Saturday, September 25, 2010


A million dollar question at present is whether the Commonwealth Games will go ahead. My hunch is that they will – but it will be a bit like the Moscow Olympics, in a truncated form.

We were discussing it last evening. Apparently one of the Welsh cyclists who has pulled out had his spleen removed after a fall. This leaves him very prone to disease and he does not wish to expose himself to unnecessary health risks such as denge fever. Who can blame him.

This led to a discussion about spleen – the organ and the use of the word to denote anger; ‘to vent one’s spleen’. Anne got out my trusty Onion. Onion’s Dictionary of Etymology, a standard reference book for scholars, which has long been one of my well-loved books, large and on the bottom shelf. When I was teaching it was the source of many a lesson and established a life-long habit of pursuing word origins – a sort of lazy intellectual’s crossword puzzle.

But of late the books got too heavy to lift with my muscular condition. But I’ve discovered the internet serves the same purpose. Chasing the origins of words and how meanings have altered over time heightens my awareness of my cultural background.

For example, the simple word, ‘onion’. It derives from Anglo-Norman which of course came from Old French ‘oignon’ which in turn came from rustic Latin ‘unio’. The old Germanic word ‘ramsyn’ was replaced after the Norman Conquest. (Gentle critic! I summarise complicated explanations for my own use).

In 1066 on this date Harold the Angl-Saxon king of England defeated a Norwegian invasion force at Stamford bridge near York. He promptly had to march south to face the forces of William of Normandy, not yet known as the Conqueror. With Harold’s defeat, William’s feat changed nomenclature.

The same conquest added a two-fold vocabulary to the English meat diet. On the nobleman’s table ‘deer’ became ‘venison’, ‘pig’ became ‘pork’, ‘sheep’ became ‘mutton’ and ‘cattle’ became ‘beef’. Obviously ‘rabbit’ remained the peasant’s fodder because ‘lapin’ did not enter English.

Back to ‘spleen’. It too came from Old French from Latin from Greek. Definitely the organ ‘spleen’. But as to the feeling – that varies. One site says ‘regarded in medieval physiology as the seat of morose feelings and bad temper.’ Another goes back to ancient Greek medicine. But the linkage is clearly old. The water is further muddied by another Greek meaning, ‘mirth’. These are depths clearly over my head but I glimpse a sense of well-being behind this linkage.

But Onion the book has an advantage that the internet does not. The word ‘spleen’ is on a page with dozens of other words. The roving eye sees these and goes contentedly wandering and wondering. Last night the word ‘spitchcock’ attracted my attention. It is to split an eel and cook it. I’d heard of ‘spatchcock’, a fowl split and grilled. The derivation of both is from Old English. A hasty killing and a hasty cooking seems the common link. Both suggest a tasty meal.

I was just going to leave the ‘spatchcock’ search when I made one last hit. It can also mean in military usage to insert or interpolate. The example given is General Buller writing in The Times 11 October 1901. ‘I therefore spatchcocked into the middle of that telegram a sentence in which I suggested it would be necessary to surrender.’

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