Wag the Dog.

I’ve known the expression “the tail wagging the dog” for as long as I can remember, but I had no idea it had a specific origin; Dave Wilton explains it at Wordorigins.org:

The tail wagging the dog is a metaphorical expression for a minor part directing the actions of the whole. The metaphor is rather obvious, but unlike many such expressions, this one has a definitive origin. It comes from Tom Taylor’s play Our American Cousin, which was first performed in New York on 15 October 1858. The play was enormously popular in its day. So that it gave birth to a popular expression should be no surprise. But today the play is chiefly remembered for being the one that Abraham Lincoln was watching at Ford’s Theater when he was assassinated on 14 April 1865.

The relevant scene in the play goes as follows, a conversation between the characters of Lord Dundreary and Florence:
[I skip the first part of the exchange — LH.]

Dun Now I’ve got another. Why does a dog waggle his tail!

Flo Upon my word, I never inquired.

Dun Because the tail can’t waggle the dog. Ha! ha!

The metaphorical expression, with waggle shortened to wag, appears in print within five years of the play’s premiere. From the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel of 15 August 1863:

[…] The man followed the nose on the same principle that a dog wags his tail—because the dog is stronger than the tail, for if he were not the tail would wag the dog.

Another early use, from Burlington Vermont’s Free Press of 15 September 1866 obliquely references the play as the origin. The mention of Dundreary’s dog shows that the writer expected the readers to know the play:

The Reason Why.—“What makes you think,” asked a “conservative” of a Republican, “that the new party will still be controlled by the Democratic party, and that we shall be called upon to support Democratic nominations this fall?” “For the same reason,” was the reply, “that Dundreary’s dog wagged his tail—because the tail isn’t big enough to wag the dog!”—New Haven Palladium.

Early uses of the phrase are often in discussion of politics, as this one from New Orleans’s Daily Picayune of 19 July 1872 shows […] It is perhaps fitting that the work that gave birth to the tail wagging the dog is chiefly remembered for an event it is associated with rather than for itself.

Now, that’s what I call successful philological investigation.


  1. A little googling indicates that Dundreary as a common name for a certain style of facial hair also originated in the same play. I’ve seen occasional references to dundrearies in various 19th C novels but had always assumed there was a real person of that name who made them famous.

    ETA: Dave Wilton says the same in his post, which I have now read…

  2. I had never heard the term (and don’t see a reference in Dave’s post, just an image of the man himself with his splendiferous sidewhiskers), but then I haven’t read that widely in 19th-c. English fiction. I see there’s an OED entry (updated September 2018) with a nicely detailed history:

    Etymology: < the name of Lord Dundreary, a character in T. Taylor’s comedy Our American Cousin (1858).
    Lord Dundreary was initially a minor character in the play, a caricature of an empty-headed English aristocrat. The actor who played the character, E. A. Sothern (1826–81), developed the role greatly into an eccentric fop with a host of comic characteristics, including an outlandish appearance and a manner of speaking which featured mangled idioms and humorous non sequiturs delivered with a prominent lisp (compare quot. 1862 for Dundreary swell n. at sense 2). This expanded character became the focus of the play’s huge success and created a vogue for the fashions and patterns of speech associated with it (see e.g. quot. 1917 at sense 1). Compare Dundrearyism n.

    There are four senses/subentries:

    I. Compounds.

    1. attributive. Designating fashions, clothing, etc., characteristic or reminiscent of the character of the foppish Lord Dundreary (see etymology), esp. designating the long, drooping style of sideburns popularized by the character and fashionable in the second half of the 19th cent., as Dundreary whiskers (cf. sense 4).
    1859 N.Y. Herald 25 Aug. 2/2 Hi head..is embellished by an overpowering pair of full grown Dundreary whiskers.
    1863 Sydney Morning Herald 1 May 6/3 (advt.) A large assortment of eureka..and Dundreary scarves, from 2s.
    1917 G. R. Sims My Life x. 93 Lord Dundreary came and saw and conquered. He has remained a type to this day, and his whiskers are classical. But we went Dundreary mad in ’61. The shop windows were filled with Dundreary scarves,..and there were Dundreary collars and Dundreary shirts, and Dundrearyisms were on every lip.
    2010 Sunday Times (Nexis) 14 Nov. Clerky men with cellulose cuffs, Dundreary whiskers and pince-nez.

