Word Histories

Etymologies derived from the files of The Dictionary of American Regional English



When asked during his trial whether any “moral bells” had gone off in his head as he contemplated the diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan contras, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North replied, “I thought it was extraordinarily immoral to have put a force in the field . . . and then leave it in the lurch.”Lurch (a vulnerable or difficult situation) comes from the name of a French game, lourche, which was exported to England and was popular there during the seventeenth century. It was probably similar to backgammon, but no one any longer knows how it was played. We do know, however, that to incur a lurch (the French would have said demeurerlourche) in the game was to be soundly beaten, a meaning for which the word is still used in other games, notably cribbage. Hence lurch came to be used figuratively, to mean “discomfiture or a predicament.”Etymologically lurch, or lourche, has a sinister (in its original, Latin sense: left, on the left side) provenance. The French word was borrowed from the Middle High German lurz (left, wrong). The notion of left as weak or bad (as in a “lefthanded compliment”) and right as positive (as in “dexterous” from the Latin dexter; “adroit” from the French droit; and, of course, “right” itself) is embedded in the language. In Old English left or lyft meant “weak”; palsy was known as the “left-disease” (lyftadl).


The House Ethics Committee’s hearings, last May, on the finances of Speaker Jim Wright were shown on television, but not everyone on Capitol Hill saw them. Thomas Foley, who would succeed Wright, told reporters that he had forgotten to tape the proceedings. “I am a buff of electronics,” he explained, “but I never seem to get the recorders running.” A buff is, of course, an enthusiast or fan. The word originally meant “an enthusiast about going to fires”; the first buffs (c. 1820) were volunteer firemen whose enjoyment of fires and fire fighting was payment enough for the work they did. The term is a shortened form of buffalo, and while buffaloes may seem etymologically remote from fire fighting, they come into the picture in two ways. Early volunteer firemen sometimes wore waterproofed buffalo skin when responding to an alarm. They also wore buff-colored uniforms, buff being the color of tanned buffalo hide.


“The scarf-waving hordes present a complex, as well as a huge, problem: controlling the numbers; dealing with minor disorders; coping with hooliganism.” So observed The Economist of London in the wake of the tragedy in Sheffield, England, earlier this year, when ninety-five spectators were crushed to death at a soccer match. The term hooliganism (violent, disorderly conduct) was coined in Britain a century ago, when rowdy soccer fans were already a serious problem, but today it is probably used more frequently in China and the Soviet Union, where it is the term of choice for certain forms of illegal behavior, than it is in any English-speaking country. The Russians turned the word hooligan into khuligan and have widened its meaning to include political dissidents. An Associated Press story on the crackdown in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre noted. “Radio and TV urged people to turn in fellow citizens who engaged in ‘hooliganism and destruction. ‘ ” The Chinese, unlike the Russians, have not adopted hooligan or hooliganism phonetically into their language, as they have some other English words; the Chinese word that Communist Chinese dictionaries translate into English as hooligan is liu-mang, variously meaning “rogue,” “hoodlum,” “gangster.” That hooligan was the English word chosen by the Chinese themselves to stand in for liumang is possibly due, in the opinion of one China expert, to a familiarity with the term gained as a result of China’s once-intimate relationship with the Soviet Union. One version of the origin o 1 hooligan is that it is an alteration ofHooley’s gang, supposedly “a name given by the police in Islington to a gang of young roughs led by one Hooley” (James Redding Ware, Passing English of the Victorian Era, 1909); who Hooley was or even whether he existed has never been established. Another version is that the term originated with a rascal named Patrick Hooligan, who made the Lamb and Flag pub in the Southwark section of London his headquarters. Two well-known early-twentieth-century comic strips gave hooligan a boost in popular usage: one called Funny Folks, which featured a comic Irish character named Hooligan, and the better known Happy Hooligan.