The Etymologicon (Penguin Group, 2012) by Mark Forsyth is a completely unauthorized guide to the strange underpinnings of the English language. It explains: how you get from “gruntled” to “disgruntled”; why you are absolutely right to believe that your meager salary barely covers “money for salt”; how the biggest chain of coffee shops in the world (hint: Seattle) connects to whaling in Nantucket; and what precisely the Rolling Stones have to do with gardening. The excerpt below comes from the book’s first three sections.
A Turn-up for the Books
This is a book. The glorious insanities of the English language mean that you can do all sorts of odd and demeaning things to a book. You can cook it. You can bring a criminal to it, or, if the criminal refuses to be brought, you can throw it at him. You may even take a leaf out of it, the price of lavatory paper being what it is. But there is one thing that you can never do to a book like this. Try as and how you might, you cannot turn up for it. Because a turn-up for the books has nothing, directly, to do with the ink-glue-and-paper affair that this is (that is, unless you’re terribly modern and using a Kindle or somesuch). It’s a turn-up for the bookmakers.
Any child who sees the bookmaker’s facing the bookshop across the High Street will draw the seemingly logical conclusion. And a bookmaker was, once, simply somebody who stuck books together. Indeed, the term bookmaker used to be used to describe the kind of writer who just pumps out one shelf-filler after another with no regard for the exhaustion of the reading public. Thomas More observed in1533 that “of newe booke makers there are now moe then ynough.” Luckily for the book trade, More was beheaded a couple of years later.
The modern sense of the bookmaker as a man who takes bets originated on the racecourses of Victorian Britain. The bookmaker would accept bets from anyone who wanted to lay them, and note them all down in a big betting book. Meanwhile, a turn-up was just a happy chance. A dictionary of slang from 1873 thoughtfully gives us this definition:
Turn up an unexpected slice of luck. Among sporting men bookmakers are said to have a turn up when an unbacked horse wins.
So, which horses are unbacked? Those with the best (i.e., longest) odds. Almost nobody backs a horse at a thousand to one.
This may seem a rather counterintuitive answer. Odds of a thousand to one are enough to tempt even a saint to stake his halo, but that’s because saints don’t know anything about gambling and horseflesh. Thousand-to-one shots never, ever come in. Every experienced gambler knows that a race is very often won by the favourite, which will of course have short odds. Indeed, punters want to back a horse that’s so far ahead of the field he merely needs to be shooed over the line. Such a horse is a shoo-in.
So you pick the favourite, and you back it. Nobody but a fool backs a horse that’s unlikely to win. So when such an unfancied nag romps over the finish line, it’s a turn-up for the books, because the bookies won’t have to pay out.
Not that the bookmakers need much luck. They always win. There will always be many more bankrupt gamblers than bookies. You’re much better off in a zero-sum game, where the players pool their money and the winner takes all. Pooling your money began in France, and has nothing whatsoever to do with swimming pools, and a lot to do with chickens and genetics.
A Game of Chicken
Gambling in medieval France was a simple business. All you needed were some friends, a pot, and a chicken. In fact, you didn’t need friends—you could do this with your enemies— but the pot and the chicken were essential.
First, each person puts an equal amount of money in the pot. Nobody should on any account make a joke about a poultry sum. Shoo the chicken away to a reasonable distance. What’s a reasonable distance? About a stone’s throw.
Next, pick up a stone.
Now, you all take turns hurling stones at that poor bird, which will squawk and flap and run about. The first person to hit the chicken wins all the money in the pot. You then agree never to mention any of this to an animal rights campaigner.
That’s how the French played a game of chicken. The French, though, being French, called it a game of poule, which is French for chicken. And the chap who had won all the money had therefore won the jeu de poule.
The term got transferred to other things. At card games, the pot of money in the middle of the table came to be known as the poule. English gamblers picked the term up and brought it back with them in the seventeenth century. They changed the spelling to pool, but they still had a pool of money in the middle of the table.
It should be noted that this pool of money has absolutely nothing to do with a body of water. Swimming pools, rock pools and Liverpools are utterly different things.
Back to gambling. When billiards became a popular sport, people started to gamble on it, and this variation was known as pool, hence shooting pool. Then, finally, that poor French chicken broke free from the world of gambling and soared majestically out into the clear air beyond.
On the basis that gamblers pooled their money, people started to pool their resources and even pool their cars in a car pool. Then they pooled their typists in a typing pool. Le chicken was free! And then he grew bigger than any of us, because, since the phrase was invented in 1941, we have all become part of the gene pool, which, etymologically, means that we are all little bits of chicken.
The gene of gene pool comes all the way from the ancient Greek word genos, which means birth. It’s the root that you find in generation, regeneration and degeneration; and along with its Latin cousin genus it’s scattered generously throughout the English language, often in places where you wouldn’t expect it.
Take generous: the word originally meant well-born, and because it was obvious that well-bred people were magnanimous and peasants were stingy, it came to mean munificent. Indeed, the well-bred gentleman established such a reputation for himself that the word gentle, meaning soft, was named after him. In fact, some gentlemen became so refined that the gin in gingerly is probably just another gen lurking in our language. Gingerly certainly has nothing to do with ginger.
Genos is hidden away in the very air that you breathe. The chemists of the late eighteenth century had an awful lot of trouble with the gases that make up the air. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and the rest all look exactly alike; they are transparent, they are effectively weightless. The only real difference anybody could find between them was their effects: what we now call oxygen makes things burn, while nitrogen puts them out.
Scientists spent a lot of time separating the different kinds of air and then had to decide what to call them all. Oxygen was called flammable air for a while, but it didn’t catch on. It just didn’t have the right scientific ring to it. We all know that scientific words need an obscure classical origin to make them sound impressive to those who wouldn’t know an idiopathic craniofacial erythema* if it hit them in the face.
Eventually, a Frenchman named Lavoisier decided that the sort of air that produced water when it was burnt should be called the water-producer. Being a scientist, he of course dressed this up in Greek, and the Greek for water producer is hydro-gen. The bit of air that made things acidic he decided to call the acid-maker or oxy-gen, and the one that produced nitre then got called nitro-gen.
(Argon, the other major gas in air, wasn’t known about at the time, because it’s an inert gas and doesn’t produce anything at all. That’s why it’s called argon. Argon is Greek for lazy.)
Most of the productive and reproductive things in the world have gen hidden somewhere in their names. All words are not homogenous and sometimes they are engendered in odd ways. For example, a group of things that reproduce is a genus and if you’re talking about a whole genus then you’re speaking in general and if you’re in general command of the troops you’re a general and a general can order his troops to commit genocide, which, etymologically, would be suicide.
Of course, a general won’t commit genocide himself; he’ll probably assign the job to his privates, and privates is a euphemism for gonads, which comes from exactly the same root, for reasons that should be too obvious to need explaining.
* That’s blush to you and me.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language by Mark Forsyth and published by Penguin Group, 2012.