World Wide Words Issue 844 – WIF Style

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 World Wide Words Issue 844Issue




1. Feedback, Notes and Comments.

2. Velleity.

3. Agog.

4. Sic!


Pony up Readers pointed out that a number of competing theories exist for why pony should have become associated with money. We may disregard the one that says £25 was the cost of a small horse in the eighteenth century, as that would have been a hugely inflated price. David Coe reminded me of the widely believed story that it derives from the days of the Raj, when the 25-rupee Indian banknote was said to have had a picture of a horse on it. Nobody, so far as I know, has ever found an example of such a note. (The same applies to monkey, slang for £500, which is said to have derived from the 500-rupee note.)

Amy Livingston mentioned another story, that pony is a shortened form of the Latin words legem pone (in the second, the vowels are roughly as in English hot and met), the first two words of the fifth part of Psalm 119. Its first line is “Legem pone mihi Domine viam iustificationum tuarum” (“Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes”). The Oxford English Dictionary says that this used to begin the psalms at Matins on the 25th day of the month. It became linked in particular with 25 March, the first quarter day of the year, and hence to the settlement of debts. The OED adds that it became used “as an allusive expression for payment of money or cash down”. It appears for the first time in Thomas Tusser’s A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandry of 1570. The OED has no citations after 1694, which is a century before pony starts to be recorded in its monetary sense. Caution is needed because of the gap, but as pone was said very much like pony, the abbreviation of legem pone followed by creation of the noun and verb seem so probable as to be almost inevitable. It’s notable that in many of the early examples the word is spelled poney, implying that its users knew it was not the same word as pony.

This may have blended with the idea of a pony being a small horse and by extension a small amount of anything. This can be traced back to the early eighteenth century, when pony is first recorded in the sense of a small measure of alcohol. This sense is still known. Walter Frank pointed out: “in Australia a pony of beer is the smallest measure available.” Larry Larson wrote, “A quarter-size keg of beer is referred to as a pony keg in the US.”

Further to my mention of Spanish as a slang term for money, Nick Humez commented, “The shortage of hard currency in the American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was so acute that Spanish dollars (8-real coins) circulated, many of them booty from privateering, and were widely used in lieu of, and even in preference to, British money. If so, there may be even earlier attestations for Spanish than Grose awaiting discovery on both sides of the pond.” Emery Fletcher added, “I think you’ll find that in the US, actual Spanish-coined silver dollars were in use as late as the last decades of the nineteenth century, possibly even more recently in the Southwest. Around here in New Mexico, pony up the Spanish might have sounded contemporary into the 1940s.”

2. Velleity/vɛˈliːɪtɪ/

This is mere inclination, a wish or desire that lacks the strength to overcome personal inertia. It is the ultimate inaction, far more so than procrastination, which is merely the postponement of action you know to be necessary. If you make a new year’s resolution to get fit but never even look into joining a gym, that’s velleity. If a notion to write a novel intrigues you, but you do nothing about it, that’s velleity.

Congress often contents itself with enacting “velleities” such as the wish in the 900-page Dodd-Frank financial reform act that “all consumers have access to markets for consumer financial products and services … (that are) fair, transparent, and competitive.”
The Virginian-Pilot, 7 Jun. 2012.

If the wish is father to the deed then velleity is childless. It is the impotent relative of volition, using one’s will. Surprisingly for two near opposites, velleity and volition share an origin. Both are from the Latin irregular verb velle, to will or wish, though volition comes directly from volo, I wish. The English word benevolent is from the same verb, literally well-wishing.

You’ll not find it much used, as it’s restricted to those with large vocabularies or the readiness to browse the less travelled pages of dictionaries.

3. Agog

Q From Gordon Keen: I am all agog to discover the derivation of agog.

A Neatly put …

It comes, like much of our language, from French. Middle French had gogue, entertainment, fun or amusement. From this developed en gogues, in good humour. English took it in and gave it a home, but changed the first element to on and then to a-, at the same time shortening the unpronounced ending.

It’s not a word that many people know or use. Standard dictionaries say it has the sense that you’re using — eager or curious to hear or see something. All agog (“I was all agog to discover who the new Dr Who would be”) has an air of bouncy immature anticipation about it that makes it difficult to use in serious contexts.

Looking around, I discovered that because it is uncommon but rather a fun word to throw out, agog is having serious identity issues. Typical of recent usage was a headline in the Irish Times in 2011, “Americans left agog at confused cruelty of Irish abortion law”. To me, agog can’t mean “astonished”, but its entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, revised in 2012, says it now can. There’s also the alliterative compound agog and aghast, or aghast and agog, which seems destined to become a set phrase:

The discovery that Frankie Dettori had failed a drugs test, at Longchamp in September, left his peers agog and aghast.
The Independent, 15 Nov 2012.

This feels quite wrong — agog for me lacks the implications of shock and horror that accompany aghast. Might its users have been confusing it with goggle?

Incidentally, a related Middle French form was à gogo, uninhibitedly or joyfully, probably formed from gogue by reduplication. This is still in the language and appeared in Paris in 1952 in the name of the nightclub and pioneering discotheque called the Whisky à Gogo (that is, Whisky Galore, presumably from the film of the book of the same title by Compton Mackenzie). The entertainment format became fashionable and it and the name were brought into English, leading to the modified version a-go-go appearing all over the place during the 1960s as a fashionable creation.