    2. Dundreary swell n. a foolish, typically aristocratic or upper-class, fop or dandy, reminiscent of Lord Dundreary (see sense 1).
    1862 Manch. Weekly Times 21 June Suppl. 8/1 ‘Dweeed fwine girl, that,’ said the Dundreary swell.
    1964 Illustr. London News 24 Oct. 645/3 Sir George and the Colonel, those two Dundreary swells, echo: ‘Aw-yes! Awf’lly jolly!’

    II. Simple uses.

    3. A person resembling Lord Dundreary (see sense 1); a foolish fop or dandy, esp. one viewed as a typical representative of the British upper class. Obsolete.
    1918 Cent. Mag. July 345/2 We thought the English were stupid, more or less Dundrearys, and we stopped only too infrequently to ask how Dundrearys could manage such an empire so harmoniously.

    4. In plural. Long, drooping sideburns of the kind worn by, and popularly associated with, the character of Lord Dundreary (see sense 1). Also in singular: this style of facial hair.
    Also called Piccadilly weepers: see Piccadilly n. 2.
    1876 Belfast News-let. 8 Feb. 3/9 Two men came into her shop and inspected some whiskers, looking especially at a pair of Dundreary’s.
    1894 C. G. Harper Revolted Woman ii. 39 This fashion was the ‘Piccadilly-weeper’ variety of adornment, known at this day—chiefly owing to Sothern’s impersonation of a contemporary lisping fop—as the ‘Dundreary’.
    2014 D. Goodwin Fortune Hunter 159 His face was crimson under his dundrearies.

  3. Illustrated. These are some whiskers indeed. The show must have been a hoot (aside from one performance at Ford’s Theatre, on April 14, 1865, which was rudely interrupted).

  4. PlasticPaddy says

    US assassins are usually more considerate of the theatre going public. Although not always of the cinema audience.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    I feel that the times ought to finally be auspicious for a Dundreary revival, what? I mean, we’ve had four or five ska revivals since I was a teenager so surely we can fit this one into the programming sequence.

  6. My wife has already threatened me with dire consequences, so I won’t be the one to start the revival.

  7. It’s a Chester Arthur except the mustache is disconnected from the sideburns, which are somewhat longer.

  8. cuchuflete says

    Dave Wilton’s trail of evidence includes this:

    “ From the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel of 15 August 1863:

    It would be wrong to speak of its owner as a man with a nose, or of his face as having a nose to it. It was a nose with a face and a man attached to it. So far from the nose pertaining to the man—the man and all his specialties pertained to the nose.”

    For those familiar with Golden Age Spanish poetry, there is a resounding echo of Quevedo’s

    “Érase un hombre a una nariz pegado”. (Once upon a time there was a man stuck to a nose)


    “Érase un hombre a una nariz pegado,
    érase una nariz superlativa,
    érase una alquitara medio viva,
    érase un peje espada mal barbado;

    era un reloj de sol mal encarado.
    érase un elefante boca arriba,
    érase una nariz sayón y escriba,
    un Ovidio Nasón mal narigado.

    Érase el espolón de una galera,
    érase una pirámide de Egito,
    los doce tribus de narices era;

    érase un naricísimo infinito,
    frisón archinariz, caratulera,
    sabañón garrafal, morado y frito.”

  9. is this becoming a secret history connecting gogol’s Nose to Ford’s Theater?

  10. John Emerson says

    …. BREAKING ….

    The Ethiopians have zero (0) words for snow.


  11. I feel that the times ought to finally be auspicious for a Dundreary revival, what?

    Have you seen Noam Chomsky recently? (Also Julian Assange.) I’d say the revival is in full spate. Must be the lockdown/lack of in-person meeting/seeing no reason to shave.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    The Ethiopians have zero (0) words for snow.

    Kusaal, amazingly, has no word for “snow” either.

    The Bible translations render the word as sakuga “hail” (a transparent compound of saa “rain” and kuga “stones.”)

    Kusaal has no word for “island” either, for some reason. The Bible translations just explain the concept whenever it arises (“land completely surrounded by river/sea.”) “Sea” is, mysteriously, a Hausa loanword …

  13. The Ethiopians have zero (0) words for snow.

    Simoons is an excellent name for a geographer.

  14. ktschwarz says

    Kusaal, amazingly, has no word for “snow” either. The Bible translations render the word as sakuga “hail”

    What about things that are white as snow? (Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; other verses where clothing, hair, or leprous skin is as white as snow.) They don’t say white as hail, do they? Do they use something else white?

