The Etymologicon #2

Here is another selection from The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, book which looks at the unexpected connections between words. Here are some of my favourites:

Organic, Organised, Organs

Organic food is food grown in a church organ. Organised crime is crime committed by organists. Well, etymologically speaking.

Once upon a time, the ancient Greeks had the word organon, which meant something you work with. An organon could be a tool, an implement, a musical instrument or a part of the body. For the moment, let’s stick to the musical sense.

Originally, an organ was any musical instrument, and this was still the case when, in the ninth century, people decided that every church should have a pipe organ in it, for, as Dryden put it: ‘What human voice can reach the sacred organ’s praise?’

Slowly the pipe part of pipe organ got dropped and other instruments ceased to be organs (except the mouth organ, which, if you think about it, sounds a bit rude). And that’s why an organ is now only the musical instrument you have in a church.

Now let’s return to the Greeks, because organ continued to mean a thing you work with and hence a part of the body, as in the old joke: ‘Why did Bach have twenty children? Because he had no stops on his organ.’

A bunch of organs put together make up an organism, and things that are produced by organisms are therefore organic. In the twentieth century, when artificial fertilisers were strewn upon our not-green-enough fields, we started to distinguish between this method and organic farming and thus organic food.

The human body is beautifully and efficiently arranged (at least my body is). Each organ has a particular function. I have a hand to hold a glass, a mouth to drink with, a belly to fill, a liver to deal with the poison and so on and so forth. Heart, head, lungs, liver, kidney and colon: each performs a particular task, and the result, dear reader, is the glory that is I.

If you arrange a group of people and give each one a particular job, you are, metaphorically, making them act together like the organs of a body. You are organising them.

Thus an organisation: something in which each person, like each organ of the body, has a particular task. That shift in meaning happened in the sixteenth century when everybody liked metaphors about the body politic. However, crime didn’t get organised until 1929 in Chicago, when Al Capone was running the mob (or mobile vulgatus to give it its proper name – mob is only a shortening).


How did buffalo come to mean enthusiast? What’s the connection between the beast and the music buff?

To answer that, you first need to know that buffalo aren’t buffalo; and also that buffalo is one of the most curious words in the English language.

The ancient Greek word boubalos was applied to some sort of African antelope. Then boubalos was changed to buffalo and applied to various kinds of domesticated oxen. That’s why you still have water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Any ox in Europe could once be called a buffalo.

Then the same thing happened to buffalos that had happened to turkeys. Explorers arrived in North America, saw some bison, and wrongly assumed that they were the same species as the European ox. Biologically they aren’t related, and to this day scientists will become all tetchy if you call a bison a buffalo, but who cares? The name stuck.

Now, let’s jump back across the Atlantic and take another look at those European oxen. They were called buffalo, but the name was often shortened to buff. European buffalo used to get killed and skinned and the leather that resulted was therefore known as buff, or buffe leather.

This leather was very useful for polishing, which is why we still buff things until they shine. When something has been properly buffed it looks good, and from that we get the idea that people who spend too much time at the gym running around like crazed gerbils are buff.

An odd thing about buff leather is that it’s rather pale and, in fact, looks very like human skin. That’s why naked people are referred to as being in the buff, because it looks as though they are dressed in buff leather.

Some people really did dress in buff leather, as it’s a good strong material. For example, in the nineteenth century the uniform of the New York firefighters was made from buff and the firefighters themselves were often called buffs.

The firefighters of New York were heroes. Everybody loves a good conflagration, and whenever a New York building started burning the buffs would be called and crowds of New Yorkers would turn out to cheer them on. People would travel across the city just to see a good fire, and schoolboys would become aficionados of the buffs’ techniques for putting them out. These devoted New York schoolboys became known as buffs. Thus the New York Sun said, in 1903, that:

“The buffs are men and boys whose love of fire, fire-fighting and firemen is a predominant characteristic”

And that’s why to this day you have film buffs and music buffs and other such expert buffalos.

