Friday, 24 April 2015

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and getting your mates acquainted with them.


Uh-kweyn-tuhns: Noun: (1) a person known to one, but usually not a close friend (2) the state of being casually familiar with someone or something (3) personal knowledge as a result of study, experience, etc. (4) (used with a plural verb) the persons with whom one is acquainted.

Related terms: acquaintanceship; nonacquaintance; nonacquaintanceship; preacquaintance; reacquaintance.

Actually, let’s make it abundantly clear right from the outset that this week’s choice of word is not absolutely and precisely what you might call a neglected gem of the language as such, now is it? No indeed, especially seeing pretty much each and every one of us will have used this term at some stage or another during our brevid mortal existences (and more than once, we’ll wager). Or at least the older ones amongst us will have, given that there is now a palpable threat of it dropping out of modern usage altogether, thanks to the inception of social media sites such as Facebook, whereby people you’ve never even so much as set an eye on before can instantaneously leap miraculously past the acquaintanceship stage to suddenly become your “Friend,” simply on the strength of the fact that they too like pointless videos of dogs eating their dinners or young children being (allegedly) faintly amusing and then falling over. Still, at least it saves all that tedious palaver of actually getting to know them first, finding out what they’re all about, that sort of stuff and, once they are your Friend, unlike the proper version (real live chums, pals, mates etc.), such shall they eternally remain, no matter what, and you don’t even have to have any kind of contact whatsoever with them ever again if you don’t want to. Sorry, did that come across as a touch cynical at all …
So, having established that acquaintanceship is several notches higher on the intimacy scale than your average Facebook Friend, let’s now take a closer look at the word itself, shall we? It’s one of those particularly ticklish customers that you have to be a tad careful about before you going bandying it around because, for some mildly and inexplicably embarrassing reason, you wouldn’t want the person concerned ever to hear you referring to them as “an acquaintance,” would you? (Or is that just us?) There’s a kind of unacknowledged insipidity implied by it, a distinct sense of unwarmth about the whole thing, as if by saying, “he’s an acquaintance of mine” what you actually mean is, “well, I’m familiar with him, of course, but I wouldn’t want to share a macaroon with him come teatime, thanks all the same.” (Insipid, purely by the bye, is another term we use without ever pausing to think what it might actually mean and, being as it starts with the negative in- like it does, that suggests there should be a positive version, sipid, though this actually turns out to be sapid, full of flavour, the French having turned the a into i to make it insipid). Talking of our Gallic brethren, the word acquaintance has a distinctly French ring to it, wouldn’t you say, although the armslength sense of it is indubitably and inescapably our very own stiff-upper-lipped, stand-offish, d’you mind if I don’t, British through and through. Not to mention the fact that it also appears to contain within its borders another similarly hazardous adjective in quaint and, as we all know, when we describe something as quaint, what we’re actually saying, in a slightly pompous and condescending (and, once again, altogether British) way is, “oh, I say, how peculiarly inappropriate or amusingly old-fashioned and eccentric!” When it comes to looking down our noses at the rest of the world, we Brits have sure got the lexicographic armoury with which to pull it off, and nobody will ever knowingly outsneer us. And get away with it. Sadly, however, we didn’t coin either of the terms. So who did, then?

