MALAY COOTIES.

Jordan at Macvaysia has been wondering whether the English word cooties, which he defines as “an imaginary affliction, used by kids in the west as an excuse for shunning and/or teasing other kids,” might come from Malay kudis ‘scabies’ (Indonesian Wikipedia) rather than, as dictionary etymologies suggest, Malay kutu ‘louse.’ I have no idea whether this is plausible, but I figure someone out there might.
Update (July 2009). It looks as if the true etymology is less exotic; it’s simply an extension of coot (there was a proverbial phrase “as lousy as a coot”). See these American Dialect Society listserv postings: 1, 2, 3, 4; Jonathan Lighter’s summary from the last:

What I think happened:
“lousy as a coot” > “cooty” (adj.) = “lousy, as is a coot” > “coot”
(back-formation) and “cootie” (through mishearing and in other cases as a
diminutive).

Comments

  1. Malay kutu ‘louse’.
    This explanation has always seemed plausible here, probably because kutu is also used in Māori for louse. It’s one of those words, like wai for ‘water’ that make people go “hey that’s the same in Malay as in Māori” and thus help us laypeople that they are indeed members of the same family.

  2. Hmm, that’s a strange coincidence: we were just talking about cooties this evening, and then you posted about the word. I hadn’t used or thought about the word in years!

  3. I’d have to agree that kudis does seem more plausible than kutu, just because the latter’s plural ought to be *cootoos after borrowing. The former has the correct second vowel, and the plural comes by default. The alternative is saying that *cootoo developed a diminutive, perhaps via Dutch.

  4. I myself had been wondering if the word had come from Tagalog rather than Malay. We say “kuto.” And I learned that there was a military order during the Spanish American War called the Military Order of the Cootie.

  5. Recall that cooties seems to show up in WWI. (E.g., here, here or here.) The missing link is an early attestation with an Asian context. Making the phonology a bit closer at the expense of the semantics doesn’t seem to help.

  6. The Military Order of the Cootie was for Spanish-American War vets, but is from the early 20s.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Didn’t the Spanish-American war involve the Philippines, where languages of the same family as Malay are spoken? It is possible that American soldiers learned the word kuto in the Philippines, Americanized it as cootie, and it later spread throughout the army, particularly in unsanitary conditions where the soldiers encountered lice, such as in the trenches of WWI. The “Military Order” seems to have been an unofficial association, perhaps in remembrance of those difficult situations where soldiers were overrun with lice. Some children may have heard ex-soldiers reminisce about “the cooties” without understanding what the word referred to, and assumed that it referred to a mysterious contagious disease, like “the measles”.

  8. Wikipedia does in fact suggest Filipino (Tagalog) kuto. That section is a bit of a mess, though. First, stylistically, it’s a dialog with itself. Second, the citation for the etymology is DARE, which in fact proposes Malay kutu, like most others. At one time, it did mention the SAW, until “03:54, 24 December 2008 Kauffner (→Etymology: add early citation, rm unsourced reference to Philippines)”.
    The problem remains that no one mentioned it (that someone has found) in the Philippines back then. And then it shows up in several different theaters in the Great War.

  9. A few years ago, I tried to make a cootie-catcher for a kid, but couldn’t recover the folding technique from memory. Now there are videos on the web. Here is one almost in slow-motion. Unfortunately, in the final step of drawing the cooties, the person’s hands cover the catcher, so you can’t see clearly what’s being done – and the final demonstration scene is badly lit. But we all know how to work those bits, right?

  10. I doubt that it came from American involvement in the Philippines. The earliest known appearance of cootie is in the 1917 memoir of Arthur Guy Empey, an American machine gunner serving in France (Over the Top, published in the UK as From the Fire Step). Empey describes cootie as a British term borrowed by the Americans. So that would suggest an origin in British Malaya, if indeed kutu (or kudis) is the etymon.
    I don’t have HDAS at hand, but I believe Jonathan Lighter (who has written extensively about the slang of the American Expeditionary Force) dismisses the kutu etymology due to lack of evidence.

  11. Over the Top is the first link in the 10:24 comment above.
    HDAS:

    [orig. unkn.; Malay kutu ‘biting louse’ has been suggested, but no early connection of the word with S.E. Asia has been demonstrated.]

  12. From memory, Mark Twain uses ‘cootie’ in Tom Sawyer (1876) to refer to some sort of louse that crawled out of a boy’s hair and startled a sensitive schoolmistress.

  13. Have just checked the book, and there is no trace of the scene I have in mind. Heaven knows what book I’m thinking of, but it seems my great contribution to lexicography will have to wait. (takes coat and tiptoes out)

  14. Even as a young child, I knew that “cooties” was a slang term for “lice.” I wasn’t quite sure what lice were.

  15. Ben Zimmer: Empey describes cootie as a British term borrowed by the Americans.
    Before I read that, I was about to say that I have never heard the expression in England and to this day don’t understand what ‘cooties’ is, or are.

  16. There was a relevant article on Bioephemera recently, in which I posted in the comments thread.
    http://scienceblogs.com/bioephemera/2009/05/finally_the_kootie_epidemic_is.php
    As I said there, in my Australian childhood we had our share of imaginary diseases, but we never called them cooties. For my part I’m happy for North Americans to claim that particular cultural icon as their own.

  17. The novel CIngram is thinking of is To Kill A Mockingbird; Miss Caroline screams because Burris Ewell has ‘cooties’ crawling around on his scalp.

  18. @stef-l
    Thank you very much. It’s been driving me nuts. Far too late, then, to shed light on the intoduction of the word to US speech. Don’t know why Tom Sawyer sprang to mind so clearly.

  19. In a final attempt to contribute something useful, I also only know cootie as a word used in poorly remembered American novels. I’ve never used it or heard it used in Southern England either as a real or imaginary affliction. Imaginary or unidentified illness, especially of a microbial rype, is known as the lurgy/lurgie in my part of the world.

  20. Thanks to all, especially MMcM and Ben Zimmer; it seems that kutu is more likely, but there’s no real evidence for it.

