Word Histories


Even as they made it to the World Series last year, the Philadelphia Phillies’ reputation for being an odd collection of characters persisted. Speaking of the outfielder Lenny Dykstra. Lee Thomas, the club’s general manager, said, “Here, Lenny fits in without really being noticed a whole lot. He might be a freak on other clubs. but not with these guys.” Many authorities suggest that freak (an abnormally formed organism, especially a person or an animal; a monstrosity or curiosity) originated in a Germanic root that yielded the Old English frec, meaning “greedy, audacious, bold,” and freca, “a bold man, warrior, hero.” Free a became freke, meaning “a remarkable creature such as an angel, demon, or giant.” Freke supposedly then, in the sixteenth century, made the difficult semantic leap to the earliest meaning of freak, “a whim or capricious notion” (“I feare the fickle freakes . . . Of fortune false”—Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene, 1590). An alternative explanation has the Old English frician, “to dance,” as the root, which yielded friken, “to move nimbly,” and frike, “eager, brisk.” Frike or freak came to refer to capricious behavior, because whims are like capering thoughts (caper, “to frisk or gambol playfully,” is a figurative derivation from the Latin caper, meaning “goat”). Later it referred more specifically to a prank or trick, and was used in the expression freak of nature, the immediate source of freak meaning “monstrosity.”


In a time-honored union tradition, Newspaper Guild picketers on strike last September against the New York Post chanted, “Don’t be a scab!” as members of the production unions that had already signed contracts debated whether to cross the picket lines. The prehistoric root *skep-, “to cut or split,” is the ultimate origin of scab (one who works while others are on strike). The root became the proto-Germanic *skabb-, which yielded the Old Norse skubb (a scab), a word borrowed by English in the thirteenth century to refer to skin diseases with pustules or scales and to crusted dried blood over a wound (“Anoynte al his heed. . .til al the scabbis therof be wel tobroke”—Lanfrank’s Science of Cirurgie, c. 1400). Influenced by its derisive Middle Dutch cousin schabbe (a slut or scold)—brought to England, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. “by foreign vagrants”—the English scab became slang for “a scoundrel” (“Love is such a proud scab, that he will never meddle with fooles nor children"—Robert Greene. The Honorable Historic of Frier Bacon and FrierBongay, c. 1590). In the United States, in the nineteenth century, scab came to refer first to one who refused to join a union and then to one who refused to honor a strike. (Strike, “to refuse to work, in an effort to force an employer to meet certain demands,” probably derives from the former practice of lowering, or “striking,” a ship’s sail to symbolize the sailors’ refusal to go to sea.)


In the heated New York mayoral campaign last year, a supporter of the incumbent, David Dinkins, charged that “fascist” elements supported the Republican challenger, Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani responded by labeling the charge an “ethnic slur.”Slnr (an insult or disparaging remark) is rooted in the proto-Germanic *sleu-, meaning “to hang loose, be slack,” which is also the origin of sleet, slush, slug, sluggard, and logy. Something hanging down loosely behind gets dragged along—hence the Middle Low German sluren and the Middle Dutch sloren, meaning “to drag or trail.” And something dragged goes through dirt and mud. When English adopted either the Middle Low German word or a cousin of it, slur had two basic meanings: “to drag,” which is rarely used today (“Her soft, heavy footsteps slurred on the stairway as though her strength were failing”—Century Illustrated Magazine, 1889), and “watery mud” (“Yet it [work] may not be foule, being soyled, and slubbered with the slurre of a

rotten heart”—Daniel Dyke, The Mystery of Self-Deceiving, 1614), which survives only in slurry (watery mud or anything resembling it, such as wet cement). Because mud dirties whatever it comes in contact with, slur came to mean “to smear or sully” (“Its beauty would be slurred, its good things reviled”—John Owen, Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It, 1658) and then “to sully or depreciate a person’s reputation.” Speech, too, can be “muddied,” in a figurative sense (“His speech, which up to that time had been distinct, began to slur“— Rudyard Kipling, Many Inventions, 1893).