Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

What is folk etymology or false etymology? Why fizzog is not French visage (1/3)

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“The Long Story” by William Sidney Mount, 1837. Corcoran Gallery of Art, US.

Who doesn’t love a good yarn, egh? (It’s a rhetorical question [RQ for short] so don’t tell me, please, “Quite a lot of people.”)

And who isn’t fascinated by where words come from? (Which is etymology, or, for the unwary, “entomology”.)

And here’s another RQ: Who doesn’t want to write a book? (The leader of a course I once attended claimed that wanting to write a book was second- or third-top New Year Resolution, but I can find no evidence for that.)

So, how better to satisfy that writerly urge than by scribbling about where words and phrases come from (much as I am doing)?

Of visages and fizzogs

The other day, the A Word A Day word of the day word (don’t you just love the iteration you can do with language– makes me think of the legendary Bufffalo buffalo Bufffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo) was visage–pronounced, as any fule kno [Molesworth] VIZidge /ˈvɪzɪdʒ/ or audio here.

But when did you last hear the word? Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it uttered by a normal human being, i.e. not by a thesp in a play, etc.

“Polonius behind the curtain” by Jehan Georges Vibert, 1868.

(e.g. ‘Tis too much prov’d, that with devotion’s visage | And pious action we do sugar o’er | The Devil himself; Polonius in Hamlet, III, 1).

Which made me wonder how someone who had only ever read it might think it should be pronounced; for example, a bit à la française like the US pronunciation of garage as guh-RAAZH? 

(I was also  remembering a self-educated friend who could never forget being ridiculed when they [sic, singular they, so there] came out with banal pronounced like anal).

Incidentally, I seem to be on the way in this blog to beating my own record for bracketed asides, so…GET A GRIP, Jem.

I tweeted my musings about the said pronunciation, and in reply was proffered a classic piece of folk etymology, which I post here, with the original author’s permission. It illustrates the charm such etymologies can have.


Fizzog,  n. I am from a part of Ireland which was heavily influenced by the Norman, as well as the Viking, invasions. A lot of words and family names in my part of Ireland are therefore taken from French, and fizzog (along with its related term vizzard, see below) is one of those. Clearly a derivative of the French visagefizzog basically means ‘face’, but used mainly in a pejorative sense. So, if you were in a bad mood, someone might say to you ‘What’s the fizzog on you for?’, which means ‘Why the long face?’ or ‘You’ve some fizzog on you,’ which means, in a roundabout backhanded way, ‘cheer up.’”


That claimed origin of fizzog is, it seems to me, satisfying in many ways that help explain why folk etymologising is popular. First, it appeals to a shared, potentially mythicised, romantic history of Normans and Vikings, and enters the territory of historical fiction. It then adds the cachet and romance (both, of course, French words) of French. Finally, the author refers to their part of Ireland, thereby appealing to a cultural and linguistic tradition that a number of readers will share, or, conversely, providing a quaint, folkloric perspective.

I can’t comment on the currency of the delightful phrases quoted, but fizzog itself is a word I’ve known most of my life: my mother–Welsh, not Irish–used it, if I remember well, to refer to her own face, e.g. “I’m just putting some make-up on my fizzog.” So, no colourful phrases like the Irish ones, just an informal synonym for face.

In fact, fizzog, is just the most recent slang descendant of physiognomy (OK, ok, that word is partly French, and partly Latin). The OED currently records its first appearance as a headword in the 1811 Lexicon balatronicum: a dictionary of buckish slang, university wit, and pick pocket eloquence, 1st edition, 1811, London:  

Physog, the face. A vulgar abbreviation of physiognomy.

Its variant forms include phisogphysogphyzog, and it subsequently appears, inter alia, in Kingsley’s Alton Locke, a Wilfred Owen letter, the Opies’ classic The lore and language of schoolchildren, and in this extraordinary quotation:

There was something fanatical and weightless about his long leg inside the expensive trousers and his ineffably Gallic phizog and the lank quiff à l’anglaise.

Mirror for Larks, V. Sage, 1993.

Fizzog’s parent is phiz, and several variant spellings, a word that goes back to a 1687 translation of one of Juvenal’s Satires.

Oh had you then his Figure seen, With what a rueful Phis and meine*.

H. Higden

* = mien, i.e. here probably “facial expression”; or “general appearance and manner”.

So, what is folk etymology, then?

The term refers to two different things.

As the Online Oxford Dictionary defines it, folk etymology is “A popular but mistaken account of the origin of a word or phrase”.

folk_etym

Some “accounts” are so popular that they have become self-perpetuating urban myths. For example, British readers are probably familiar with the notion that posh is an acronym for “port out, starboard home”, that is, the preferred—because shadier and cooler—side of a P&O liner to have your cabin on when travelling to India. My mother travelled to India by ship, just after the war, to join my father, who was stationed there, and I suspect that I first heard this folk etymology from her or him.


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Another example is the pleasingly Magrittean suggestion that “to be raining cats and dogs” comes from said animals being flushed out of thatched roofs, where they were huddling during violent rainstorms (if you’ve ever given a thatched roof a more than cursory glance, you will immediately see that such felines and canines would have to be paper-thin so to huddle).

“Golconda” by René Magritte, 1953. The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

Yet another one is the supposed “rule of thumb” origin, which claims that English law allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick, provided it was no thicker than his thumb.

As for “the whole nine yards”, alleged origins include the length of cloth required to make a sari or a dress kilt, the number of plots in a New York city block, the cubic capacity of concrete mixers (yet, simultaneously, the capacity of a soldier’s pack), the volume of a wealthy person’s grave, the length of a hangman’s noose…and so on, and so on.

It’s easy to see the charm and the interest of such stories—for that is what they are. For a comprehensive debunking of some of them, it’s worth looking at Michael Quinion’s Port Out Starboard Home, or David Wilton’s Word Myths.

While such stories don’t affect the forms of language, a different definition of folk etymology does.

But that’s for the next blog post.

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

3 thoughts on “What is folk etymology or false etymology? Why fizzog is not French visage (1/3)

  1. I’m sure the late Daniel Cassidy would have said fizzog comes from féasóg, the Irish for beard. Well, where do you find a beard? On a FACE, of course! It all fits …

    Great post, as ever. 🙂 Hope all is as well as can be expected with you.

    Like

    • Thanks, my Irish chum! Yes, bearing up ok. Well, I hate to disagree, but it STANDS TO REASON that fizzog comes from féasóg. I mean, how can you doubt it? It’s staring you in the face. ;-). PS: “Staring you in the face” is, as is well known, a calque of an Irish phrase meaning “Staring you in the beard”, because in medieval Irish society, harpists at the courts of the Irish kings…zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, oh we of little faith! It’s so pig-headed and perverse of us to refuse to jump on any passing bandwagon simply because there isn’t any evidence in support of it … Unfortunately I can’t deny that reality is frequently overrated, but even so … 🙂

    P.S. Obviously, bard and beard are etymologically related! Does the OED know?

    Like

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