Jackanapes, Crambazzled, and So Long

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May 3, 2023 by libroshombre

            There are several reasons I like the Online Etymology website: it’s accurate, thorough, and often entertaining.   For example, consider the half-forgotten expression “jackanapes,” which dates from the 1450s when it meant “an impertinent, conceited fellow, an absurd fop.”  A century later it was “a general term of reproach … especially a contemptuous nickname for William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk.”  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which sometimes includes interesting word origins, states that the Duke “was a well-regarded commander and statesman during the Hundred Years’ War. It was during his dukedom (1448-1450), however, that England lost its possessions in northern France, and a portion of the blame was pinned on de la Pole. (So potent was the blame, in fact, that he was murdered in 1450.) The unfortunate duke lost his life and also gained a nickname: Jack Napis. The Jack part came from Jack as a term of address for one deemed socially inferior; the ‘s’ on the end was a common nickname element; and the ‘api’ was an allusion to something on de la Pole’s heraldic badge (a kind of personal emblem): the image of an ‘ape’s clog’—a weight that was used with a chain to restrain a monkey. Jack Napis eventually developed into jackanapes, a word that referred first to a monkey or ape less than a century after the duke had met his demise. The word’s other meanings quickly followed.” 

            The Online Etymology Dictionary added that jackanapes’ “feminine counterpart is Jane-of-apes, ‘a pert, forward girl.’  “Jane” has other primate and nobility connections in that she set up housekeeping with the Lord of the Apes, Tarzan, and lords like de la Pole and Tarzan got their titles from a loaf of bread.  “Lord” decends from “hlaford” which is a contraction of the Old English “hlafweard, literally ‘one who guards the loaves” (“hlaf” meant “loaf” and “weard” meant “keeper, guardian)”.  And “hlaffæta,” (“household servant”) literally meant “loaf-eater.”  A “loafer, an “idler, one who loafs,” emerged in 1830s America and is “of uncertain origin, often regarded as a shortened variant of ‘land loper’, a partial loan-translation of German Landläufer ‘vagabond’.”  Obviously I’m a logophile, a “person who loves words,” and that’s why I sometimes enjoy cruising through interesting word lists, like those at the online  Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, where I came across a new favorite, “vellichor” (“the strange wistfulness of used bookstores)”.

            Having just the right term handy can be helpful, so one should be open to acquiring new ones, even if they’re old.  That’s why I enjoyed reading a CBC.ca/radio article, “Feeling Crambazzled? A Linguist Shares Words From the Past That Are Fitting for 2023.”  It cited Susie Dent, a lexicographer (AKA a dictionary compiler), and author of the book “An Emotional Dictionary,” who stated “The more vocabulary we have at our fingertips to articulate how we feel, the better we’re able to manage our emotions” since “learning some of these uncommon words can be helpful because it reminds people that others feel the same thing at times, so much so that there’s a word for it.”  Another lexicographer, Jane Solomon, who wrote “The Dictionary of Difficult Words,” added that “learning a funny sounding word for a tough feeling can help” since “it takes you out of that really, really dark feeling for a moment.”

            Many words are simply beautiful to say or hear, but the subjectivity of that is clearly reflected in the many competing articles.  “The Top 10 Most Beautiful English Words” from Grammerly.com, for instance, included both “supine” (“lying face upwards”) “clinomania”  (“an excessive desire to stay in bed”).  However, it overlapped with the Reader’s Digest’s “The 30 Most Beautiful Words in the English Language,” with both containing “serendipity” (“the chance occurrence of events in a beneficial way”), “petrichor” (“the pleasant, earthy smell after rain”) and “aurora” (“the dawn in the early morning”).  It also includes “languor” (“lack of energy or vitality, or, more correctly, sluggishness or laziness”), and mentions how “Noah Webster and his all-American dictionaries that he compiled shortly after the Revolutionary War put the kibosh on a lot of British spellings, including the ‘ou’ combination in words like ‘colour’ and ‘flavour’.  The ‘uo’ combination is even rarer, which is part of what makes this word so beautiful.”