  15. marie-lucie says

    ktschwarz: Do they use something else white?

    Do they raise some white sheep or goats? Do they wear white clothes or shoes? Do they use white plates or cups?

  16. Surely, but the question is what the Bible translation uses.

  17. The most famous Biblical hail is actually tephra. However, the next scriptural appearance of hail explicitly contrasts it with snow, as part of a longer exploration of the water cycle. (This is from Job, chapter 38, where Adonai famously recounts many of the ways in which Job’s knowledge and capabilities are infinitely inferior, by way of justifying humans’ inability to comprehend why injustice exists.*)

    Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble, for days of war and battle?

    What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed, or the place where the east winds are scattered over the earth?

    Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no one lives, an uninhabited desert, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass?

    Does the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens when the waters become hard as stone, when the surface of the deep is frozen?

    (NIV, verses 22 to 30)

    * In Archibald MacLeish’s play J. B., the characters reenacting Job’s tribulation in the circus ring eventually conclude that these arguments are unconvincing, and that Job has to forgive God before the story can reach its denouement.

  18. I imagine bible translators, dealing with the plethora of languages spoken in hot climates, run into this all the time. Things have to not just be white, but suggest cleanliness. I am not at all sure that a white goat, or even sea foam, are associated with purity the way snow is.

    Even in ancient Palestine, I wonder if a fisherman on the coast, say in Jaffa, quite understood what those poets from Judea were talking about.

  19. ktschwarz says

    From a quick look on biblehub.com for translations of Isaiah 1:18, it seems that several tropical languages use borrowed words for snow in that verse:

    Indonesian: salju, borrowed from Arabic
    Vietnamese: tuyết, Sino-Vietnamese, i.e. ultimately from Chinese?
    Tagalog: niyebe, borrowed from Spanish
    Thai: hì-má, borrowed from Sanskrit

    And Maori has a home-grown word for snow. This answer on Quora sounds like he knows what he’s talking about: there’s snow and ice on Taiwan, and the Austronesian languages there have words for them. But the people who migrated to islands with no snow lost those words. Then the Maori arrived in New Zealand and needed a word for snow again, so they created hukarere, which seems to be from existing words for ‘foam’ and ‘fly’.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    they don’t say white as hail

    The Bible translators do that very thing, e.g. Rev 1:14

    Ka o zuobid pɛligi nwɛnɛ gungum bɛɛ sakuga nɛ.
    “And his hair was white like kapok or hail.”

    I must say this strikes me as an unfortunately literal version of (presumably) the English “wool or snow.” The Mooré version is even worse: pe-kõbdo bɩ lamdo “sheep-hair or cotton” (where “cotton” is Gossypium barbadense according to the dictionary; if so, it’s presumably a loanword from somewhere, though I don’t know where. Lameen may recognise it …)

    I don’t actually know what the canonical “white thing” is in non-translationese Kusaal, though it may well be kapok. Judging by a folk story I’ve got, the canonical black thing is a human being. (The canonical red thing is blood; there are only three proper colours, as commonly in West Africa.)

  21. John Emerson says

    In Vietrnamese I have encountered Tuyết as a girl’s name, and it seems pretty common.

    But apparently also the name of a kind of fish, probably cod.


  22. David Eddyshaw says

    “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” in Isaiah is rendered with “hail” and “kapok” successively, again probably mechanically rendering the English “snow” and “wool” respectively.

    On reflection, I think I’m falling into a culture-bound trap in supposing that there must be canonical comparators for the primary colours at all in Kusaal: for those other than the three “primary” colours (red, white, black) there definitely are conventional comparators, often shared widely among West African languages (“yellow” is “like dawadawa”, for example, and “grey” is “like ash”), but the main three are just what they are: to stress that something is really white, you’d use reduplication (piela-piela) or just say outright that it was whiter than anything else.

    On reflection again, the example from the folk story doesn’t actually show that human beings are the canonical black thing (much as I like the idea); in-story, the point is that the villains, who are looking for a victim to rob, come across a large black money-bag which they initially mistake for a human being in the distance as they’re walking in the forest.

  23. Hawaiian uses hau for ‘snow’. Its cognates going a ways back mean ‘dew’. It is used to refer to cold dew, frost, or snow. This is the word used in the biblical translations, including the Joshua verse.