  21. (And now my scalp is itching.)

  22. Jonathan Lighter says:

    I’ve not unearthed anything new on “cooties” since editing HDAS 1 in 1993-94. Had I known of Malay “kudis” I’d have mentioned it as a possibility, partly because “He’s got kudis” sounds more like “cooties” than does “kutu/s,” and partly because, sounding perhaps like the plural of an an English diminutive, it could also easily be misunderstood as referring to lice or the like. Scabies too is an itching condition caused by an insect. There are still no early cites that relate “cooties” to Asia or the Pacific, however.
    The Military Order of the Cootie has no linguistic relevance to the Spanish-American War or its sequel in the Philippines. It was an organization of US WWI veterans within the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
    There is no doubt, either, that the word was used in the British army before the U.S. entered the war. A Canadian ex., written at roughly the same time as Empey’s:
    1917 (Apr. 7) in Deward Barnes _It Made You Think of Home_ (ed. Bruce Crane) (Dundurn Press, 2004) 58: I am with the 19th Canadian Battalion Now. One fellow was so lousy that they made him sleep alone in a bivouac….He had hundreds of “cooties” outside his tunic.
    Interestingly enough, however, the exx. available at Google Books are virtually all from U.S. sources.
    Whatever the origin of the word, it was “new” to most readers in 1917. As a child growing up in NYC in the 1950s, the only sense of “cooties” I was familiar with was “lice.” (My wife’s recollection of the word is similar.) In college, however, some my classmates did not know that meaning; they knew “cooties” only as some indefinable, metaphysical ailment one could get from touching a dirty child. Forty years later, that is the only sense that many (or most?) young people seem to be aware of, at least so far as I can tell.

  23. scarabaeus says:

    Words not cited until a literate one likes ‘wot’ an illiterate one uses that takes the fancy of writing one.
    Most of the degenerate ‘ferrign’ words were misused, misspent, misheard and misspelled by millions of semi literate or even literate ‘squaddies’ serving in ‘ferrign’ parts. then would use them on other semi literate fellow Islanders that were limited to the local vernacular. On one memorable flight that I had with fellow travelers, the char lady requested that she would serve tea if we started spouting real Anglo Saxon words.
    From my experience many words used and picked up in the course of fraternization with diverse peoples of strange lands would not enter the dictionary until it was blessed by a qualified educed one, thus making it really difficult to make tracable.
    It is only recently [biologically speaking] that uncouth and slang has been part of the norm. and accepted by PC macadamia. Prior to this acceptance of uneducated verbiage was verboten and totally trashed and not worthy of mentioning ignored, as most written words are used for wrapping a penny worth of spuds or like the words I have rote and regurgitated, end up in file 13..

  24. John Emerson says:

    First, stylistically, it’s a dialog with itself.
    One of the main things to watch out for with Wiki. At times you just hope that the various editors’ contributions are intelligibly related (“Some say…” but others claim….”, etc.)

  25. John Emerson says:
  26. I grew up in New Zealand, where as Stuart points out the Maori word is “kutu”,and kids did taunt each other with “you’ve got kutus!” Given the local propensity to create shortened forms with -ie, to me that strengthens the argument that something other that kutu leads to cooties.

  27. Hawaiian ‘uku (< Proto-Polynesian *kutu < Proto-Malayo-Polynesian [everything outside Formosa] *kutu < Proto-Austronesian [incl. Formosan lgs] *kuCu) means either ‘louse’ or ‘flea’, as in ukulele ‘jumping-flea’, possibly the nickname of small and quick Edward Purvis, who popularized the instrument brought to Hawai‘i by Portuguese immigrants in the 1870s.

  28. D Wilson says:

    Hypotheses are of course plentiful. Why prefer Malay “kutu” over its Maori equivalent (there are of course many other equivalents, in the Philippines as well as Fiji, etc., etc.)? Other possibilities are available, e.g. (1) Latin “cutio” = “millipede”/”wood-louse”, (2) abbreviation of “cutaneous [parasite]”, etc., etc., perhaps including a true etymon which nobody has identified or published yet.
    Is /d/ really very similar to /t/ in the current context? I think the answer may not be exactly the same in UK English as in US.

  29. Yes, JE, I was looking for that picture. We had the Cootie game in our neck of Woebegone too, but I wouldn’t call it a board game, having all those plastic parts.
    When we wanted to tease someone we didn’t use the word cootie, though, we said “fleas”. You got them by touching someone. There were “girl fleas”, which you got by touching a girl, and probably also “boy fleas” although we never had to concern ourselves with them. In about the fifth grade or so, the boys would pretend to touch a girl then say “girl fleas” or the person’s name along with the word “fleas”.

  30. “I doubt that it came from American involvement in the Philippines. The earliest known appearance of cootie is in the 1917 memoir of Arthur Guy Empey, an American machine gunner serving in France (Over the Top, published in the UK as From the Fire Step).”
    American involvement in the Philippines didn’t really end until the closure of Clark and Subic Bay in the early 90’s.
    “Boondocks” and “geedunk” are definitley of Philippine origin; I wonder how long it was before they showed up in print. Showing up in print is not the only metric for determining when a term enters the language.
    “Empey describes cootie as a British term borrowed by the Americans. So that would suggest an origin in British Malaya, if indeed kutu (or kudis) is the etymon.”
    That is only if he was right.
    “There is no doubt, either, that the word was used in the British army before the U.S. entered the war. A Canadian ex., written at roughly the same time as Empey’s:”
    Hmmm. Canadian. That would suggets more of an American usage rather than British anyway.
    Aside from “cooties” whatever its real origin, there is a group of slang terms with origins in various Asian languages that originated in the military, only some of which have crossed into general civilian usage:
    “binjo” – latrine, from Japanese supposedly.
    “hooch” – semi-permanent informal dwelling – a tent with wooden walls perhaps, or a shipping container (CONEX) (Vietnam era), or an improvised shelter on the back of a vehicle (Germany in the 80’s) – supposedly from Japanese ‘uchi’ but maybe a variant of ‘hutch’
    “gung ho” – from Chinese ‘gong he’. (Note the significant semantic shift)
    “yobo” – live-in girlfriend, “Class B dependent”, mistress – from Korean
    [the infamous] “gook” – ’nuff said – from Korean
    “-da” as a sentence final particle, as in “No sweaty da” – from the Korean declarative particle.
    “nitnoy” from Thai. This one is an example of how hard it can be identify these, because they get “regularized’ so fast. This can only have come in during the late 60’s through mid 70’s (Vietnam era)- and already by 1981 I heard it in the form “nitnoid”.
    “Los” – as in “I’ll tell you the real los on this” from “Was ist los?” via “What’s the los?” – again note the complete disregard for the actual meaning of the original word; the expresion gets brought into English as an unanalyzable unit, meaning intact, except that “was” and “ist” do get analyzed, and then the German word is attributed the meaning of the English word in the same position.

