Word Histories


With the installation of a Democratic Administration last January, young Republicans found themselves scrambling for new jobs and struggling for credibility. “We’re not just a bunch of stiffs in Brooks Brothers suits . . . concerned about where the next cocktail party is,” one twentyseven-year-old who works for the National Republican Congressional Committee told The New York Times. “There are a bunch of us who are seriously concerned about the future of our country.” Cocktail (a chilled drink containing a mixture of hard liquor and flavorings) may hold the record for number of purported histories. Some of the languages to which histories have been ascribed are Aztec (cocktail deriving from Xochitl, a Toltec nobleman’s daughter who delighted the King by serving him an alcoholic concoction), West African (kaktal, “scorpion,” because a cocktail has a sting to it), and French (coquetier, “eggcup,”in which a New Orleans apothecary supposedly served a mixed drink). But most authorities agree that cocktail probably has an English history. One possible source is cock-ale, a mercifully obsolete drink made by boiling a pulverized red rooster in sack and adding the broth and other ingredients to ale. The most plausible explanation is that cocktail meaning “a mixed drink" is a figurative derivation from cocktail meaning “a nonthoroughbred (that is, mixed] horse.” Hunting and stagecoach horses during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were usually of mixed parentage and had shortened, or cocked, tails ("A hundred good horses, both cocktail and blood”—Rowland Warburton, Hunting Songs and miscellaneous verses, 1859).


Shortly after President Bill Clinton formally dismissed William Sessions as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, last July, Sessions held a news conference at which he railed at “the scurrilous attacks on me and my wife of 42 years" which had resulted in his removal. The ultimate origin of scurrilous (characterized by vulgar or coarsely abusive language) may be in the Greek skairo-, meaning “to skip or dance,” which in Latin became scurra (literally “one who jaunts about”), meaning “an elegant, urbane gentleman or dandy.” (Alternatively, some authorities assert that the Latin is an Etruscan borrowing.) Because a scurra typically attached himself to a wealthy person and used flattery and sophisticated humor to garner favor, scurra came to refer more narrowly to “one who jokes, a jester or buffoon.” (According to Cicero, Zeno sarcastically called Socrates an Attic buffoon: “Zeno Socratem scurram Atticum fuisse dicebat.”) Because a jester or buffoon traditionally had license to use crude and mocking speech, scurra gave rise to scurrilis (jeering). By the sixteenth century English had borrowed either scurrilis or the derivative French scurrile, and scurrilous (or scurril) was usually used to refer to the coarse or indecent language of a buffoon (“What shall we thinke of skurulous, deceyptfull, byting, slanderous . . . wordes?" —George Gascoigne, Needles Eye, 1576).


Last July city officials in Des Moines invited residents to use a special hot line to report violations of the water rules in effect in the aftermath of the floods. “It sounds like something out of Big Brother, inform on your neighbor,” said one resident. “I debate that, whether people should be encouraged to snitch.”Snitch (to inform on someone) was originally seventeenth-century cant for “a fillip on the nose”—a meaning that quickly became obsolete— and also English dialect for “nose” (“Blaw thi snitch, an deean’t sniffle like that, Nicholson”—cited in English Dialect Dictionary, 1889). Snitch fits an old proto-Germanic pattern in which the sound sn- is associated with words involving the nose— seen in English in snout, snoot, snot, snuff, sniff, snivel, sniffle, snifter, snoop, snub, and snicker. Some English dialect variations on snitch: snitch-roots, meaning “nostrils”; snitch meaning “scent, odour" (“All to once her’ll smell a snitch o’ sage and ingins”— Sabine Baring-Gould, Dartmoor Idylls, 1896); and snitchams, meaning “a fit of sneezing.” Nose in British slang came to mean “an informer” (“They are frequently made use of as noses by the officers”—John Badcock, A Living Picture of London, 1828) and “to inform on” (“Nor was he ever known to nose upon any of his accomplices”—William H. Ainsworth, Rookwood, 1834), and therefore so did snitch.