Our lunatic contributor



Ernest Weekley circa 1935



In the chapter Our lunatic contributor of Words and names (1933), the British philologist Ernest Weekley (1865-1954) wrote:

The correspondence columns of our middlebrow weeklies and of our two Sunday papers are the happy hunting-ground of the amateur etymologist. A few years ago he published the discovery that ‘nap,’ ‘a short sleep,’ was derived from Napoleon’s power of sleeping at will. It being pointed out by a sane contributor that ‘nap’ can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon, our friend retorted that the Anglo-Saxon word only applied to an involuntary sleep:—“We have therefore an instance, rare if not unique in etymology, of two words spelt and pronounced in the same way, derived from two completely different sources, but with meanings so similar that they may be confused even by an expert” (!) Another philologist tells us that the word ‘wallop,’ ‘to beat soundly,’ is derived from Sir John Wallop, “a valiant commander in Henry VIII.’s time,” who distinguished himself by “walloping” the French. That being so, it is curious that the word is not found so used before the 19th century. Not that a gap of a few centuries ever worries our friend. For about the last twenty years the name ‘Nosey Parker’ has been applied to the unduly inquisitive. The Oxford Dictionary is not acquainted with the gentleman, nor does it record ‘nos(e)y,’ except in the senses of ‘having a large nose’ or ‘being sensitive to bad smells.’ There is, however, a slang ‘nose’ meaning ‘an informer,’ ‘a copper’s nark,’ so one might conjecture that this Mr. Parker belongs to thieves’ slang. According, however, to our amateur philologist:—
“There is no mystery about the origin of the term Nosey Parker. It was born in the spacious days of Queen Elizabeth, when the original Parker was her first archbishop of Canterbury.  . . . Matthew Parker was a human ferret. He lived his life prying into other people’s affairs. But it was during his metropolitical visitation of the province of Canterbury . . . that the long archiepiscopal nose of Matthew Parker gave him the name that still describes the persistently inquisitive.” […]
To the student there is something almost awe-inspiring in the martial impatience with which the amateur cuts the Gordian knots of etymology. […]
The question naturally suggests itself—Who invents all these futilities? Is there some secret factory where half-wits are set to work by the Moriarty of a gang engaged in ‘uttering’ etymological fictions, or do the writers of these letters evolve their ‘anecdotes’ from their own inner consciousness? Do they believe in them themselves—Fingunt simul creduntque*? Is it a complex, or an inhibition, or a morbid libido, or what, in the name of Grimm’s law, is it? And why do editors admit such stuff into their columns?

(* The Latin phrase fingut simul creduntque is from the Annals, by the Roman historian Tacitus (circa 56-120), and can be translated as no sooner had they invented [the story] than they believed it.)

Curiously, Anatoly Liberman, the self-styled ‘Oxford Etymologist,’ has on several occasions come across, and accepted as true, explanations given by the “lunatic contributor” described by Ernest Weekley. For example, this is what Anatoly Liberman wrote in an essay on the origin of the phrase to pay through the nose:

Idioms are harder to trace to their “roots” than words. Etymology, though not an exact science, is governed by certain regularities (sound correspondences, patterns of semantic change, and so forth), but a search for the origin of idioms rarely needs the expertise of historical linguists. […]
The Internet supplies those who look for the history of pay through the nose with four or five explanations from books bearing the generic title Phrase Origins. All of them, regardless of their reliability, have a fatal flaw: they do not cite their sources. At best, they say it is usually believed or according to legend, but never add where they found the legend, who wrote what they repeat, or even approximately where the gossip originated. Only dictionaries of quotations try to discover the authors of famous lines, and their efforts have been crowned with great success.
This is what we can find. [Anatoly Liberman then cites and derides one after the other several explanations.]
An essay written only to declare surrender is a sad thing, but I stumbled on an explanation that, as far as I can judge, deserves being disinterred from the article bearing the title “Horse-Marines” (Notes and Queries, Series 9/II, 1898, p. 457).  Its author is Richard Edgcumbe. If someone is interested, at that time he lived at 33, Tedworth Square, S.W., London. I hope that his descendants or the present occupants of his residence (does it still exist?) read this blog every Wednesday:—
“Then, again, ‘Paying through the nose’. This was originally a common expression on board ship: ‘Pay out the cable’, ‘pay out handsomely’. The nose of a ship is, of course, the bow; its nostrils are the hawse holes on either side. Now, it does not seem very difficult (at all events, for a sailor) to associate extortionate disbursements with handsome payments—such, for instance, as paying out a chain cable (through the nose), especially when the order is conveyed in such a language as this, ‘Pay out handsomely.’ At all events, I can speak on this matter from personal experience as a midshipman. To my mind, ‘paying through the nose’ for anything has always been associated with the rattling of a ‘payed out’ chain cable, after the anchor has gripped the ground. Whatever the learned may say to the contrary, with me that impression will never fade. Now that the term ‘paying through the nose’ has reached the shore, it is natural that so obvious an origin should be lost. In conclusion, I ask to be forgiven for what may seem to be dogmatic in an old sea dog.”
In my opinion, “the learned” should applaud Mr. Edgcumbe.  His is a conjecture any word sleuth can only wish for.

It is unfortunate that Mr Liberman believes that “a search for the origin of idioms rarely needs the expertise of historical linguists” because, had he observed the earliest instances of to pay through the nose, from the second half of the 17th century, he would have noticed that their contexts are not nautical and that Mr Edgcumbe’s explanation is a later rationalisation.

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