Words with a Story Attached


Bill Keeth trots out some speculative etymology
I wonder if, as I do, you occasionally stall upon reading a particular word. Then, rather than continuing with the book or article you originally intended to read, you find yourself musing instead about the word in question. About its meaning, its implications – certainly, its provenance.

Take the word “companions”, for instance – as I did recently, from the JB Priestley book title that describes them thus: The Good Companions. Whereupon I got no further. With the book, I mean.

What the heck was I doing, looking to read The Good Companions, you ask? It’s 80 years old if it’s a day?

Ah! disdain not dead authors, I beg of you. Just because your doctrinaire local council seeks to brainwash you by means of a bye-law banning books more than ten years old, and W H Smith couldn’t care less about literature, good or bad. Ernest Hemingway, be it noted, was of the opinion that dead authors were his only competitors. So, grab yourself a long overdue break from the zeitgeist, the all-pervading Spirit of the Age, as exemplified by your Gruinard [sic] or (God, help us!) the Sun. Unearth John Braine’s late Fifities-based gem, Room at the Top; Nevil Shute’s ultra-mannerly WWII escapades (Pied Piper, The Chequer Board, A Town Like Alice); Tom Jones, Henry Fielding’s licentious 17th Century romp; Suetonius’s utterly scurrilous Twelve Caesars, whence Robert Graves brought I, Claudius and Claudius the God to our notice.

Besides some writers are invariably good, and John Boynton Priestley is one of them. If you manage to get past the title of the book, that is. For myself, though, I fell to musing about the word “companions”. That is to say, about “those who accompany one on a journey – a pilgrimage”, say; or (there being strength in numbers), “for protection on a business trip”. And so, according to the Latin word “panis: bread” which forms an integral part of this word, your “companions” are “those with whom you break bread – share your bill of fare”.

Anyway, that’s just one example of the sort of verbal drift I’m talking about, which on this occasion caused me to put down my copy of The Good Companions, un-reread apart from its title.

I can remember doing this on another occasion, too (perhaps it was in a previous edition of Life magazine), when I suggested that the Boer word “macha”: friend, pal (one of mere handful of Boer words that have made it to street level English, but no further – e.g. yonks: ages; ronk: smell; scran: food), is generally rendered “mucker” in these parts. Because soldiers from our locality (I like to imagine) perhaps landed in South Africa at the time of the Boer War to find a Cockney regiment already in situ and chirruping “macha” to all and sundry. Whereupon, given our normal understanding of the Cockney pronunciation of the “u” sound [butter/batter, mutter/matter, gutter/gatter] these speculative forerunners of ours assumed the Boer word in question should really be pronounced: “mucker”.

At which juncture of linguistic gymnastics, I would ask you to access the following snippet via your PC:


You’ll find it features professional basketball player Kyrie Irving, “Rookie of the Year” with the Cleveland Cavaliers – a misnomer if ever I heard one, since they certainly don’t ride horses. Anyway, in the video to which I refer you, 20 year old Kyrie Irving is made up to look like an octogenarian – Uncle Drew, as they call him, as he sets out in disguise to humiliate the members of a handy-looking youth team in downtown Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Mark well Kyrie Irving’s words of scorn: ‘These young guys,’ says he, disdainfully, ‘they don’t practise the fundamentals.’

That’s what he says, isn’t it? When he’s in the taxi: ‘These young guys . . .’

Or is it?

Listen to those words a second time. They’re heavy with that Yankee twang we’re all inured to. ‘These guys’, huh? Or, if we forget for a moment that this is an indigenous American speaking, and concentrate instead on the words themselves, what Kyrie Irving is really saying is: ‘These gars!’

Heck, gars is a French word, meaning: ‘lad/lads’, ‘young fella/fellas’. It’s a recognisable diminutive of the French word, garçon: boy.

Because, once upon a time, prior to the Louisiana Purchase, which took place some 200-plus years ago, there was a pretty extensive French presence in the United States. Nowadays, this fact is oft forgotten even though the French language has certainly coloured the way in which American English is pronounced in the Deep South.

So what’s the betting the French word “gars” travelled northwards over the years on the lips of drovers, carpetbaggers, emancipated slaves and others too numerous to mention. Then, upon hearing these newcomers employ the word, ‘gars’ ,the more-correctly spoken northern WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) reckoned: ‘Oh, that’s just the way they talk Down South; what they’re really saying is “guys”.’

Or words to this effect.

Anyway, listening to Kyrie Irving’s jive talk on this video, I’m convinced this is exactly what happened with the French word gars.

How about you gars ’n’ dolls?

August 2012

Bill Keeth’s books, Every Street in Manchester ISBN 1859880649 & Write It Self-Publish It Sell It ISBN 97809558863 are available from Amazon and all good book shops. Bill can also be contacted via his website, http://www.novelnovella.com.

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