            In “Who Was This Webster Guy, Anyway?,” a Merriam-Webster.com interview with Emily Brewster, a “Professional Descriptivist and Ardent Wordster,” host on NPR’s Word Matters’ program, and a Merriam-Webster Senior Editor, and Peter Sokolowski, “another of its editors,” they discussed how Noah Webster is often confused with his politician cousin, Daniel Webster.  Noah was “the first American lexicographer and he was also the last individual to single-handedly write an entire dictionary.”  He was 18 in 1776 and fervently revolutionary and this was reflected in his approach to politics and dictionaries.  He graduated from Yale and passed the bar but was so irascible he couldn’t find work as a lawyer.  So, he opened a private school where by all accounts he was a terrible teacher and administrator.  Nonetheless, he still hated the British and the fact that most of the schoolbooks in use in America came from Britain and was inspired to write “The American Speller,” which was immensely popular.  As Jesse Sheidlower put it in his NYTimes article, “Noah Webster, Founding Father,” his speller “outsold every book in the 19th century except the Bible in sales.”  It was arranged in sections broken down by students’ ages and was better known as the “Blue Back Speller” due to the cover’s distinctive color.  

            Nowadays, I suspect that Webster, who was beyond rude to everyone, would be pegged as being on the autism spectrum, but his achievements were great.  As Sheidlower described Webster, “his relentless book promotion pioneered now common techniques like the author tour, the fabricated blurb and the aggressive stoking of manufactured controversy. His efforts to protect his work from piracy contributed to the development of American copyright laws. In 1793 he founded American Minerva, the first daily newspaper in New York City, eight years before Alexander Hamilton started The New York Post. He helped to establish Amherst College.  Yet with all his accomplishments, Webster was also notably dislikable. Arrogant, condescending, humorless and socially tone-deaf, he alienated and insulted his friends, political allies and potential professional contacts.”  In 1806 Webster published his first attempt at a dictionary, “A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language,” but “compendious” didn’t refer to anything like “comprehensive”; it meant “very brief,” which his entries were.  His crowning accomplishment came in 1828 when he published “An American Dictionary of the English Language,” wherein he altered any words he considered unnecessarily British and confusingly written. 

            Webster hated the Brit’s insertion of needless letters and changed “colour” and and “favour” to “color” and “favor,” “plough” and “draught” to “plow” and “draft,” but his attempts to refine “tongue” and “women” to “tung” and “wimmin” never caught on.  And neither his 1828 dictionary nor its 1860 revised edition included the common American expression, “so long”  that was popularized by the poet Walt Whitman.  The origins of “so long” are “murky” (another good word) according to the modern Merriam-Webster’s online article “‘So Long: A Common But Mysterious Goodbye.”  Proposed potential sources include the German “adieu so lange” (“farewell until we meet again”), the Hebrew “shalom” (a greeting and a farewell), and the Arabic “shalaam” (a greeting but not a goodbye).  What is known is that Whitman was the first to employ “so long” in print; it was the title of one of his poems in the 1860 edition of his “Leaves of Grass.” 

            “It appears that the expression was not yet generally understood by Whitman’s American contemporaries. A friend of his hadn’t heard it until he read the poem, and when he asked Whitman to define it, he called it ‘[a] salutation of departure, greatly used among sailors, sports, & prostitutes—the sense of it is till we meet again—conveying an inference somewhere, some how [sic] they will doubtless so meet—sooner or later.”  “So Long” utilized its title terms throughout the poem’s 23 verses.  Here’s a sample in honor of National Poetry Month (and National Library Week): “So long!/ I announce natural persons to arise,/ I announce justice triumphant,/ I announce uncompromising liberty and equality,/ I announce the justification of candor, and the justi-fication of pride.”  That was brave talk in 1860, but it’s also, the 28th most beautiful word in the Reader’s Digest list, “mellifluous” (“sweetly or smoothly flowing”).

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