  31. Showing up in print is not the only metric for determining when a term enters the language.
    Yeah, actually it pretty much is. Of course it doesn’t define when the term enters the language, but presumably a metric is something you can confidently measure by, and that means contemporary written material (not necessarily printed, of course), not unreliable memories.

  32. That Canadian example from 1917: From that era, things Canadian would certainly be more British than American.

  33. I see the date of that Canadian example is precisely April 7. At what date were American troops in the trenches?
    The writer, Deward Barnes, says ‘I am with the 19th Canadian Battalion now’. What outfit was he with before? Was he really a Canadian?

  34. At what date were American troops in the trenches?
    The American Expeditionary Force under Pershing arrived in France in June.
    What outfit was he with before?
    2nd Canadian Entrenching Battalion.
    Was he really a Canadian?
    Toronto native.

  35. D Wilson says:

    With respect to the above-mentioned Asian-originated military terms:
    “Benjo” is indeed clearly Japanese “benjou” AFAIK.
    “Gook” is apparently not from Korean. Numerous early citations in HDAS are from all over, the earliest from Haiti, 1920. _Probably_ originally from the Philippines IMHO (cf. “goo-goo” from 1898 in HDAS).
    I don’t know about “da”, but in absence of detailed historical data a Japanese origin (‘copula’ “da”) seems to me a reasonable alternative to the Korean one.
    “Nitnoy”/”nitnoid” = “something tiny” indeed dates from the Vietnam War era. There has been a little semantic shift, I think. This is perhaps influenced by English “nit[picking]”. I like this one.
    With respect to “cootie”:
    In the WW I environment where “cootie” is first recorded, were there troops from Malaya? From New Zealand?

  36. bathrobe says:

    That is actually “benjo” 便所, not “benjou”.
    “Nit noy” is from Thai.

  37. bathrobe says:

    “Nit noy” is from Thai
    Oops, already pointed out.

  38. That is actually “benjo” 便所, not “benjou”.
    “Ou” is a common way of indicating long o.

  39. In Japanese, that is.

  40. Thanks, MMcM. So this Barnes character, as a Toronto native, may well have been influenced by American culture at that early date, as American culture entered Canada then through Toronto and spread from there through the rest of the country (slowly).
    D. Wilson: I too wondered if Malay and/or Kiwi troops were in France. I somehow doubt it, but maybe.

  41. D Wilson says:

    Japanese “benjo” doesn’t have a long “o”; it was my spelling error, sorry.

  42. “I don’t know about “da”, but in absence of detailed historical data a Japanese origin (‘copula’ “da”) seems to me a reasonable alternative to the Korean one.”
    That may be, but contact with Korean has been for a lot longer time for soldiers, and this is Army, not Air Force or Navy slang; and -da on the end of what seems like every sentence is a feature of Korean that soldiers routinely mock. I would think the socially equivalent morpheme in Japanese would be -masu, irrespective of the actual meaning.
    “”Gook” is apparently not from Korean. Numerous early citations in HDAS are from all over, the earliest from Haiti, 1920. _Probably_ originally from the Philippines IMHO (cf. “goo-goo” from 1898 in HDAS).”
    That is interesting. I wonder what the riginal meaning was. It has morphed to mean “Asian enemy [at the moment] – Korean, then Vietnamese, and now occasionally Chinese in Southern California.
    “Showing up in print is not the only metric for determining when a term enters the language.”
    “Yeah, actually it pretty much is.”
    Really? People date borrowings on all kinds of other metrics – sound changes once the word is borrowed – we can tell when “cheese” entered English, and it was a long time before anyone wrote it down; and by dates of last contact, so it’s likely that “pwt” was borrowed into Welsh before and not after the Romans left, even if it doesn’t show up in writing for a very long time.
    In particular military slang is going to stay out of print for longer than other loanwords, because neither the community nor the jargon are mainstream – it won’t show up in popular media and it’s not going to show up in official miltary writing. It can take a couple of generations for it to leak into popular culture, if ever. Plenty never does.
    If in fact “cooties” came in by way of soldiers, and during a time when there wasn’t widesperead conscription with masses of people mustering out later and spreading back into society, it’s a wonder it made into mainstream usage at all.

  43. marie-lucie says:

    “Showing up in print is not the only metric for determining when a term enters the language.”
    Jim, I quite agree with your comments on this sentence. To expand on what you said, there are two different factors: “historical” borrowing, dating from a time sufficiently remote from the present that sound changes etc are well-attested (in the languages in question or even from other languages which may have originated or borrowed the same word), and recent borrowing, where written (not necessarily printed) sources can often be precisely be dated, although the word may have been in use for much longer. Examples of the first kind, such as cheese from Latin caesum, or the large number of words from Old French which have sometimes changed less in English than in French, are plentiful in English even though exact dates cannot often be given for their “introduction”. The most one can say in the second instance is that the word was definitely in use by a certain date (the method used in dictionaries), without being able to determine when the word was coined or when it acquired a certain meaning.
    Military slang is likely to include words from a wide variety of origins, not just because of service in foreign lands but also because of soldiers coming from different regions. Since army volunteers tend to be from less privileged backgrounds, their own speech may include words and phrases which are not necesssarily standard but can spread widely in a context where colorful and unusual expressions are prized, although not in official writing.