  24. I checked the Austronesian Comparative Dictionary and couldn’t find it; I thought *hapun dew might be it, but there’s no Hawaiian there. My Hawaiian dictionary says hau ‘ice, dew, snow’ is from PPN *sau, but I can’t find that either.

  25. ktschwarz says

    “yellow” is “like dawadawa”

    A Google image search for dawadawa only showed me grayish brown seeds and blackish fermented balls. Finally found out it’s the pulp that’s yellow, not the seeds. Searching for “locust bean yellow pulp” yields plenty of yellow images.

    In a lot of South and Southeast Asian languages, the prototypical yellow thing is turmeric: in fact some words for yellow are derived from the word for turmeric. Proto who utilized turmeric, and how? in Austronesian languages.

  26. From the turmeric article:

    The implication of such outcomes—that the status of a reconstructed term is sometimes brought into question as a result of further examination taking related non-formal and non-linguistic aspects into consideration—is not to refute the comparative method. Lexical reconstruction based on the examination of sound correspondences is an essential step in linguistic reconstruction. However, what it implies is that, for linguistic reconstruction to truly contribute to an understanding of prehistory, linguists have one more step to go beyond the reconstruction of forms and even the reconstruction of their semantics (cf. Pawley 1985, Blust 1987, etc.). Reconstructed forms must be re-examined in the light of their cultural context to retrieve information that we may have overlooked during the initial search for cognate sets, and then integrate this information into our reconstructions.

    Very true.

  27. Then the Maori arrived in New Zealand and needed a word for snow again, so they created hukarere, which seems to be from existing words for ‘foam’ and ‘fly’.

    Oh that is wonderful.

    There are feathers falling down from the sky in the north according to Herodotus, and Herodotus adds that likely it is just snow. But foam!

  28. Hawaiian.
    Austronesian. This last entry seems to have been edited a lot less recently than the POLLEX one, and is inaccurate and unexplained. I haven’t seen Geraghty’s reconstruction of the term in Proto-Oceanic but I trust it is correct.

  29. John Emerson says


    The Scots do have a word for snow, but if this is real Scottish dialect I could get into it.


  30. marie-lucie says

    prototypical yellow

    Here is another one, from the Nisga’a language (Tsimshianic family):

    Xslat’aq’almo:skw :  Xs- like; lat’ bird (or similar) excrement; -a– LINK; q’almo:s crab; -tkw ADJ ; (stress on “mo:s”)

    or literally: crabshit-likened

  31. That’s beautiful. Even though I’ve never seen crab poo.

  32. marie-lucie says

    I have never dissected a crab or even prepared one for cooking, so I don’t know what yellow substance inside a crab could be identified that way, but that is how it is perceived in the language.

  33. Prototypical magenta

  34. The yellowish or orangish substance inside a cooked crab is its hepatopancreas. It is edible (if the crab is from uncontaminated waters) and delicious. For example:


    It is like the green tomalley inside a lobster:


  35. ktschwarz says

    Another Bible translation question: If snow is hail, what about Proverbs 26:1, “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, honor is not fitting for a fool”? There’s nothing unnatural about hail in summer!

  36. Here is an Interesting entry, under fars, on words for this substance in varieties of French (Chantal Naud, Dictionnaire des régionalismes des îles de la Madeleine, p. 125).

  37. The Mooré version is even worse: pe-kõbdo bɩ lamdo “sheep-hair or cotton” (where “cotton” is Gossypium barbadense according to the dictionary; if so, it’s presumably a loanword from somewhere, though I don’t know where

    Presumably -do is a plural noun class suffix here, leaving a lam-, also found in some other formations relating to cotton here. By lam-meoko, pl. lam-megdo, I wonder if feral G. herbaceum is meant, or G. anomalum?

    This paper has Mooré lamdo as the economically important species G. herbaceum, which could have been introduced prehistorically. Al-Bakri’s description of the Ghana Empire mentions cotton cloth several times. Here is a rich study of the beginning of the cultivation of cotton in ancient Africa and Eurasia, although there is no information specifically on West Africa.

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    Proverbs 26:1:

    Nwɛnɛ saa pʋ nar ye li niid bunib saŋa bɛɛ sakuga lit dɔnwalig saŋa si’em la, ala ka zɔlʋg pʋ nar nɛ na’asii.
    “Like rain ought not to fall in reaping time, or hail fall in the very-hot-and-humid-season-just-before-the-rains-come, so a fool is not worthy of honour.”

