It’s been a while since I’ve gone after the affably ignorant William Safire and his weekly maunderings about language, but once again a remark of his is so dunderheaded that I have to point and scoff. Today’s column is about the word rant. I’m used to his pretending that whatever word or phrase he’s decided to pick on is “enjoying a boom” and having a “sudden, unforeseen blossoming,” so that’s not what bothered me. No, it was this, from his obligatory paragraph on etymology: “The German verb ranzen, ‘to dance about gaily, to frolic,’ was picked up in English in Richard Brome’s 1641 play, ‘The Joviall Crew’: ‘The more the merrier, I am resolved to Rant it to the last.’” There are two species of idiocy here. The first, the Common or Garden Variety of Safire Idiocy, is the pretense that the first citation in the OED is the very first time the word was used in English, so the user (in this case Ben Jonson’s pal Richard Brome, pronounced “broom,” whose comedy A Jovial Crew was the last play performed before the closing of the theaters under the Puritans) is said to have invented it or personally imported it, whichever applies. The second is the claim that it is from German ranzen. Every dictionary I have says it’s from the (obsolete) Dutch verb ranten, which (as you will note) looks and sounds a lot more like the English word; the OED (presumably where Safire or his assistant went for the information) adds “cf. G. ranzen to frolic, spring about, etc.” Cf. means ‘compare,’ and the German is added as a related word; it clearly was not the direct source. And whatever the source, the word was presumably borrowed by somebody who hung out with foreigners and liked the word enough to start using it; it caught on and was used by an unknowable number of merrie olde Englishmen before Brome put it in his comedy and became the First Citation. Please, Safire & Co., use your heads before repeating this tiresome error!
By the way, speaking of OED citations reminds me that in my post about Dancing on Mara Dust I forgot to mention an achievement of Vivien’s I envy even more than her getting a book published: she’s cited in the OED! The June 2005 draft revision of the parcel entry includes this as definition 10.d.:
pass the parcel a children’s game in which a gift wrapped in several layers of paper is passed around a circle of players to the accompaniment of music, the person holding the parcel when the music stops being allowed to unwrap a layer (more recently, a gift may be wrapped in each layer). Also allusively: a situation in which ownership of or (esp. undesired) responsibility for something is passed on frequently.
And among the citations is:
1955 V. SMITH Bk. about Browns (MS story) (O.E.D. Archive) xxi. 46 Then the party began. Molly, who always had good ideas said to every-one ‘Should we have pass the parcel?’ ‘That’s what we’re going to play,’ said Mr. Brown.
Now, that’s what I call immortality! And the Book about Browns was written when she was eight, making her the youngest author to be cited in the OED.