4. Sic!


• “A nice homonym appeared in the Express and Star of Wolverhampton on 2 August,” Alan Harrison reported. “The valuables stolen in a burglary included a ‘cygnet ring’.”

• A story of 2 August in the Press-Telegram of Long Beach, California about a sandwich contest at a market caught the eye of Kitty Fries: “Janet Swenson, a 52-year-old resident of Fallbrook, brought a filet mignon goat cheese sandwich to the table. ‘It’s something you can drink with a beer or cabernet,’ Swenson said.”

• Jane Irish Nelson came across this sentence in Murder for Choir by Joelle Charbonneau (in which Killer is a poodle): “Killer gave the officers the evil eye as they walked past him gnawing on a doughnut-shaped rawhide.”

• Peter Mortimer found this cricket report on the BBC website on 3 August: “On three occasions, thick inside edges avoided the stumps and raced to the fence, while a brace of airy heaves into the leg side somehow dissected the outfielders.”

World Wide Words Issue 844 – WIF Style

World Wide Words Issue 843 – WIF Style

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World Wide Words





1. Culprit.

2. Pony up.

3. Sic!


1. Culprit

This is a common word with a strange genesis, arising out of an old legal abbreviation, compounded by popular etymology.

When England was conquered by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings, French became the language of the law. It remained in use among lawyers even after the language of the courts changed to English in the fourteenth century, latterly in a stylised and degenerate form called law French. Fragments of law French survive even to this day in parliamentary proceedings. Culprit is another survivor.

The records are sparse, but the usual explanation goes like this: if a prisoner in a medieval court pleaded not guilty to the charge, the prosecutor would respond with the words, Culpable: prest d’averrer nostre bille, which may loosely be translated as “We believe him to be guilty and I am ready to prove the charge”. This was recorded in the court rolls as cul prest or cul prist.

The two key words are culpable and prest. The former remains in English in the sense “deserving of blame”, ultimately from Latin culpa, blame or fault. Prest is Anglo-Norman, meaning “ready”, which survived in English until the eighteenth century, but which has become prêt in modern French (as in prêt à manger, ready to eat, or prêt à porter, ready to wear).

The abbreviation cul prest became modified down the years and was somehow misunderstood very late on in the history of law French to be the way that the accused was to be addressed. It turns up first in the record of the trial in 1678 of the Earl of Pembroke for murder; he was asked: “Culprit, how will you be tried?”

Culprit became part of the language in the sense of the accused person. During the following century people came to believe that it meant a guilty person, perhaps in part because of a confusion with culpa.

2. Pony up


Q From David Shapiro: Where does pony up come from?

A This is a classic American expression, but one now widely known in other parts of the English-speaking world. To pony up means to pay what you owe or settle your debt. It usually refers to a smallish sum of money:

The promotion offers Virginians 16 and older the chance to fish without a license for three days in the hopes some of those folks will have so much fun they’ll decide to pony up a few bucks for the privilege of fishing for the next 12 months.
The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Virginia), 2 Jun. 2013.

It dates from the early nineteenth century. This is the earliest example so far known:

The afternoon, before the evening, the favoured gentlemen are walking rapidly into the merchant-tailors shops, and very slowly out, unless they ponied up the Spanish.
The Rural Magazine and Farmer’s Monthly Museum, May 1819.

(Spanish here is slang for money, a term known a little earlier in Britain — Francis Grose recorded it in the 1788 edition of his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. It’s short for Spanish money, from an association of Spain with rich treasure fleets, doubloons and pieces of eight.)

It seems very likely that pony similarly derives from English slang. It appears in several works at about the same time, including the 1796 edition of Grose’s book. It also turns up in another famous work, which will expand even further your knowledge of long-obsolete slang terms for money:

It’s everything now o’days to be able to flash the screens — sport the rhino — show the needful — post the pony — nap the rent — stump the pewter.
Tom and Jerry, by W T Moncrieff, 1821.

The presumption is that it comes from the equine pony because it was a small horse, as relatively small as the sums of money which users were concerned with. Among the moneyed classes a pony at this time meant 25 guineas (later 25 pounds), a very large amount at the time by most people’s standards, but presumably not thought excessive by individuals who paid their bills in guineas. Horses for courses, you might say.

3. Sic!


• “The quote below,” emailed Hal Norvell, “is from a local newspaper here in central Maine. The source is the Associated Press. ‘A court in Cameroon found two men guilty under the country’s law banning gay sex on Tuesday, a lawyer said ….’”

• Nancy Miller found this in the Premier Traveler magazine for June & July, reviewing ANA business class: “The meal was expertly finished off with a decedent Pierre Hermé Paris dessert: vanilla and dulce de leche ice cream with raspberry sauce.”

• Speaking of decedents, the New York Times obituary of 26 June for the photographer Bert Stern contained this sentence, Kate Schubart reports: “His death was confirmed by Shannah Laumeister, a longtime friend, who said she and Mr. Stern had been secretly married since 2009. No cause was given.”

• It-could-have-been-better-punctuated department: in a story about acute oak decline, a bacterial disease which is afflicting British trees, the Guardian on 16 July referred to “Brian Muelaner, an ancient oak adviser at the National Trust.”

• Detlef Pelz read a Reuters report dated 1 August on the website of The Age in Australia: “Mr Chong’s lawyers have said that he was arrested at the home of friend during a raid by a drug enforcement task force investigating an ecstasy trafficking ring that included DEA agents, sheriff’s deputies and San Diego police officers.”

World Wide Words Issue 843 – WIF Style