    The translation issue here is not the hail/snow but the fact that there is no word for “summer.”
    There are only two seasons in Kusaal: ʋʋn “dry” and sɛong [sɛ̃ʊ̃g] “wet” (roughly May to October), but within ʋʋn you can further specify sapal “Harmattan”, where it can get quite cool*, and dawalig just before the rains, where it’s so hot and humid that its difficult to think, let alone work, even for locals.

    * My elder son used to sit around wrapped in a blanket when the temperature got down to a chilly 20° C.

  39. So does hail not fall in the very-hot-and-humid-season-just-before-the-rains-come? What is their experience of hail?

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks for the lamdo thing, Xerîb. Gossypium herbaceum would make a lot of sense. (I’m not very surprised at the Mooré dictionary being inaccurate: Urs Niggli is no more a competent botanist than I am. Where’s Roger Blench when you need him?)

    Cotton clothing indeed goes back a long way in West Africa. I never actually thought about where the cotton came from before …

    So does hail not fall in the very-hot-and-humid-season-just-before-the-rains-come? What is their experience of hail?

    As there is no precipitation at all during dawalig (more’s the pity), this particular example at least makes sense as a trope for inappropriateness, so it’s not a bad translation.

    In general, my impression is that hail is very uncommon thereabouts (it may well be significant that the name for it is a transparent compound, rather than an unanalysable word.) At least, it’s definitely a very much less familiar phenomenon than snow is to Mediterranean peoples and those of us from the Frigid North. I strongly suspect that the Bible translators adopted it as a rendering of “snow” faute de mieux, being unwilling to paraphrase enough to get rid of the references to the exotic phenomenon altogether (which would have been my preferred option: but nobody has ever asked me to supervise a Bible translation, for some reason.)

  41. @John Emerson: That doesn’t seem to be Scottish dialect, just Standard English spoken with a Scottish accent.

  42. In general, my impression is that hail is very uncommon thereabouts

    That was my guess. So not a very useful translation then.

  43. sapal “Harmattan”

    This couldn’t somehow be Arabic شمال šamāl “north; north wind”?

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    Like the cognate Mooré sɩpaolgo it refers to the season rather than the wind itself, but in neither language is there an obvious language-internal derivation, so borrowing is possible. The etymon seems to be confined to Kusaal and Mooré within Western Oti-Volta (at least, it’s not found in Mampruli, Dagbani, Farefare or Dagaare) which could also lend support to the idea of borrowing. A change of /m/ to /p/ would be odd, but some undoubted loans have ended up pretty mangled (kʋkʋr “pig” is ultimately from Portuguese porco, for example), so it’s not out of the question.

    The sa- part of sapal is a prefix, phonologically. I don’t understand Western Oti-Volta prefixes very well. They are only found in nominals, and there are no productive derivational processes* of prefixation, although prefixes are noticeably common in certain semantic domains, like creepy-crawlies and unpleasant animals. Most prefixes are obvious reduplications, as in Kusaal tita’ar “big”, but the remainder are mostly of quite opaque origin. A few are clearly identifiable as eroded combining forms of nouns, like the pʋ- of pʋkɔn’ɔr “widow”, which comparative evidence shows to be definitely the worn-down stem of pu’a (from *pɔga/paga) “woman.” It may well be that other prefixed forms are originally loans, though for the most part this is entirely speculative.

    * Oti-Volta flexion is entirely suffixing** (apart from numeral-word class agreement), as are all productive derivational affixation processes (of which there are a good many.)

    ** Except that some Gurma languages, and Ditammari (independently), have secondarily developed noun class prefixes from proclitic “articles.”

  45. Thank you for this full answer, David Eddyshaw!

  46. Other wagtail flights of fancy:

    US 19-century newspapers “reported” a boy in Iowa who thought he saw the Dog Star wag its tail.

    A story “set” in England had a man staring at a stone statue of a lion and claiming he saw it wag its tail. A crowd gathered to check…

  47. “three proper colours, as commonly in West Africa”

    @David Eddyshaw, does “proper” refer to culture or language here?

    I think black-white-red symbolism appears in both the Bible and Muslim texts (and specifically redskins are likely Europeans), I do not know if it plays a role in Arabic cultures (and would likely need to ask them to learn it).

    In Russian “red” is the most unstable word. When I was a child I read somewhere that it is peculiar because red pigments were expensive and whether this true or not, I used to think of it as unstable.