  44. “Military slang is likely to include words from a wide variety of origins, not just because of service in foreign lands but also because of soldiers coming from different regions. ”
    A wide range of origins, but a restricted range of semantic domains – weaponry, engineering, prostitution, organizational structure and that kind of thing. It is interesting to note that in most European languages the vocabulary for military organization, both for formations and for ranks, is French, as is a lot of engineering and terrain terminology, and derives from the period of military dominance under Louis XIV. Now of course the flow of borrowing may have reversed; I wonder what the French terms for “drone” or “cluster bomb” are. “IED” would probably be a native coinage though – maybe “MVI – munition vehiculaire improvise”?

  45. Since army volunteers tend to be from less privileged backgrounds, their own speech may include words and phrases which are not necesssarily standard but can spread widely
    I recently found out the “F-word” was in wide use in the military in WWII. All this time I had thought it was all the boomers’ fault with all those smuggled underground Jerry Farber essays. Now I wonder how far back it went–WWI? Has anyone ever looked at the spread of the word in terms of social class?

  46. Nijma, it’s old. The last I heard they couldn’t even decide where it originated, Dutch, German or English, and no one has ever explained to me the non-regular vowel non-correspondence with German ‘ficken’. I guess they can’t really be related words, then, can they? It could go back to some little war in the Low Countries, maybe about the time they borrowed gin into England, or maybe it was the UK by then.
    What’s fun to see is how the word “frick” or “freak” keeps coming back, refuses to die. I am sure there are some Afrocentrists somewhere that have etymologized it back the “Vai language” or whatever. Lord Frey would chuckle at that.

  47. marie-lucie says:

    JIm, about military vocabulary from French, it sounds like you are referring to official terms, not soldiers’ slang. I can’t help you with current military vocabulary, let alone military slang – I rarely read or discuss anything requiring a knowledge of that subject. I guess “drone” could be “un bourdon” which means the same as “drone” (a male bee), but the French word has other meanings too. I don’t know what IED is, and your attempted definition of “MVI” looks strange to me. No doubt there are specialized glossaries which list this sort of specialized terminology.
    Nijma, the “F-word” is far more ancient than either of the two WWs, but it is one of those words which rarely showed up in print until recently.

  48. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: no one has ever explained to me the non-regular vowel non-correspondence with German ‘ficken’.
    For a word of this kind, Standard English and Standard German should not be the only ones to be consulted – dialectal forms and/or deliberate deformations might have been involved too.

  49. scarabaeus says:

    The Kiwis and Aussies got some of worst jobs fighting along side English in WWI. Gallipoli, Palestine and and Belgium. look up their records and then see the price paid by them as well as every village in the UK.

  50. Really? People date borrowings on all kinds of other metrics – sound changes once the word is borrowed – we can tell when “cheese” entered English, and it was a long time before anyone wrote it down; and by dates of last contact, so it’s likely that “pwt” was borrowed into Welsh before and not after the Romans left, even if it doesn’t show up in writing for a very long time.
    For Pete’s sake: 1) Yes, of course there are other ways of determining such things, and having gotten an M.Phil. in historical linguistics by dint of blood, sweat, and borrowed money, I’m well aware of them; I took “metric” to mean a specific sort of measurement (“no earlier/later than such and such year”), not “before the Romans left.” And 2) We’re not talking about ancient situations, we’re talking about the twentieth century. I feel as if I was trying to figure out whether a particular book was published in 1959 or 1960 and someone started talking about carbon dating or the origin of the Milky Way. To try to make myself clearer: if we’re talking about when “cootie” entered the language, I am very much interested in dated documents; I am not particularly interested in somebody’s claim in (say) 1949 that they heard it in their youth in Schenectady in 1893. There’s no way of evaluating such claims. If you want to talk about Old English borrowings from Latin, that’s a completely different discussion.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    LH, those points are the ones I was trying to make, in less detail.

  52. Nijma, it’s old.
    I think I got that much. What I was getting at was more when it entered the mainstream language in the U.s. (and maybe other countries.) It simply wasn’t used back in the 50’s and 60’s, at least in the midwest. When Farber came out with his essays, no one knew what the word meant. But somewhere it was a known word and maybe even regularly used…would it have been something used on the docks? This is a totally separate conversation from the other one on this thread about verbal usage versus written usage that can be documented, but the conversations seem to be converging.

  53. LH: I am not particularly interested in somebody’s claim in (say) 1949 that they heard it in their youth in Schenectady in 1893. There’s no way of evaluating such claims.
    Linguists use written documents as evidence for dating words and phrases, but as m-l says (above) about something else: the “F-word” is far more ancient than either of the two WWs, but it is one of those words which rarely showed up in print until recently. Surely you don’t always have to see it with your own eyes to make a judgment? For instance, you could evaluate the authenticity of your Schenectady example like the police & lawyers are supposed to do with witnesses: do they have reason to lie, are they reliable, etc. I think using such evidence would give you a closer estimate of a first usage than saying you’re only going to evaluate what’s written down. As a Studs Turkel fan, don’t forget that (thanks to the tape recorder) oral history has come into its own for understanding what happened in the past. I don’t see any reason why historical linguists shouldn’t use it too.