Acquaint comes from the Old French (we knew it!) acointer, to make known, a term that sprung up in the early thirteenth century, just around the time those wretched Plantagenets were acquainting themselves with our land before nicking it off of us, and thinking they had every right so to do, just because they happened to wear a sprig of broom in their hats – broom’s Latin name being planta genista, of course, hence the name – and because they didn’t do quite so much running away as we did back then. (Another purely English quality: long and unforgiving memories). Funnily enough, surrender is actually a word of French origin and is supposedly the only one in Churchill’s famous Fight on the Beaches  (not fight them on the beaches or anywhere, note) speech not solidly grounded in good old Anglo Saxon. Acointer itself comes from Vulgar Latin (which really means the common usage or vernacular, as opposed to Classical Latin, not just some coarse Roman sort effing and blinding like a centurion all the way down to the Colosseum), the root being accognoscere, know well, which springs from ac- (or ad-, actually), towards, plus cogniscere, which is com-, with or together, and gnoscere, know. Giving us the meaning of gaining a personal knowledge of, and a pretty thorough one at that. Which isn’t at all like our modern “on nodding terms” usage of acquaintance, though we do use it in the “know well” sense on occasions, as in phrases such as, “he is well acquainted with the theatres and bars of old Paris,” meaning that the fellow concerned is actually something of a cognoscente (we’ll come back to that word later) of such places, not that he waves a wan hand vaguely and mumbles a slightly embarrassed “wotcher, mate” as he hurries on by as rapidly as decency allows. As a maliciously satisfying by-product, that particular phrase additionally allows us to insinuate that the Jack the Lad concerned is also something of a raincoated lush who is rather overfamiliar with all the ins and outs of the Can-Can, if you catch our drift …

As for friend itself, that comes from the Old English, freogan, to love or favour, and implies a good degree of intimacy – it’s actually related to free (so you can just imagine what it was like when the Witan went a-wooing), the primary sense of that seeming to be beloved too, but also not in bondage (not a slave, in other words, or not until you’ve uttered the fatal “I do”, that is). Those purists amongst you (like us, we fully and unashamedly admit), who will almost obsessively insist that friend is not and never has been a verb (as in the hideously Facebookish “I friended him”), and who equally as rabidly demand that people stop using it like one because it only makes them sound like complete and utter imbeciles short of a little education, are in for something of a nasty shock: it’s been a verb since the fourteenth century. Makes you want to spit, don’t it?
Going back to acquaintanceship for a moment, if we may, that’s a bit of an odd one altogether, wouldn’t you say? After all, apart from the twice already – three times, if you count that one just now – that it has managed to shoehorn itself into these paragraphs, when did you ever hear someone actually use the term acquaintanceship? There it goes again! It’s getting to be a positive infestation and, as if acquaintance weren’t insipid and inexplicit enough on its own in not describing precisely how far you’d actually be prepared to go, should you ever become entangled in a ticklish campsite situation with such a blighter, someone’s now gone and stuck that –ship bit on the end of it, just for pure devilment. What’s that all about then? It’s a suffix that keeps cropping up willy-nilly all over the place, as in fellowship (a state or condition), lordship (rank or office) or horsemanship (craft or skill) and our backroom boffins doing all the researching inform us that it’s got a good deal to do with shape, coming from the Old English, scapan, to create or form, the original meaning being to scrape, hack or cut, and from the same root we also (bizarrely) get scabies.
We never did quite clear up the explanation of quaint to any degree of satisfaction, so we’ll put that right straight away. Once again, as it was bound to do, this one springs from the same cognoscere root and then turned up in Old French (again) round about 1200, which was just after Richard I, the Lionheart, had been busy getting the crossbow bolt through his neck, a wound that would turn gangrenous and kill him. He was one of the great English Kings, of course, though he couldn’t speak a word of the lingo (apart from “where’s the cash” perhaps) and only ever spent six months in England, nearly ruining the country with his wanton crusading, during which he had twenty seven hundred Muslims beheaded in cold blood so as to make Acre get a move on with its surrendering, which pretty much did the trick. (Apart from that, though, thoroughly decent bloke). Anyhow, there he was besieging again, this time at the castle of Châlus-Chabrol in order to get his hands on yet more cash, strutting around the walls without bothering to put his chainmail on, when a crossbowman decides to have a potshot at him and scores a bullseye. As the stricken king lay dying, he called the archer to his tent (he turned up too, which is more than we’d’ve done in that situation) and forgave him, even giving him a hundred shillings into the bargain. Didn’t do him much good. The minute Richard was dead, the wretch was taken outside, flayed alive and hanged. So the French coined the word cointe, which is admirably apposite in Richard’s case, seeing it meant arrogant, proud, elegant, gracious and clever. Not sure about that last one, mind. In English (c.1300), it would mean elaborate or skilfully made, not quite the quaint that we know so well now, though they started to spell it that way from the early fourteenth century.
Cognoscere and noscere, both Latin for to know, have between them spawned a myriad litter of offspring words to do with knowing in some form or other. Incidentally, knowing, in the sense of sexual intercourse (goodness, has it suddenly got very hot in here?) goes all the way back to 1200 (when the French were getting quaint) and even features in the Old Testament so, should a friend introduce his wife to you, it’s probably best to reply that, yes, we are acquainted, rather than blurting out that you’ve known her well for a number of years (unless you do happen to be Boris Johnson). And that most infuriating of all parenthetical fillers, y’know, came in as early as 1712 but its roots go back to the fourteenth century. So, cognoscere and noscere, what have they given us? Here we go: agnosy (state of not knowing); agnosia (inability to recognise familiar objects); agnostic, of course; bibliognost (what a beauty, and one for all you librarians out there, being as it’s someone with a comprehensive knowledge of books and bibliography); cognition (and family) and recognise; cognosce (inquire into to determine); cognoscente (as mentioned earlier, one in the know or a connoisseur) and connoisseur; diagnose (and family); gnome (a pithy saying); incognito (why, when Superman puts on a pair of glasses, do people then not recognise him at all?); prognosis (and family); and reconnoitre (to survey or inspect, in rather a French-sounding manner), to name but a few.

