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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Etymologies of Our English Names of Contempt

This might belong in EEBOnics, or it might not.

[Note: It does. See sidebar. Now back to that silly papist Rowlands, aka Verstegan --H.]

Richard Rowlands's A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (Antwerp, 1605) (STC 21361) is a book of early modern history that covers such topics, among others, as the descent of the English from "the ancient noble Saxons," the manner of living of "our Saxon ancestors," the coming of the Danes and Normans into England, "the etymologies of the ancient Saxon proper names of men and women," and "our ancient English titles of honor, dignities, and offices, and what they signify." But my favorite section of the book, by far, is its last: "The Etymologies of Our English Names of Contempt" (333-38).

Here are the words covered in this section (in Rowlands's spelling; you'll see this is important): Baud, Crone, Drabbe, Fixen, Hoor, Knaue, Losel, Lourdaine, Quean, Rascall, Ribald, Scold, Shrew, Thief.

While reading about the etymologies and definitions of these words is a fun evening in its own right, my favorite moments are those when Rowlands expresses his exasperation (or maybe it's befuddlement) with certain changes that have occurred to the meanings and spellings of words. To wit:
Quean. Wee often heare this reproachefull name of Quean giuen to a woman, and what it is I suppose few do know, but not beeing any way the appellation properly of a woman, it must then bee some other contemptible thing, and so I do fynd it to bee, to wit, A barren old cow, and no other thing, and yet it is now growne to bee in our language, vnderstood and ment for a dishonest woman of her body, or one that is spytefull of her toung.
"And no other thing," indeed! "And yet"...oh how the word is being misued by his contemporaries.
Crone. This properly is the appellation of an old yeow, and applyed in anger vpon an old or elderly woman.
I love that "properly"; you can almost hear the contempt Rowlands has for those who use this term improperly. He does provide, however, one explanation for how terms of contempt come into being and why they begin to be misused. In his definition of Rascall, he notes that "the il names of beasts in their moste contemptible state, are in contempt applyed vnto women," an exception being rascall, which is "the name for an ilfauoured leane and woorthlesse deer, comonly applyed vnto such men as are held of no credit or woorth."

But, for me, nothing tops his ruminations on the spelling of hoor:
Hoor. I fynd this anciently written hure, and I fynd hure, to bee also vsed and written for the woord hyre, and because that such incontinent women do comonly let their bodyes to hyre, this name was therefore aptly applied vnto them.

It is in the Netherlands written hoer, but pronounced hoor, as we yet pronounce it, though in our later English ortography (I know not with what reason) some wryte it whore.
"Aptly" vs. "I know not with what reason"--the essence of the Richard Rowlands etymological experience.

One more thing: when you all are next teaching Renaissance drama and poetry, you now know how to pronounce whore in the early modern English way. It's hoor, as in poor (or as in moor). Try it, it's fun: hoor. Again: hoor. Excellent. Good work.

[Edited to clarify pronunciation of hoor, which I'm not even sure is entirely historically accurate, but I like the way it sounds when it's rhymed with moor.)

  • At 7/20/2006 01:21:00 AM, Blogger Escalus wrote…

    Of course, you're presuming that there's a difference in my current pronunciation of whore and poor. Being from the western US, they're pretty much the same as is. Though you might mean "poor" to be pronounced similarly to "lure." In my mouth, those are very different words. So, should "whore" sound like "lure?"

    I like the connection between the words whore and lure better anyway.

     

  • At 7/20/2006 01:48:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Good point.

    In my neck of the woods (Northeast/Middle Atlantic US), "whore" rhymes with "door" and "gore." "Poor" rhymes with "moor." "Lure" rhymes with "tour"; they're close to "poor," but a little more "u"-ey.

     

  • At 7/20/2006 12:58:00 PM, Anonymous hay, we wrote…

    In my neck of the woods, whore sounds a lot like poor, but it's ho and po.

     

  • At 7/20/2006 02:12:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    But "the poor" should not be confused with "the police"; one's "po" and the other's "the po-po."

    And, yes, the STC lists the author's last name as "Rowlands or Verstegan," and he signs his dedicatory epistle in The Restitution "Richard Verstegan." According to the DNB (or, more accurately, to Paul Arblaster in the DNB), his father, John Rowland Verstegan, changed the family name from Verstegan to Rowlands in the early sixteenth century in order to sound more English. Richard himself matriculated at Oxford in 1564 as "Richard Rowlands," but he revived his family's ancestral surname after 1581, when he fled to the continent following his secret printing of Thomas Alfield's account of Edmund Campion's execution (the book was later reprinted in Paris, Lyons, and Milan). He lived on the continent the rest of his life and died in 1640, at the ripe old age of 88 or 90. The DNB calls his Restitution "a seminal work of Anglo-Saxon scholarship." So there you have it.

     

  • At 7/28/2006 12:24:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    It's a great book. Partly because of its all-out insistence that the English are really Germans. That's basically the first sentence, right? And every sentence thereafter, as I remember. Everybody turns out to be German -- the English, the French (if they only knew it), Charlemagne (properly and aptly Charles der Grosse), etc. Very funny.

    I guess changing the name from Rowlands back to Verstegan isn't turning your back on Englishness, because Rowlands, clearly, is just a French name, and the French are really Franks, and Franks are Germans. And so are the English. Right? Kein Problem.

     

  • At 6/06/2007 10:05:00 PM, Blogger John Barleycorn wrote…

    I have a copy of this book by Rowlands, 1605. It is a propaganda book designed to save Rowlands, who had a secret, illegal recusant catholic press in Smithfield, from arrest as English, by establishing for him a fake Dutch nationality. Complete with coat of arms at end to 'prove' his name was Verstegan.Actually, the common Dutch name is VerstegEn; 'Verstegan' is a contrived name meaning 'Vere concealed'.The Pied Piper legend is printed in English for the first time, with falsified details, and the date altered to that of the death of Simon Langham, Archbishop of Rome and Cardinal of Avignon.Browning fell for this wrong date in his poem.The name 'Shakespeare' (the first discussion of it in literature)is also built up in a chapter on the origin of surnames, in an attempt to convince us that it was a real name.And much more.

     


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