World Wide Words
Issue 903: 13 November 2014
Feedback, Notes and Comments
Lilly-lo. Following my discussion of this British regional term last time, several readers were reminded of the German word lichterloh, meaning burning brightly. There are also parallels in Scandinavian languages, such as the Danish lille lue, small flame, which suggest that the first element may actually be a survivor of an ancient Scandinavian import.
I’ve expanded the piece and put it online here .
Boot and trunk. As a footnote to our discussions, a reader named Ian wrote, “A colleague told me that he once said the following at a car rental desk in the States: ‘I hired a car here a fortnight ago, and I think I left a pushchair in the boot’. He was greeted by a blank stare.” Puzzled British readers may like a translation into American: “I rented a car here two weeks ago, and I think I left a stroller in the trunk.”
Improved search. The back-issue archive at the new list server doesn’t have a search facility. So I’ve added one to the custom search box on every page of the website. Successful searches will display a plain-text file of one month’s issues. You may need to use your browser’s search function to find what you’re looking for within the file.
Q. I was in India recently at the time shortly after Diwali when very many weddings take place. There were festive wedding processions everywhere. Each featured the groom riding on a white horse to collect his bride. It got me wondering about whether groom in this sense has anything to do with taking care of a horse. Or maybe that’s what the groomsmen are supposed to do? [Ellen Smithee]
A. Groom is common as a short form of bridegroom . How a word that we now use for a man who looks after horses came to be linked to one half of a marrying couple is a classic story of popular misunderstandings — folk etymology — that cause language to evolve in unpredictable ways.
In Old English, a bridegroom was a brydguma, a compound of bryd, a bride, and guma, a man. Guma, which is related to Latin homo , was a poetic term for a man, which turns up in the epic poem Beowulf, as does another version of the same word, gome.
Beowulf (/ˈbeɪ.ɵwʊlf/; in Old English [ˈbeːo̯wʊlf] or [ˈbeːəwʊlf]) is the conventional title of an Old English epic poem consisting of 3182alliterative long lines, set in Scandinavia, the oldest surviving epic poem of Old English and thus commonly cited as one of the most important works ofAnglo-Saxon literature, and also arguably the earliest vernacular English literature. Wikipedia
By the sixteenth century brydguma had become brydegome (though the spelling was variable). This was starting to look puzzling, because gome had become obsolete, and people didn’t connect it with that old word for a man. On the other hand, they did have groom.
In the twelfth century, this had been a term for a boy or lad, with something of the colloquial informality about it that kid still possesses, though it could only refer to a male child. Where it comes from is a mystery. Two centuries later it had grown up to mean an adult man, but it had also taken on the idea of a menial male, a serving-man or manservant. In the 1500s and 1600s it could also mean a shepherd, sometimes in the extended herd-groom. Our sense of a servant who attends specifically to horses developed in the seventeenth century. People casting about in the sixteenth century in an attempt to make sense of this mysterious old word gome seized upon groom as an alternative, despite its often inappropriate associations.
A very few grooms had by then gone up in the world. Servants in the English royal household had titles such as Groom of the Privy Chamber, Groom of the Stool and Groom-in-Waiting, all of which survived into the nineteenth century. They were notionally menial — for example, the Groom of the Stool was an intimate body servant, as you may guess from stool (from close-stool) meaning a commode — but in reality they were high-status posts because of the close association with the monarch they provided. However, I doubt whether the person in the street knew much about these unique positions.
Groomsman, by the way, appeared around 1700 as the male equivalent of the bridesmaid. Before then the attendant on the groom was a bridesman or brideman. This is odd to us today, but from ancient times, compounds that began with bride- had often been used for a wedding, not specifically a bride. As with gome, people in time lost that connection and changed bridesman to groomsman to make it clear which person was being attended.
In view of the story above, the misprint that Al Segall spotted in a story in Jerusalem Online on 8 November seems relevant: “Welcoming the bridge and the groom back from the hospital.”
Another misprint suggested an unwise remembrance. John Straford tells us from Australia that his wife had received an invitation to an open day, which announced, “We will be commemorating Dame Nellie Melba with the unveiling of a plague in her honour.”
And Barry Prince found yet another in a subhead to a story in the Express online about Frank Zappa: “Fans of rock’s most avant grade figure will adore this 40th anniversary re-release of his cult 1974 album.” The French language police will be after him.
Zappa with Captain Beefheart, seated left, during a 1975 concert
Steve Cray and Bruce Ackerman noted this unfortunate sentence in the Mail online on 8 November (later understandably changed): “Robin Williams’ devastated widow was questioned whether he had practiced auto-erotica following his death, the Coroners report yesterday revealed.”
The headline John Emery saw in the police beat column of the Ellsworth American on 31 October didn’t sound quite so daft once he had read the story underneath: “Bottle in bathroom brings charge against local man.”
Almost equally puzzling was the headline that Sue Freivald found on the Fox News site on 11 November: “Man who took phone from a woman killed by train in custody”.