  54. It simply wasn’t used back in the 50’s and 60’s, at least in the midwest. When Farber came out with his essays, no one knew what the word meant. But somewhere it was a known word and maybe even regularly used…would it have been something used on the docks?
    Nijma, sometimes I have a hard time knowing whether you’re being serious or whether you’re just yanking our chain. You can’t possibly believe that it “wasn’t used back in the 50’s and 60’s, at least in the midwest” or “no one knew what the word meant.” Even if you had a sheltered childhood, you can’t possibly think that as an adult. People have been saying “fuck” everywhere except in sheltered children’s rooms for many many centuries, yes, even in the Midwest. It’s a standard English word, not some mysterious recent bit of jargon.
    Linguists use written documents as evidence for dating words and phrases, but as m-l says (above) about something else: the “F-word” is far more ancient than either of the two WWs, but it is one of those words which rarely showed up in print until recently. Surely you don’t always have to see it with your own eyes to make a judgment?
    You do see the difference between “rarely” and “never,” yes? Fuck is attested in print from the early 16th century, from somewhat before that if you count the ciphered gxddbov (= fvccant) from Flen flyys, and from considerably earlier if you believe Carl Buck’s alleged 1278 “John le Fucker,” which nobody has been able to find in the manuscripts he said he found it in.
    That’s actually a pretty good test case. If we didn’t have the early printed evidence and the first actual occurrence was in, say, John Ash’s 1775 A New and Complete Dictionary, we would have to say “certain possible allusions in Shakespeare suggest but do not prove that the word was used in his day, and if it is related to German ficken—which cannot be demonstrated—it must be considerably older.” That’s how linguistics works. An amateur could look at the evidence and say “well, obviously it’s a really old word,” but it’s similarly obvious that the sun goes around the earth—it just doesn’t happen to be true. Science depends on solid evidence, not good guesses.
    As a Studs Turkel fan, don’t forget that (thanks to the tape recorder) oral history has come into its own for understanding what happened in the past. I don’t see any reason why historical linguists shouldn’t use it too.
    Because it’s not evidence, except for usage at the time the recording was made. I don’t care how charming and convincing the old geezer who says he heard a word in his youth is, he could be lying or misremembering, and no linguist is going to take his word for it.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    “He says he heard word X in his youth”: this would not date the occurrence of the word, but it would show or suggest that the tape-recorded speaker associated it with an earlier generation. The objective fact would be that the speaker did use it at the time of the recording. But if similar instances showed up in other tapes by unconnected speakers, the claim of earlier occurrence could be taken more seriously. Crucial evidence though would be if the word was found in a reliably dated document, not necessarily a widely disseminated printed source (such as a book or newspaper) but also a more private document such as a letter, a will, an invoice, etc.

  56. Science depends on solid evidence, not good guesses.
    History is as much a social science as linguistics, and they (historians) accept oral evidence, as do other social sciences. My point is that if you’re going to accept only written evidence, then you’re liable to get just as distorted a view of when the first occurrence of a word or phrase was as you would if you accepted some heresay evidence, it’s just going to be a different distortion. Written evidence has an added danger if it’s more believable because it’s more “scientific” — that’s like saying PC Plod is more believable than me because he’s a policeman. It’s all guesswork; you both accept that “solid evidence” isn’t really telling you the first time a word is used.
    I don’t care how charming and convincing the old geezer who says he heard a word in his youth is, he could be lying or misremembering Linguists aren’t the only people who come up against this difficulty; what would happen if people couldn’t give evidence in court or explain a personal problem to a psychologist because they might be lying or misremembering? In those cases the court or the profession accept that that might well be the case and they make accommodation for it.

  57. marie-lucie says:

    Historical linguistics is not just linguistic history but also part linguistic archeology: both include some detective work, and in many cases we try to do the best we can with the materials we have. There can be strong or concrete evidence (which can be misleading or even faked) and sometimes there is only circumstancial evidence, and various factors must be weighed against each other.
    When a crime has been committed there has to be strong reasons for the police to charge a person and even stronger reasons for the court to convict, as the result is of the utmost importance to the accused (and also to the police and the court if they have arrested or convicted wrongly), but for the historical disciplines as for other sciences there may be only enough evidence to suggest a certain hypothesis and line of development which can be proposed or pursued, subject to confirmation or refutation by further evidence or counter-evidence.
    In historical linguistics, dated written evidence is usually taken as solid, but here as in historical research in general one has to be careful too: a printed document can contain typos, a manuscript can contain spelling errors, or some written letters can be confused with others. Collections of manuscripts, as in archives, often contain errors of classification such as confusing one language with another (eg if a work written in the Arabic alphabet is listed under Arabic but is actually Farsi or Urdu). A handwritten document may bear a date but that date may have been added later, or the numbers may have been wrongly interpreted (eg a notebook I saw listed as from 1807, an improbable date given the nature of the notes, was actually from 1867, but the handwritten 6 looked almost like a zero). Such difficulties are intensified the older the documents are, and researchers must be very careful not to jump to premature conclusions, but that does not mean that they cannot formulate hypotheses, only that they should not present them as truth without further justification.

  58. My point is that if you’re going to accept only written evidence, then you’re liable to get just as distorted a view of when the first occurrence of a word or phrase was as you would if you accepted some heresay evidence, it’s just going to be a different distortion.
    Koranic scholars solved this problem by compiling lists of “rememberers” of the Prophet’s life. Hadiths are considered to be “strong” or “weak” depending on the chain of rememberers and I think the reputations and the number of rememberers as well. For example, Aisha remembered a huge number of sayings; she was also the Prophet’s favorite wife, so you would imagine she would have been in a position to both hear and remember a lot, and for some reason she is also in a lot of the chains of rememberers.

  59. People have been saying “fuck” everywhere except in sheltered children’s rooms for many many centuries, yes, even in the Midwest.
    How would anyone go about proving this since there seems to be no written record of it? Maybe if there is no written record, there is a reason for that.
    The story I heard about WWII is that the prototypical farm boys from Iowa (who are not unknowledgeable about where baby cows come from) were quite shocked to get an earful when they got into the service. Who they got an earful from would be interesting to know, as well as what they found shocking.
    Of course I could be lying or senile or joking or totally out of the loop, but then again, I might not and maybe the word just wasn’t used back then.
    I remember “damn” and the cover word “darn”, “hell” (oops, that’s H-E-doubletoothpicks) and the cover word “heck”, and that’s about it. Maybe “what in tarnation” has something to do with damnation? Those were pretty strong words back then, although the midwest doesn’t have all that much exciting enough to swear about even now.
    I’m trying to remember where I did learn those words, and I suspect it was a combination of a summer job in the Black Hills (those summer tourist towns draw people from all over) and some covert fratboiz’ paperbacks in a Minnesota TKE house. Now that I think about it, the Tekes were a huge corrupting influence–the ATO’s had the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics, but I don’t remember what kind of language they used.
    For some reason I always associate the F-word with blue collar social class, and thought the language traveled from the lower classes into the middle class in the 60’s and 70’s, thanks to Farber.

