Monthly Archives: April 2010

pet /’pɛt/

One of the problems with Social Networks is that they can take up so much time that you can end up being antisocial in the real world. By the time you’ve caught up on your blogs, Facebook, MySpace, twitters, plurks, and IMs, it’s time for a cup of hot cocoa and a trip to the land of Nod.

So the real trick is to limit your sociability and learn how to restrict your virtual life to something that’s manageable. Hence, I have the Word Guy blog (thanks for reading), the Word Guy tweets (thanks for following), and the Word Guy Facebook page (click on the link to sign up.)

But when it’s not all about me, I like to chat with the folks of “If You Can’t Differentiate Between “Your” and “You’re” You Deserve To Die,” a Facebook group for the linguistically pedantic – and that’s not a bad thing. During one of the recent discussions about the irritating phrase “a high rate of speed,” the phrases “pet peeve” and “pet hate” popped up, which got me to thinking about the origins of the word pet.

Bizarrely enough, the first recorded instance of pet comes from 1521 (or thereabouts) where it is used to mean the act of breaking wind – or farting, for the less euphemistically inclined. Scottish writer and poet, Andrew Barclay (1476-1152) wrote The boke of Codrus and Mynalcas in 1521, and in it included the phrase, “…Though all their connynge scantly be worthe a pet.” This use is rare and its flatulent sense comes from Old French pet, which in turn is derived from Latin pedere, which means “to break wind.”

This is the same root for Le Petomane, the stage name for one Joseph Pujol (1857-1945), who made a living as a professional farter (or flatulist). His skill was to be able to produce and control farts at will, and then to be able to get people to pay to heat this! Petomane itself came from the Modern French peter, to break wind, and mane, meaning manic. Thus, he was a manic farter – or, as others have described it, a fartoholic.

Le Petomane

But this is a diversion: The meaning of pet that we are interested in does not, sadly, come to us via this route. Instead, it is from the Scottish Gaelic peata, which meant “tame animal.” In Robert Pitcairn’s Ancient criminal trials in Scotland (1488–1624) we find the 1539 comment “…deliverit to Thomas Melvillis wiffe, in Falkland for keeping of certane pettis and nurising of the samyn.”

By the end of the 17th century and beginning of the 18th, the word had come to be used more specifically to refer to a young lamb. In 1755, Samuel Johnson’s entry for pet in his Dictionary of the English Language was, “A lamb taken into the house, and brought up by hand. A cade lamb.”

The meaning then extended to refer to any animal kept in a house for pleasure or companionship. Mark Twain uses the word in his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); “A prisoner’s got to have some kind of a dumb pet, and if a rattlesnake hain’t ever been tried, why, there’s more glory to be gained in your being the first to ever try it.”

In Scotland, the word pet was also to describe a spoiled child or a favorite. Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used it in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in 1894; “Dark or fair, she is my own dear little girlie, and her mother’s pet.”

The word took on a more affectionate spin as a term of endearment for someone sweet, obliging, or obedient. By the 20th century, this was a common meaning. For example, P.G. Wodehouse wrote “Do be a pet and go and talk to Jane Hubbard. I’m sure she must be feeling lonely.” (Girl on Boat, 1922) and it has spread from it’s Scottish origins to be in widespread current use across the UK.

By the end of the 16th century, pet had shifted from being just a noun to working hard as an adjective. Here’s where the “pet peeve” and “pet hate” constructions began. At this point in time, it was used to refer specifically to animals, as in a “pet dog” or “pet parrot,” but by the 19th century, it was being used more generically as an adjective to mean something that is “Specially cherished; for which one has a particular fondness or weakness (OED, Vol. XI, p. 626).


The humorous or ironic use of the word in phrases like “pet peeve” can be seen in Mark Twain’s 1880 Tramp’s Abroad: “For years my pet aversion had been the cuckoo clock.” And the phrase “pet peeve” is actually defined by C.H. Darling (1919) in Jargon Book as “the thing that  provokes you the most.”

It’s worth mentioning – if only as a gratuitously feeble excuse for trying to bump up hits on the site by the porn-trawling web spiders that look for such things – that in 1969, Penthouse magazine instituted the annual award of “Penthouse Pet of the Year.” Here we see the word acquiring a very specific connotation of the word as a noun marked by the attributive Penthouse, which is used correctly as a noun modifier so as to preserve the validity of the trademark.

Penthouse Pet

So if “pet peeve” is one of your pet peeves, rest assured that it has a long and glorious history and has merely undergone an emotional transformation to its current status of being a little passé or cliched. Well, that’s my current pet theory.


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slubberdegullion /slʌbʌdɪˈgəljn/

It’s a bit of a giveaway when someone talks about one of their favorite albums being The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis. First of all, it dates you. 1974 to be precise. And to the math impaired, that’s 36 years ago. And as Pink Floyd sang on The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), “And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.” Thirty six years, eh?

Cover for Genesis Lamb Lies down album

The Lamb Lies Down...

But putting aside the abject terror that washed over me as I realize how close I am to meeting the “Supernatural Anaesthetist” (side 3, track 4), I recall that this album was the first – and perhaps still the only – hearing of the word slubberdegullion. Now here’s a word that even if you didn’t know what it meant you could work out that it wasn’t very flattering. Why, even WordPress’s spell checker underlines the word in red, it’s poor little database unable to recognize it as a real word.

But real it is, defined as a  “slobbering or dirty fellow; a worthless sloven.” Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher use the word in their 1616 Custom of Country where they say, “Yes they are knit; but must this slubberdegullion (h)ave her maiden~head now?” They even define it in there glossary as “a word formed from slubber and gull.”

