Word Nerd: Original blackmailers being blackmailed?

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“Scottish independence; Navy frigate contract will be held after U.K. split vote,” read an August 2012 headline in The Scotsman.

This story related how lucrative contracts to build the next generation of Royal Navy frigates would only be announced after the Scottish referendum on independence scheduled for autumn 2014. Not surprisingly, the announcement elicited this response from an irate reader: “So now the bastards are trying blackmail.”

’Twas not the first time the charge of blackmail has been levied against 10 Downing Street. In October 2011, Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney averred that Scots “should be able to take our decisions without the financial blackmail of the U.K. government.”

These two comments are etymologically ironic because the original blackmailers were Scots. The first definition of blackmail in the OED states, “A tribute due to farmers in Scotland … by freebooting Scottish chiefs in return for protection or immunity from plunder.” The “mail” part of blackmail derives from a Scottish word meaning “rent.” The “black” part of the equation comes not only from the age-old association of black with evil but also from the fact that the tribute paid to the extortionists came in the form of cattle, known as “black mail,” as opposed to coins known as “white mail.” In fact, in modern Scotland, “mailer” remains a term for a tenant farmer.

Mercifully, the Scots have given us words aside from blackmail. If your favourite slogan is “Make love—not war,” you are etymologically off-base. The word slogan comes from the Scottish Gaelic sluagh for “army” and ghairm for “shout” and originally referred to a war cry of the old Scottish Highland clans in the 16th century that usually consisted of a personal surname or of a gathering place. In Scottish English, it appeared as slughorne and slugurn and its modern spelling surfaced only in the 17th century. Its sense became generalized in the early 18th century to refer to a distinctive cry or phrase of any person or group of people. By 1859, Thomas Macaulay was using “slogan” in its modern meaning when he said in his History of England, “The popular slogans on both sides were indefatigably repeated.”

There is a host of words that have Celtic origins and it is impossible to say with great accuracy whether the word originated in Scotland or in another part of the ancient Celtic world. For example, in Scottish Gaelic and Irish the word brogue referred to a shoe or sandal. When the word made its English debut in the 16th century, it referred to a rudimentary shoe made of untanned leather worn by inhabitants of the Scottish highlands and Ireland. Today it designates a leather shoe with tooling patterns in the leather. Similarly, the word galore is also Celtic in origin; in Scottish Gaelic and Irish it meant “sufficient.” From here it was hardly a large leap when it appeared in English in the late 17th century with the sense of “abundant.”

Despite its association with the very English Shakespeare, another word that has a Celtic lineage is “bard.” The OED tells us that it referred to an “ancient Celtic order of minstrel-poets, whose primary function appears to have been to compose and sing verses celebrating the achievements of chiefs and warriors, and who committed to verse historical and traditional facts, religious precepts, laws, genealogies, etc.” Bard remains the word for “poet” in modern Celtic languages.

Some linguists claim the Celtic languages of Roman Britain had hardly any influence on the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. For example, David Crystal claims in The English Language, “Only a handful of Celtic words came into English at the time, such as crag, brock (badger) and tor (peak).” Linguist Loreto Todd, however, believes that the number of Celtic words in English is underrepresented. According to Todd, the view that Anglo-Saxons borrowed few Celtic words is “particularly strange if we remember that few of the Germanic invaders would have brought wives to England with them. We are asked to accept that Celtic-speaking mothers passed on only Anglo-Saxon and perhaps Latin words to their children.”

In any case, to commemorate Robert Burns Day on January 25, I propose we raise our glasses not only to the fine single malts the Scots have distilled but also to the colourful words they’ve contributed to the English language.


Howard’s most recent book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts. He’ll be speaking about this book at the Westmount Public Library on January 15.

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