  60. jamessal says:

    How would anyone go about proving this since there seems to be no written record of it?
    There are written examples of “fuck,” in English, dating back to 1528. If you’re really interested, you might want to check out Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word.

  61. The other reason the “it’s a standard English word” thing doesn’t fly for me is the midwestern Protestant attitudes towards sexuality. Even in the most Calvinistic circles, sexuality was not considered to be negative, in fact it was much desired (within the institution of marriage, of course), and no one would have reason to call something out as being negative by associating it with sex–an attitude I associate more with catholicism.
    These days I hear the F-word on the street daily, but 1) I live in one of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in the city and 2) Chicago is a Catholic town. Oh, and it’s 2009, if that has anything to do with it.

  62. jamessal says:

    There’s a ciphered example from 1475, too.

  63. Of course I could be lying or senile or joking or totally out of the loop
    I’m going for either joking or totally out of the loop, but I really wish you had a better sense of when you are completely wrong and should rewrite your mental map of the world rather than digging in your heels and acting as if your ideas (based in this case on some mix of childhood memories and lack of observation) were somehow of equal weight with the world outside your head. Like jamessal said, Jesse Sheidlower wrote an entire book about this; read it, and maybe you’ll know what you’re talking about.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    The story I heard about WWII is that the prototypical farm boys from Iowa (who are not unknowledgeable about where baby cows come from) were quite shocked to get an earful when they got into the service. Who they got an earful from would be interesting to know, as well as what they found shocking.
    Perhaps they were shocked because they had heard (and most likely used) the word on the farm (but never in front of ladies) and did not realize it was not limited to that context. If they heard “an earful” from a sergeant, for instance, they might have been shocked that he did not speak like a schoolteacher.

  65. They were talking that way on the street in Iowa in 1475? Hmm,…Columbus…1492….must have been those rascally Chippewas.

  66. scarabaeus says:

    The vernacular be rarely listened to by the brainwashed that regurgitate the learned tomes, and Bible:
    ‘Mythes’ be useful.
    All misquotes have an element of truth somewhere.
    Absolutes except for Mathematical facts are only for closed minded.
    Written fact,is the only provable fact if dated correctly, but to get to the that evidence does not mean that was invented then, thus we never truly find how long low caliber words were in circulation.
    So wot did the country bumkin say for the begeting and cursing while getting the Bull to do some servicing.
    Words used now show the lowest level of comprehension.
    The myth in my family is that my first words uttered were “Damn it I broke it”, it took a lot longer for me to put those words to print and accepted by a better.
    Of course it shock my sainted Aunt who got the soap out, but it was a great step for me as I failed to use any words prior, since then I have never shut up, so file 13 is over loaded.

  67. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. quite shocked to get an earful: they wouldn’t have been shocked, but puzzled, by words they didn’t understand, so the fact that they were shocked shows that they did know the “shocking” words.

  68. scarabaeus, you remind me of what’s his name…

  69. m-l: When a crime has been committed there has to be strong reasons for the police to charge a person and even stronger reasons for the court to convict, as the result is of the utmost importance to the accused (and also to the police and the court if they have arrested or convicted wrongly), but for the historical disciplines as for other sciences there may be only enough evidence to suggest a certain hypothesis and line of development which can be proposed or pursued, subject to confirmation or refutation by further evidence or counter-evidence.
    My point is not that oral evidence is more or less likely to be true than written evidence; it’s that nobody except linguists is ruling out oral evidence per se.
    That seems to me to be an old-fashioned “establishment” attitude and I’m surprised that nobody’s trying to accommodate oral evidence for the origin of words and phrases. You (linguists) accept it for dialects (by definition).
    Of course I accept I don’t know what I’m talking about here — I didn’t know of the existence of historical linguistics before I met you — but I still think I’m making quite a good suggestion.

  70. … Tristram Shandy.
    Couldn’t think of his name for a minute.

  71. The myth in my family is that my first words uttered were “Damn it I broke it”
    Those may be the best first words I’ve ever heard, and I envy you for either having uttered them or having inspired the myth, whichever is appropriate.

  72. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, it is not a distrust of “oral evidence” per se – if someone says something, in a certain way, that is first hand evidence for the existence of a speech form, which can be recorded. But if a person is recalling some distant event or some uncommon word, it is good to have the recollection independently confirmed at least by other people if not in written documents. Conflicting testimony or poor recollection are not uncommon, even with very honest people. It also happens that people claim not to know of a certain event, or never to have heard a certain word, under circumstances that make it likely that they are not telling the truth, not from dishonesty but from fear or embarrassment or painful memories or other personal factors.
    Some historical linguists take a very hard line: anything that is not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt should not be used, but my comment means that one can be a little more flexible, while keeping in mind that even well-reasoned speculations do not take precedence over hard evidence where it exists, and therefore one should be willing to change one’s opinions. You have been reading my posts: quite often I say “it is likely that …” and sometimes whatever it is turns out to be unlikely or untrue because of some fact that someone else knows that I didn’t, and on the other hand my opinion might be confirmed by such a fact (if it is indeed a fact and not a rumour or speculation or even someone’s fabrication).
    Historical linguistics does not deal only with written sources: reconstruction of earlier stages of a language and of the common ancestor of a family (in so far as it is possible) involves making inferences about possible changes in sound or meaning, which are not directly observable but may be confirmed by forms in different dialects or languages related to the one being studied. For many languages which either do not have a written tradition (eg if the first records were made by missionaries in the last few decades) or only a recent one (eg within two or three centuries), historical (reconstructive) study is still possible, from analyzing related words within the language and across dialects or closely related languages. This sort of study has been done and continues to be done in Native American and Australian languages, for instance, where historical study depends almost entirely on oral recordings, whether manuscript (in earlier times) or on tape (the primary source, even if later transcribed). In languages with a literate tradition, especially one going many centuries, written documents (whether epics or graffitti) are primary (although one still has to assess them carefully, see my earlier comment), but oral tradition (often in the form of dialectal forms) is also taken into account.