Beastly Foreigners

The history of English prejudice is engraved in the English language.

These days the Dutch are considered inoffensive, charming even; but it hasn’t always been so. The Dutch used to be a major naval and trading power just across the North Sea from Britain, and so Holland and Britain were natural and nautical enemies. Even when the two countries weren’t fighting outright battles, the English would subtly undermine their enemies by inventing rude phrases.

Dutch courage is the courage found at the bottom of a bottle, and a Dutch feast is a meal where the host gets drunk before his guests. Dutch comfort is no comfort at all. A Dutch wife is simply a large pillow (or in gay slang something far more ingenious). A Dutch reckoning is a fraudulent price that is raised if you argue about it. A Dutch widow is a prostitute. A Dutch uncle is unpleasant and stern, and only tight-fisted diners insist on going Dutch. That’ll show them.

In 1934 the Dutch government finally noticed all these phrases. They decided that it was too late to change the English language and instead made it a rule that their ambassadors in English-speaking countries only use the term The Netherlands.

The Dutch probably invented their own equivalent phrases about the English, but nobody knows what they are, as the Dutch language is double Dutch to us. Anyway, the English were too busy thinking up nasty phrases about their other neighbours.

Welsh rarebit used to be called Welsh rabbit, on the basis that when a Welshman promised you something nice to eat like rabbit, you were probably only going to get cheese on toast. The English also used to believe that the Welsh were crazy for cheese. Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811) records that:

“The Welch are said to be so remarkably fond of cheese, that in cases of difficulty their midwives apply a piece of toasted cheese to the janua vita [gates of life] to attract and entice the young Taffy, who on smelling it makes most vigorous efforts to come forth.”

By the same token, a Welsh carpet was a pattern painted, or stained, onto a brick floor; a Welsh diamond is a rock crystal; and a Welsh comb is your fingers.

When they had finished abusing the Welsh, the English phrase-makers turned their fury on the Irish, who made Irish stew out of leftovers. In fact, it was decided that the Irish were so nonsensical that nonsense itself was called Irish.

Yet the great enemy of England has always been France. We believed the French to be dishonest lechers, which is why a French letter is a condom and French leave is truancy, although here the French have got their own back by calling the same thing filer à l’anglais.

And when the English had got bored with just using the proper names of countries to insult them, they decided to think up nasty names for absolutely everybody.


Here are some pejorative terms for the European nations and their origins.

Frog Short for frog-eater (1798). Previously (1652) the pejorative for a Dutchman because Holland is so marshy.

Kraut From the German for cabbage. First recorded in 1841, but popularised during the First World War.

Hun meant destroyer of beauty in 1806, long before it became the pejorative for German. That’s because the Huns, like the Vandals, were a tribe who helped to bring down the Roman empire (the actual order was Vandal, Goth, Hun pushing each other from Germany through France to Spain and North Africa). Matthew Arnold called art-haters Philistines on the same basis of naming people you don’t like after an ancient tribe. It was Kaiser Wilhelm II who first applied Hun to Germans in 1900 when he urged the army he was sending to China to mimic the behaviour of their supposed Hunnish forebears and ‘Take no prisoners’, a phrase that’s usually attributed to him, although someone had doubtless said something like it before (‘I’ll be back’ is similarly attributed to the film Terminator). The word was taken up as a pejorative during the world wars as, though the Germans imagined their ancestors to be raffish and rugged, the British thought them beastly.

Wop (1912) American term, from Neapolitan dialect guappo, meaning dandy or gigolo.

Dago (1823) From Diego (obviously). Originally for either Spanish or Portuguese sailors.

Spic (1913) American term for anyone in the slightest bit Hispanic. Derives from ‘No speak English’. Or maybe from spaghetti via spiggoty (1910).

One Response to The Etymologicon #2

  1. John says:

    I’m intrigued as to the “something far more ingenious” that is meant by the phrase ‘Dutch wife’ in gay slang. Even the normally-excessively-obscure Urban Dictionary draws a blank on that one.

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