  48. David Eddyshaw says

    does “proper” refer to culture or language here?

    All I meant by this is that Kusaal, like many of its neighbours, has only three basic colour words, of which the central meanings correspond to our red, black and white. This doesn’t mean that the Kusaasi perceive fewer colours than us, or that they can’t unambiguously describe other colours; it just means that any colour can be correctly allocated to just one of three terms. This is different from English, say, where to call something which is red, “green”, is an actual error, either of speech or perception.

    There are standardised expressions for other colours in Kusaal, like the dawadawa-yellow one I mentioned; these are very often identical in the neighbouring three-colour languages too. Depending on the exact shade and brightness, a “yellow” might also be correctly described in Kusaal as any of “red” (if orange-y), “white” (if very pale) or “black” (if very dark orange) as well.

    redskins are likely Europeans

    In Kusaal, normal people are “black”; I am “white”; southern Ghanaians can be “red”, as was the (perhaps mythical, probably real) ultimate founder of what eventually became the Mossi-Dagomba states, Tɔn’ɔs-zin’a “Red Hunter”, who was said to have come (with his fellow condottieri) from the Lake Chad area.

  49. “that any colour can be correctly allocated to just one of three terms. ”

    Thank you, this is what I was asking about! I was distracted by “analyzability” and symbolic associations discussed here.

    I mentioned Semitic sources because I recently realized (in the redskins thread specifically) that I missing something about colours in the whole region from the Middle East to Mali. I even do not know if Adam has anything to do with red:)

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    I even do not know if Adam has anything to do with red

    Assuming (for the sake of argument) that there was a single forefather of all current human beings, it is surely inescapable that he must have been what Americans call “black”, though quite possibly what the Kusaasi call “red.”

    I find that this argument greatly annoys both atheists and white American evangelical Christians. This of course (by the BBC principle of “balance”) proves its transcendental truthiness.

  51. John Cowan says

    The fundamentalists I understand, but why the atheists? Are these atheist multiregionalists, or perhaps even atheist creationists (by whom?). All the atheists I know of accept Out-Of-Africa.

  52. David Eddyshaw says

    I was thinking more of the pithy summary “Adam was black.” There’s something to annoy everyone there. If I could think of a more provocative verb than “was”, it would be perfect. Title for the best-seller …

    (It’s at this point I will find that someone has already written it, stealing my idea in advance.)

  53. Well, I mean the word, not the guy.

    The man was famously made out of mud, so maybe the man is Muddy Waters.

  54. David Eddyshaw says

    Also black. QED.

  55. J.W. Brewer says

    From a wikipedia section referencing the former times when “Caucasian race” was still a category that many anthropology professors used in their scholarship: “While Blumenbach had erroneously thought that light skin color was ancestral to all humans and the dark skin of southern populations was due to sun, Coon thought that Caucasians had lost their original pigmentation as they moved North.”

    SInce the vulgar Darwinist view is that Evolution = Progress (and Progress is Good), I should think the atheist/materialist white supremacist will thus be perfectly happy to be informed that his particular group has evolved more dramatically (even in a trait like skin color) from the Ur-Mensch than some other group has.

  56. David Eddyshaw says

    You may be right. I will have to seek my succès de scandale elsewhere.

  57. David L. Gold says

    @drasvi. I even do not know if Adam has anything to do with red.

    @drasvi. The man was famously made out of mud, so maybe the man is Muddy Waters.

    The Hebrew words meaning (1) ‘human being, person, man’, (2) ‘Adam’, (3) ‘red’, (4) ‘gold coin [ducat; florin; guilder]’, and (5) ‘earth, soil’ all have the same triliteral root, represented by the lettersא-ד-ם (alef- dalet-mem). Those words are (1) adam, (2) adam, (3) adom, (4) adom, and (5) adamah.

    The validity of the following thoughts (not original with me) remains to be determined:

    Adam being the first human being and the first man according to Genesis, the relationship between (1) and (2) is probably certain.

    The color of gold probably being too dark to be considered yellow (for which Hebrew does have a word), it was presumably seen as red.

    A belief (originally of the ancient Greeks?) that, to quote you, “The man was famously made out of mud” presumably explains a relationship between (1)-(2) and (5).

    Word (5) presumably arose before Hebrew had a word for ‘brown’, so that the color of the soil was seen as red.