The OED certainly seems happy with the base being slubber, a verb meaning to stain, smear, daub or soil, which dates from 1539 and appears to derive from Dutch or Low German. In Middle Dutch, overslubberen means to wade through mud, and in Low German, slubbern means to gobble.

There’s also the word slabberdegullion, which appears in 1653 in the phrase “Slapsauce fellows, slabberdegullion druggels, lubbardly lowts (Sir Thomas Urqhart, The first (second) book of the works of Mr. Francis Rabelais. Again, there’s no need to know what druggels or lubbardly louts are to know it ain’t good. But here, the word slabber is defined as “To wet or befoul with saliva; to beslaver or beslobber.” Whether the root is slabbering or slobbering, the notion of viscous slime oozes through.

The degullion part is thought, by the OED, to be a fanciful addition, but in 1811, an entry in Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines a slubberdegullion as “a dirty, nasty fellow,” but writes the word as slubber de gullion, suggesting that the derivation of from a place – a slubber who comes from Gullion.

And remember Beaumont and Fletcher’s notion that the word comes from slubber and gull? The word gull as a verb appears in the 16th century with the meaning of guzzling, swallowing, or devouring voraciously. Guzzling and slobbering certainly seem to be made for each other, and tagging the noun-making suffix -ion to slubbergull gets us pretty close to slubberdegullion.

You pays your money and you takes your choice. Meanwhile, as I finish writing this, iPodded and listening to The Lamb, the track Anyway (side 3, track 3) is playing and mocking my sense of mortality;

All the pumping’s nearly over for my sweet heart,
This is the one for me,
Time to meet the chef,
O boy! running man is out of death.
Feel cold and old, it’s getting hard to catch my breath.
‘s back to ash, now, you’ve had your flash boy
The rocks, in time, compress
your blood to oil,
your flesh to coal,
enrich the soil,
not everybody’s goal.

Peter Gabriel: damned slubberdegullion if you ask me.

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panegyric /ˌpænəˈdʒɪɹɪk/

As a land of immigrants, the USA has no shortage of opportunities for celebrating other people’s patriotism. On St. Patrick’s Day, millions of Americans dress in green, drink green beer, and sing Danny Boy while tucking in to cabbage and corned beef. The fact that 99% of Irish-Americans have never set foot in Ireland and are blissfully unaware  that a real Irishman would never ruin a good beer by putting green coloring in it, has nothing to do with it. The mythological status of an Ireland populated by leprechauns, hard-working farmers, buxom redheads, fiddling gypsies, and thatched cottages will trump over any reality.

Similarly,there are more  Americans – or North Americans, as a Mexican friend of mine constantly reminds me – who spend time celebrating Cinqo de Mayo than there are illegal Mexicans in the US.

But there is one gaping hole in the calendar that is a missing opportunity: St. George’s Day. The number of Americans who can claim English heritage is substantial. The original war of independence was not “Americans” versus “English,” but “colonists” versus “imperialists.” Every Fourth of July I get the “this is to celebrate when we Americans whooped your British asses” when the truth is that many of the people doing the whooping were, in fact, English! Until the war ended, it can be argued – and I certainly do – that there were no “Americans,” but a collection of disaffected settlers who decided, rightly, that it was time to go it alone.

St George

St. George Slays Dragon

Of course, the English are not very good when it comes to celebrating St. George’s Day. Fewer Brits know the actual date of the event (April 23rd) than Americans know St. Patrick’s Day. For some reason, the Brits have never been good at the overt patriotism thing, mistaking patriotism for nationalism, I suspect, and eschewing the former for fear of being thought to be too imperialistic. The legacy of the First and Second World wars made the English wear the face of anti-nationalism, a reaction to the brutal National Socialism of Nazi Germany.

Patriotism is not a bad thing. And for the English, there is no finer statement of patriotism that the words of John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II where he delivers the following classic panegyric:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…

The OED defines a panegyric as, “A public speech or published text in praise of a person or thing; a laudatory discourse; a eulogy, an encomium.” This particular definition is supported in its first use in 1603  by Samuel Daniels in his A Panegyrike Congratulatorie delivered to the Kings most excellent Maiestie. Interestingly the first recorded performance of Richard II was in 1602, making me wonder if any reports at the time described Gaunt’s speech as a panegyric.

The word comes from the Greek, πανηγυρικός, which refers to a public assembly or festival, often in praise of a particular god. This was a πανήγυρις. Breaking it down further, pan (παν) means all, and agyris (ἂγυρις) is a modified form of the Attic-Ionian agora (ὰγορά) meaning assembly or marketplace. So in essence, a panegyric is a speech fit for all assembled.

Athens Agora

Jane Austen was not unfamiliar with the word. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennett is talking of Mr. Bingley  in positive terms when Austen writes, “This introduced a panegyric from Jane on his diffidence, and the little value he put on his own good qualities.”

And it isn’t a word reserved for stuffy writers and obsessed lexicographers. In Rainbow Six (1998) Tom Clancy wrote, “Popov knocked back four stiff vodkas while watching the local television news, followed by an editorial panegyric to the efficiency of the local police.”

Someone who delivers a panegyric can be called a panegyrist, where the ever-popular and ever-useful Greek suffix, –ist (-ιστῄς) works its magic of turning a word into a noun – in this case to describe someone who delivers a panegyric.

Other uses of the word exist but are pretty rare. The alternative noun, panegyry, popped up in 1602 but then infrequently over the years to the point that it would be hard to find it in modern literature. With a ghit of only 5,300, even the mighty Google asks “Did you mean panegyric?”

So for those of you looking for a weekend panegyric to the Golden Age of movies, why not treat yourself to a viewing of Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, an homage to the art of movie making and a delightful way to spend an evening with your big screen TV.

Cinema Paradiso

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