaning to invoke evil upon or curse, as in “Beshrew me,” also lamentably fallen by the wayside now. We really should try and revive that one, you know.

Right then, chaps, let’s take a swiftish delve into some of the vast array of wordage that we’ve been obliged to coin and resort to over the ages simply in order to see us through all those innumerable occasions on which the womenfolk have managed to outbetter us at our own game (acted shrewishly, we mean) and left us simmering in high dudgeon, shall we? And, beshrew me, there’s a veritable plethora to choose from! Most of which, if not all, come with the standard issue dictionary warning of (in brackets, like they’re whispering it) Informal, Offensive. The Bard also manages to shoehorn quite a few of them into his works at some point or another, which was a surefire way of raising a quick chuckle back then and made a pleasant change from always having to rely for the laughs on the old routine of man plays woman who dresses up as a boy and then promptly falls in love with another man who doesn’t realise he’s a woman (being played by a man but dressed as a boy, who happens to be an actor playing the role of a woman). Confusing, eh? Ah well, with Shakespeare, that’s as you like it, isn’t it? 

Let’s start with a nice straightforward one in biddy, which sounds innocuous enough but does come with the usual Offensive warning and is dictionary-defined as a “fussbudget,” another disparaging slang term, this time the Americanism for our own fusspot. This was originally, 1595-1605 time, a dialect term for a chicken or hen, possibly (so we’re led to believe) derived from the “imitative of calling chickens.” Meaning they’re asking us to accept that people back then not only called to their chickens in the first place but actually did so by bellowing “biddy, biddy, biddy,” at them, which doesn’t seem all that likely to bring the fowlfolk scuttling in your direction, now does it? The sense of a gossipy and interfering old woman came in some time in the eighteenth century and refers to a maidservant, usually a cleaning woman and generally old and Irish, Biddy being a contraction or pet version of the popular name Bridget. Presumably then, the Victorians, with their stiff sense of morality, weren’t above getting aged and wizened old Irishwomen to call their chickens in for them? Another female name to have gone much the same way is Abigail (which, bizarrely, means “my father is rejoicing”), an abigail also being a lady’s maid, thanks to the literary efforts of those early feminists, Beaumont & Fletcher, who penned the seminal work, The Scornful Lady “(A Comedie)” with blokes, as often as not, playing the title role and with Samuel Pepys in the front row on no less than six occasions, such a rip-roarer was it. 

Then there’s your usual round of suspects to wheel out, including some old favourites in Battleaxe, Bitch, Dragon, Scold and Witch. And let’s not forget Nag or Nagger, which come from the Old English (or Norse), gnagan, to gnaw, which then became nagga, to rub, grumble or quarrel. When it comes to nag, as in a (generally old and worn-out) horse, that’s from Old Saxon, hnægan, which is your onomatopoeic neigh, or the whinny of such a beast. We could even add Fury to the list (those playful daughters of Gaea) and they would still all have one thing in common: they were all originally equally as applicable to men as to women. Well, except nag, your knackered horse, of course. And we do use the word advisedly there, the Knacker being the gentleman who was summoned to put your past-it steed out of its misery. And then cut it up and feed it to your hounds. Talking of broken down horses (that also happen to be rather on the lean side), the French have a word for just such a specimen: haridelle – we English also have a term that means much the same: Findus – and from that we get harridan, which usually implies there’s a certain amount of decrepitude on show along with a smidgen of haggishness, all on the skinny and decidedly gristly side, though the ever-gallant Dr Johnson defines harridan simply as “a decayed strumpet.” That last is a word nobody knows for sure where it came from, though one theory suggests it might have arisen from the Latin, stuprata, which is a strictly feminine version of “to have illicit sexual relations with”, the male versions being “stud” or “bit of a lad.” Or other such smugly congratulatory terminology. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t be giving Dr Johnson such a hard time just because he was a cantankerous old ideot (Hogarth’s word for Johnson, until he met him), because, after all, he was merely following in the tradition of his ancient forefathers, the Greeks and Romans, who weren’t above coming up with their own defamatory terms with which to besmirch the good ladyfolk back then, though they tended to polish the whole thing up with the veneer of History, just to show they weren’t being gratuitously insulting. Harpy is a good example, and one still very much alive and kicking today, again with the word “shrew” almost obligatory as part of the definition, though very much more sinister back when Aristotle was a nipper. The name Harpies comes from the Greek, Harpyia, “the Snatchers,” which in turn comes from harpazein, to snatch, from which we (eventually) get rapine, rapacious and rapid. These Harpies were pretty much synonymous with the Furies (the myth, not the Irish folk band), who were also the Erinyes, female chthonic deities of vengeance – that’s just a fancy word meaning they lived underground, a bit like our Wombles, coming from khthon, one of their terms for earth, Gaia being another, hence the “daughters of Gaea” remark earlier. What happened was that Cronus, who was youngest of the Titans and scion of Gaia and Uranus (he was the Sky and the ruler), thought he could make a better fist of the kinging than his old man so, encouraged by the fickle Gaia, who went as far as providing him with the sickle, he castrated the hapless Uranus and chucked his now-extraneous wedding tackle into the sea, not only causing the Erinyes and the Meliae (they’d be the ash tree nymphs, of course) to be formed from the blood but also creating Aphrodite out of the crests of foam. Cronus, in turn, would eventually be overthrown by Zeus, who then gave King Phineus of Thrace the gift of prophecy, only to get a tad miffed with him for giving away all his secret plans – you’d’ve thought Phineus would’ve seen that coming – so Zeus decides to do something about it, first by blinding the Thracian king and then by casting him away on an island where there’s always a delicious buffet on hand – this is where the story gets a little hard to believe: who’s ever heard of a delicious buffet? – though he can never get so much as a morsel down him because Zeus has realised he’s got all these Harpies (ravenous, filthy monsters with the head of a woman and the body of a bird, not to mention particularly fiendish looking talons) loafing about and not really putting their snatching abilities to the best use, so he sends them on ahead to make sure poor Phineus stays constantly peckish by snatching the canapés right out of his hands and then “befouling” anything left over. But everything turns out alright in the end because Jason and the Argonauts turn up and we’ve all of us seen the footage for ourselves of what happened after that, haven’t we? Thus History has provided us with our modern understanding of harpy: a shrewish, predatory, bad-tempered woman who will eventually meet her comeuppance thanks to some rather tacky special effects.
Next up is Virago, and there’s no getting away from it this time, lads – this has to be one of ours, surely, seeing what we’ve come up with here is the most vicious and deplorable insult you could possibly inflict upon a woman: that of accusing her of acting like a man. Though we can always shelter behind a modicum of claimed innocence on this one by blaming those relentless scourgers and crucifiers, the Ancient Romans, for it, because it’s firmly rooted in Latin, being vir, man, plus the feminising suffix of –ago, which actually does the opposite and makes “her” some kind of “he,” for which she should be despised and looked down upon. Joan of Arc is your classic example of a virago, having gone around fifteenth century France fighting battles and generally giving the English a hard time of it, though the thing that really unsettled the chaps back then was the fact that she did it all wearing masculine clothing, so they burned her at the stake for it, just to be on the safe side. Akin to vir is the Old English wer, which is the root of werewolf, whilst from vir itself we get virility, which is manliness, of course, and also virtue, which is worthiness or, well, just being manly, now you happen to mention it.