  58. ktschwarz says

    three basic colour words, of which the central meanings correspond to our red, black and white

    Some linguists use “macro-red” or “red+” to indicate that the boundaries are broader.

    The color of gold probably being too dark to be considered yellow (for which Hebrew does have a word), it was presumably seen as red.

    Caution: “categorized by the same broad term that also covers X” is not equivalent to “seen as X”.

    There’s a large literature on what the expression “red gold” meant in pre-modern English: was it alloyed with copper? or did the word “red” also include yellow at the time? or was it figurative? or a meaningless convention? The OED (2009) came down on “pure, as shown by becoming red when heated,” but the argument continues: this 2015 paper on Cultural Color Resonances in Old English Texts says “red” had conventional associations of wealth and worldly excess, and that “red gold” is more about those associations than color.

  59. January First-of-May says

    There’s a large literature on what the expression “red gold” meant in pre-modern English: was it alloyed with copper? or did the word “red” also include yellow at the time? or was it figurative? or a meaningless convention?

    IIRC it’s not just English; here in Russia we also had червонное золото, literally “red gold” with a now-archaic word for red, whence червонец for a gold coin (a term that survived into at least the 20th century).

  60. I already began to write about червонное and червонец and then refreshed the page:) Well, I’ll send it as planned, just in two parts.

    @David L. Gold, the meaning”gold coin” is shared with Russian. Namely:

    When I was some 4 y.o. my grandmother demonstrated me her grandmother’s (or great-grandmother’s) earrings and said that they are made of chervonoye zoloto, that is gold with reddish and not silvery hue.

    Chervon- is a common Slavic for “red”, archaic in Russian. It is a past participle of a verb from a noun cherv’, “worm” (usually compared to vermeil < Latin vermiculum).

    Of course, chervonnoye zoloto is still current (in dictionaries and maybe in jevelry stores) but it was about the only time I heard anyone speaking about it.

  61. Lars Mathiesen says

    Danish has røden guld in “traditional” verse, originally acc.m. of the adjective (appropriate in contexts like jarlen gav hende røden guld). Some people say that Viking age gold had a reddish tinge because they didn’t know how to purge it of copper, and some finds do look a bit red to me. By Romantic tradition, pure (yellow) gold is still called rødguld by Danish goldsmiths, and the intentional alloy with copper has to be called rosa guld to distinguish it.

    (I’m sure the large English literature has covered the possible reasons for calling gold red exhaustingly, but I am trying to keep from looking it up at this late hour).

  62. Meanwhile chervonets “a gold coin” is still a widely used word. Neither I nor Wikipedia are sure what is the ertymology in this case. But a random click in Wikipedia (I was reading about “ducats” in Poland) gave an interesting result.

    Polish currency is złoty “golden” and the small coin is grosz <gros[sus] (a word still used in Russian in exclamations like “I don’t have [even] a grosh” and I think in Yiddish too).

    As Polish silver grosz was getting debased and the rate (according to Russian Wikipedia) went from 12-14 for a (mostly foreign) złoty/ducat to 30 for a złoty, in 1496 the king fixed the exchange rate which lead to bifurcation:

    złoty polski “Polish golden”, money of account, 30 groszy.
    złoty czerwonyred golden”, that is golden golden, an actual golden ducat coin (Russian Wipedia also lists a name “Ugric golden”, that is Hungarian golden alongside with “red golden”).

    It is someone’s (possibly wrong) explanation for some unknown to me Polish usage taken from Wikipedia, but it is a very interesting pathway, so it deserves a post anyway.

    Another similar word is (contemporary, that is 15th century) Goldgulden

  63. David L. Gold says

    In light of ktschwarz’s correct remark of 4 August (“Caution […]”), the sixth paragraph of my comment of the same day should read:

    The color of gold probably being too dark to be considered tsahov (Hebrew-English dictionaries translate the word as ‘yellow’), it was seen as adom (such dictionaries translate the word as ‘red’), hence usage (4).

    Such translations in bilingual dictionaries imply full equivalence, which is in fact not the case here.

  64. John Cowan says

    Some people say a man is made out of mud
    A poor man’s made out of muscle and blood

    —”Sixteen Tons”

  65. David Eddyshaw says

    A poor man

    When Adam dalf, and Eve span,
    Who was thanne a gentilman?

  66. David L. Gold says

    @ drasvi (4 August 2021, 7:09 pm). “Polish currency is złoty “golden” and the small coin is grosz <gros[sus] (a word still used in Russian in exclamations like “I don’t have [even] a grosh” and I think in Yiddish too.”