  73. marie-lucie says:

    scarabaeus: The myth in my family is that my first words uttered were “Damn it I broke it”
    How old were you when you said that? Quite often boys start speaking later than girls, but they then speak quite fluently. Someone in your family must have said something similar quite often.
    There is a story about a well-known English person (I forget who it was) whose first words (at the age of three or so) were supposed to have been (after being scalded by some hot fluid at the dinner-table): “Thank you, the pain is much abated” (or something very similar). But my guess is that these were his first words at the dinner table rather than in the nursery (this being in an upper-class British family).

  74. David Marjanović says:

    and no one has ever explained to me the non-regular vowel non-correspondence with German ‘ficken’.

    That’s not surprising at all; the vowel correspondences between English and German are often so convoluted they’re tied in knots. It’s utter horror. Easily as complicated as the current stage of reconstruction of the vowel correspondences between the branches of Altaic, and that’s an early stage.
    However, there is a complicated coffee-based drink from northern Germany called Muckefuck, which has the right vowel and is almost certainly cognate: the -fuck part is said to refer to the stirring, and many words for vertical gene transfer are derived from terms for repeated back-and-forth motions. Other examples are English frigging – no, the spelling freaking is an American folk etymology – and Czech šukát/Slovak šukáť, which was explained to me as equivalent to… not even “fucking” but “banging” and “boinking” (German bumsen), where the exact same word in Polish, szukać, has the completely innocent meaning “to look for”. (Hilarity ensued and lasted at least a week last time I was among Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks at the same time.) More subtly, schnackseln, a word whose geographic distribution I don’t know except that it occurs in at least some southeastern dialects of German and is missing in northern Germany, fits because its /l/ shows it must once have been a frequentative. (The German verb inventory is littered with fossil causatives and frequentatives that no layman is aware of.) I have no idea what the rest of the word might once have meant, however.
    But back to the topic (har har). Having established the North Sea Germanic heritage of fuck, I don’t know if it’s actually cognate to High German ficken (Standard as well as at least southeastern dialects – though if it’s a loan into those dialects from somewhere farther north, I’m not going to find out). The most parsimonious hypothesis is that it is, however: the meaning fits (even if we’re looking at two independent derivations from the same original meaning, i.e. “repeated back-and-forth motion”), the consonants fit, and the vowel is not an obstacle.
    Just right now I got the idea that the i could be from French niquer, but that’s really just a guess…
    Wait. There’s a German surname Ficker with some extinct innocent meaning or other. Someone should try to look that up, I’ll go to bed…

  75. “‘Boondocks’ and ‘geedunk’ are definitley of Philippine origin …”
    Yes for “boondocks,” no for “geedunk.” The latter’s origin is definitely unknown.

  76. I’m going for either joking or totally out of the loop, but I really wish you had a better sense of when you are completely wrong
    I might joke about death, but about invective, never. And is it really possible that people were screaming the f-word out on the street for 20 years out there in my branch of Woebegone and I somehow never even heard the word before the Fish Cheer came out on the Woodstock album?
    I could be right, you know.
    m-l, the earful was from another enlisted soldier, I thought from Philadelphia, but it was a short and stilted conversation and I really don’t remember all the details any more. I was trying to find out what words they used to swear with back then from someone who thinks like Hat does that I don’t know how to find out stuff while maintaining my facade of sweetness and innocence. Now that I think of it, all the naughty stuff the TEKE fratboiz knew was from an ex-TKE named Pirate (because he had been in the navy).
    Jamessal, The Sheidlower book has been on my list since Hat recommend it some time ago, but no more books for me until after the move. It’s going to be hard enough to get all my present books to the new place. In the meantime let me quote from some guy on an NPR interview about monkey armpits:
    Q: Could you color a map according to the subject matter of put-downs?
    A: Yeah..curses are very regional….

  77. scarabaeus says:

    L M: “Someone in your family must have said something similar quite often.”
    yep: mawreddog or dada-dada; very often, probable stuck in the grey matter when resting completable in the womb.
    That be Darn in polite company;
    I said it after disabling ‘me’ old spinning top at about aged 3 and half.

  78. scarabaeus says:

    RE:fcuk: Our neighbour always got an earful, he being a refugee from Old Saxony, his name be Herr Fuchs, so the little brats of the farm Yard would chant ” ‘er cominzee the old Fuchser”
    True or false for the correct accent?

  79. marie-lucie says:

    DM: Just right now I got the idea that the i [of German ficken] could be from French niquer, but that’s really just a guess…
    Wrong guess. I don’t know how old ficken is, but according to the TLFI the verb niquer is a slang term originating from Arabic, attested only since 1890.
    There is an old French noun la nique as in faire la nique (à quelqu’un) meaning something like “to deceive, play a trick on sbdy”.

  80. Some historical linguists take a very hard line: anything that is not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt should not be used, but my comment means that one can be a little more flexible, while keeping in mind that even well-reasoned speculations do not take precedence over hard evidence where it exists, and therefore one should be willing to change one’s opinions. You have been reading my posts: quite often I say “it is likely that …”
    Yes, that can only be good, m-l.
    I’ll make up an example, just to illustrate my other point. If the earliest written example of ‘x’ were from 1980, but there were also fifty people who could remember their grandparents saying ‘x’ between 1929 and 1939, then it is distorting the truth to imply that the earliest known occurrence of ‘x’ is in 1980.
    And I’m glad to see that graffiti counts as a written document. Graffiti artists should be encouraged to date their work.