 Then there’s notice, of course, which originally meant information or intelligence, which is why we “give in our notice” when we intend to quit something, which dates back to about 1590, while notice as a sign giving information didn’t come along until 1805. Notice used as a verb goes back to 1757 but it was long execrated in England as an “Americanism,” sometimes even a “Scottishism,” and it seems that Benjamin Franklin went apoplectic and nearly blew a gasket when he got back from the French Revolution only to find all his countrymen scattering it around all over the place, in exactly the same ghastly fashion as we talk of “friending someone” today. By “we” we mean “they,” of course, and, you know what, Franklin had a point, which we wholeheartedly acknowledge. Which is another one, though it should really be aknowledge, the ac- part only coming in by mistake.

And finally, we mustn’t ignore ignore, must we? Or we might just end up sounding ignorant. Ignore was originally French for to be unaware of (rather than take no notice of), which is how ignorant came about in the first place. Which brings us nicely on to ignoramus, a word commonly ascribed to the coinage of a fellow by the name of George Ruggle, a seventeenth century dramatist who, in 1615, penned a witty little number (a college farce, by all accounts), written in Latin with passages in French and English (what a big show-off), and in which the leading character was a dullard dunce of a lawyer called Ignoramus, though the play would probably need a good few one-liners in it, seeing the thing was a buttock-numbing six hours long. James I loved it and ended up seeing it twice, which may be where we get the phrase “pearls before swine.”

Ignoramus is Latin for “we do not know” and does, in fact, have a law connection. Way back when, in the sixteenth century actually, it was used in court, as reported by Sir Thomas Smith in De Republica Anglorum (1565), who didn’t win many prizes for spelling but did say that when a Grand Jury was considering an indictment, “if they finde it true they do nothing but write on the backeside of it, ‘billa vera’, as ye would say, ‘scriptum verum’: or ‘accusatio iusta’, or ‘reus est qui accusatur’: Then he who is there named is called indicted.” On the other hand, if they thought the whole thing was a stitch-up, they simply wrote “ignoramus” on the back (we do not know) and handed that to the judge. It’s just surprising more of them weren’t banged up for contempt, we’d’ve said. Lots of terms, it would seem, for saying send the blighter down, but only the one for let’s let him off: ignoramus.

And so, it seems, we’ve come all the way from acquaintance via friends on Facebook to end up with an ignoramus. How is that even possible


Chums: By Staff of Chums (Scan of original) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Britishers: By HM Government ( photo 17377.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jane Avril Dancing (Can-Can): By Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Witan: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Scabies: By Kalumet (de.wikipedia) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Richard the Lionheart: Merry-Joseph Blondel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Samson and the Philistines: Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Benjamin Franklin: Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
James I: John de Critz the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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