    The Yidish word is גראָשן (groshn), cognate with New High German Groschen and, more distantly, with Polish grosz and similar words in other languages.

    The word has survived in idioms, including proverbs and sayings, such as בעסער אַ כּשרער גראָשן אײדער אַ טרפֿע קערבל (beser a kosherer groshn eyder a treyfe kerbl) 1. ‘better a genuine groshn than a counterfeit ruble’. 2. ‘better to earn a groshn honestly than a ruble dishonestly’.

  67. PlasticPaddy says

    From “1066 And All That”:
    The Pheasants Revolt

    I. Objects
    (a) to obtain a pardon for having revolted
    (b) to find out which was the gentleman when Adam delved and Eve span (The answer was, of course, Adam, but the mystics of the Church had concealed this dangerous knowledge).

  68. קערבל [kerbl] is ‘ruble’? What’s the story there?

  69. קערבל [kerbl] is ‘ruble’? What’s the story there?

    There is an account here (A. Landau, “Sprichwörter und Redensarten”, Jahrbuch für jüdische Volkskunde 25 (1923), p. 344, no. 66).

    The ulterior etymology of карбованець is interesting too. Rather like Malay ringgit. What a great way to start the day!

  70. So kerbl is a diminutive of karb, which is short for karbovanets — whoda thunkit?! Thanks for that!

  71. And, of course, karbovanetz was a standard Ukrainian word for ruble in Soviet times (now they use hrivna as a basic monetary unit) and hroshi is Ukrainean for money.

  72. złoty

    By comparison, Russian zolotnik “goldnik” became a measure of weight, suspiciously similar to the weight of Byzantine numisma/solidus and its Arab version (dinars).

    I don’t know when exactly the transition happened (and in was incomplete, since gold content of coins remained a common application of this measure).

  73. Trond Engen says

    Colors are relative. Within the generally “yellow” color of gold, some alloys are paler and some darker. The darker ones may well have been called “red”. If the usual way to dilute gold was by adding a whitening element (e.g. silver), “red gold” would be purer gold.

    IE shares the man/mud metaphor with Semitic.

  74. @Trond Engen: There is rose gold, alloyed with copper, which is distinctly reddish. Like most gold-silver alloys, the gold-copper rose gold looks, more or less, like a mixture of the colors of its constituents. However, there are also some stranger combinations with exotic colors. I’ve gotten to play around with purple gold, which is an aluminum compound (although not actually a malleable metallic alloy), and you can apparently get bluish shades with admixtures of indium.

  75. Trond Engen says

    There is rose gold, alloyed with copper

    I know, but that doesn’t explain why “red gold” should be considered better than just “gold”, and the redness doesn’t have to be that red. On a limited palette, “red” doesn’t mean “optically red” but “skewed in the general direction of redness”. When we discuss things that have just vague differences in shade of color, we still use the basic color names, especially in comparison. Naively and without any knowledge of the astronomical cathegorizations, we’ll point and talk about red, blue or yellow stars in the night sky.

  76. John Cowan says

    Cf. cold iron, understood as ‘particularly good iron / things made of iron’.

  77. David Eddyshaw: This is different from English, say, where to call something which is red, “green”, is an actual error

    Isn’t that particular one an error in Kusaal too? I thought every language had a boundary (or boundaries) between red and green, so it is wrong in every language to call blood and (fresh) grass by the same color term. A better example would be sky vs. grass: can’t be assigned to the same basic color term in English, can in Kusaal, right?

  78. Xslat’aq’almo:skw… crabshit-likened

    My brother’s wife’s family speaks Tagalog at home and while visiting them just now, I learned the Tagalog word aligi for the yellowish-orange substance inside a crab, which is a common ingredient in Filipino cuisine.

    Learning this reminded me of this thread, and the comments from marie-lucie, whose contributions to Language Hat always delight me. Thank you, marie-lucie.

  79. I thought every language had a boundary (or boundaries) between red and green, so it is wrong in every language to call blood and (fresh) grass by the same color term.

    Not that I know anything about Kusaal, but usually in three-color systems, although the focal colors are white-black-red, it’s better for people with richer systems to think about them as warm-cool-red. So grue (or bleen) would be a cool color and thus equated with black.

    “Lavender grue, dilly dilly / Lavender blee / I will be you, dilly dilly / You will be me.” —me

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