  81. scarabaeus, I misunderstood your comment. I thought your first words were uttered as you came out of the womb.

  82. bruessel says:

    In my experience, Muckefuck is not a “complicated coffee-based drink”, but either coffee made from something else than coffee beans (barley, malt, chicory etc.), usually during times when real coffee wasn’t available or for health reasons (no coffeine), or very badly made real coffee. German wiki offers the etymology “mocca faux”, but I don’t know how likely that is.

  83. The thing about ‘fuck’ that Nij is commenting on is that, because it was segregated for many years, you can see how, where and when it ruptured what you might call virgin territory. So, it’s an interesting benchmark from a social point of view. My great-uncle in Australia (b.1899) used it all the time as an exclamation, but never in the hearing of women. His four brothers in England never used it once in my hearing, whereas I and everyone I was at school and at university with, girls & boys, were using it all the time. Fuck, also motherfucker and the direct yo’ mother translation, moren din, have in the past decade become quite common in Norway because of English-language media.

  84. Thanks for clearing that up, Bruessel. That would explain why I hadn’t seen Muckefuck on a menu.

  85. You may be thinking of Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb. He read the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit.

  86. You may be thinking of Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb. He read the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit.

  87. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: graffiti counts as a written document. Graffiti artists should be encouraged to date their work.
    I wasn’t thinking of the modern kind of graffiti as a popular art form but the ones as in Pompeii (on walls on street corners, in bathhouses, etc) which sometimes showed the very words that had been postulated as ancestors of modern Italian, French, etc words (in these languages a fair amount of standard vocabulary comes from Latin slang), and in any case showed a different kind of Latin than the one found in most written Latin works, especially the ones typically studied by generations of students (Cesar, Cicero, etc). The Pompeii inscriptions can be dated within a narrow range, as they cannot be later than the volcano eruption, and as you of all people here would know, there are ways of assigning an approximate date to the buildings on which they are written.
    Bruessel: Muckefuck: German wiki offers the etymology “mocca faux”, but I don’t know how likely that is.
    I think that it is extremely unlikely. You would not say moka faux in French, but faux moka (faux being one of these adjectives that can be used either before or after the noun, with different meanings, and for “fake” the adjective is before the noun). Even if someone not fully familiar with French had tried to create what seemed like a French phrase, there would be no reason to change the vowels or to add a final ck to make the fake French phrase sound more German, defeating the purpose. I don’t know enough German to make another suggestion, but that one is almost certainly not the right one.

  88. That’s interesting, m-l.

  89. marie-lucie: From the “Cannot (help) but” thread, you just now referred us to your last post in this thread, regarding the possible origin of Muckefuck. In that other thread, prior to your referral post, I had already described what is now regarded by German etymologists as the correct derivation of Muckefuck – that is, the derivation is in Duden.

  90. marie-lucie says:

    So you had, Grumbly, and after rereading that post I see that I got sidetracked by the twists and turns of the discussion of the supposed “mocca faux”, the fake French phrase on which I later concentrated my attention (the true “moka” and the fake “mocca” would be pronounced identically in French). The Duden explanation that you quoted makes a lot more sense, and it is all German, even if dialectal.

  91. because it was segregated for many years
    First of all, I wouldn’t call a word that was used only in private by a small elite group to be in “common usage”. Second of all, did no one ever say the word when they hit their finger with a hammer or get overheard accidently?
    I suppose there are still people in the world who don’t know enough that when they have problems opening one of those child-proof medicine containers that they should ask one of the kids to open it for them.
    No, if the f-word was being used at all, I would know. But of course I should still read the book. Maybe my librarian would order it for me. Would that get me on some FBI list?

  92. There is a story about a well-known English person

    Macaulay the historian. Like his later opponent John Stuart Mill (and for that matter me) he was a precocious reader who grew up with mostly adult companions, and whose vocabulary ran far ahead of his age. Trevelyan’s Life says:

    From the time that he was three years old he read incessantly, for the most part lying on the rug before the fire, with his book on the ground, and a piece of bread and butter in his hand. A very clever woman who then lived in the house as a parlour-maid told how he used to sit in his nankeen frock, perched on the table by her as she was cleaning the plate, and expounding to her out of a volume as big as himself. He did not care for toys, but was very fond of taking his walk, when he would hold forth to his companion, whether nurse or mother, telling interminable stories out of his own head, or repeating what he had been reading in language far above his years. His memory retained without effort the phraseology of the book which he had been last engaged on, and he talked, as the maid said, ‘quite printed words’, which produced an effect that appeared formal, and often, no doubt, exceedingly droll.

    Mrs. Hannah More was fond of relating how she called at Mr. Macaulay’s, and was met by a fair, pretty, slight child, with abundance of light hair, about four years of age, who came to the front door to receive her, and tell her that his parents were out, but that if she would be good enough to come in he would bring her a glass of old spirits: a proposition which greatly startled the good lady, who had never aspired beyond cowslip wine. When questioned as to what he knew about old spirits, he could only say that Robinson Crusoe often had some.

    About this period his father took him on a visit to Lady Waldegrave at Strawberry Hill, and was much pleased to exhibit to his old friend the fair bright boy, dressed in a green coat with red collar and cuffs, a frill at the throat, and white trousers. After some time had been spent among the wonders of the Orford collection, of which he ever afterwards carried a catalogue in his head, a servant who was waiting upon the company in the great gallery spilt some hot coffee over his legs. The hostess was all kindness and compassion, and when, after a while, she asked how he was feeling, the little fellow looked up in her face and replied: ‘Thank you madam, the agony is abated’.

    But of course this relies on oral testimony from much later, and therefore should be treated with some skepticism in detail, though the general picture is probably correct. I remember my mother (who died when I was 21) telling me I had said something equally pompous and far more arrogant, at about the same age, to a plumber who had come to fix our sink. Perhaps mercifully, I have since forgotten exactly what she said I said.

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