Another woman to donate her name to this clutch of opprobrious terminology was Xanthippe, who’s managed to go down as the worst wife in history somehow, though being saddled with a name that means Yellow Horse (xanthos, yellow and hippos, horse) can’t have helped the cause much. The longsuffering blighter on the receiving end of the interminable nagging was no lesser personage than Socrates himself, who seems to have entered the marriage pretty much for the challenge of it in the first place so, whilst this shouldn’t make you feel too sorry for the poor wretch, it does make you think, doesn’t it? Well, it certainly made him think, which was probably precisely what he was innocently engaged upon when, according to legend, his good lady wife suddenly appeared and, enraged at some misdemeanour or other of his, promptly poured a chamber pot over his head. Mind you, as you might expect, he was quite philosophical about the whole incident, remarking simply that, “After thunder comes the rain.” Yes, and after the chamber pot comes a night in the doghouse, no doubt. Followed by some ignominious apologising in the morning and then a quick dash down to the florists.

When it comes to us of the washing-up-chromosome-bearing gender, there does seem to be rather a paucity of vituperation with which the womenfolk might hit back at us, researches having turned up virtually nothing beyond the usual disreputable opprobrium based around genitalia that would be unprintable upon these pages. Perhaps it’s simply not in the female nature to feel the need for a constant reliance upon a stream of barbed commentary, that their very maternality makes them altogether more understanding and forgiving of any perceived failings, more ready to put them aside in the interests of peace and harmony. It’s a fat lot more likely, however, that pretty early on in the whole affair, they hit upon the one and only word they’ll ever need – which comes down to us from the Celtic for a large, stubborn person, ploc – and the one that will prove efficacious and pertinent in almost any given situation, covering any weakness and all eventualities. Picture it now: the wronged woman seeking solace amongst her disbelieving yet sympathetic girlfriends, already prepared to put the whole incident firmly behind her and move resolutely on. 

‘Well,’ she will explain to them in wistful resignation, ‘he’s a bloke, isn’t he?’

Death of Roland: Jean Fouquet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Chaucer: By anonymous portrait (Government Art Collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Doctor Johnson: Joshua Reynolds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As You Like It: By Walter Howell Deverell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Chicken Feed: Julien Dupré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Knacker: Thomas Rowlandson [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Harpies: By scanned, post-processed, and uploaded by Karl Hahn (Pantheon Books edition of Divine Comedy) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Socrates, His Wives & the Chamber Pot: Reyer Jacobsz. van Blommendael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Crucifixion of St Peter: Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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