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Two Scottish etymologies for English words.


The Oxford English Dictionary ascribes to jinx, in the sense of 'a person or thing that brings bad luck or exercises evil influence', a North American origin and explains the derivation of the word as 'apparently < jynx n. 2', which is a sub-entry for 'a charm or spell' and a figurative extension or transference from jynx n. 1, a Greek ornithonym. The present note is devoted to resolving the apparent implausibility of the learned name of the Eurasian wryneck, Jynx torquilla, a small species of woodpecker, having generated a popular word first attested in a Chicago newspaper from 1911: 'Dave Shean and "Peaches" Graham ... have not escaped the jinx that has been following the champions' (Chicago Daily News, 19 September 1911). The next attestation, from 1919, is also found in a sporting context, although it is with regard to British university sport: 'Will some one remove the jinx? On Friday, February 28, we lost to Oriel and Merton by 3 goals to nil. On Saturday, March 1, ... we lost to Queen's by 1-0' (The Oxford Magazine, 7 March 1919).

A prime characteristic of the wryneck, Jynx torquilla, is an ability to turn its head almost 180 degrees. The classical Greek name for the bird, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], however, is based on its cry and a Greek verb meaning 'to shriek'. It was calqued into Latin as iynx. The wryneck was associated in early Greece with charms and potions intended to recover the lost affections of a lover. (1) This learned lore seems not to have been generally known to seventeenth-and eighteenth-century English naturalists and writers, for whom jynx was simply the scientific name for a woodpecker: 'Jynx, the Wry-neck, or Emmet-hunter [ant-hunter], or as some say, the Wag-tail' (Phillips and Kersey 1706).

Nonetheless, the OED posits the transference of jinx (in the modem spelling) to designate a charm or spell. Evidence, however, is of the most limited kind--a single instance in Scotsman Thomas Urquhart's translation of Francois Rabelais's Troisieme Livre des faits et dits Heroiques du noble Pantagniel. The passage in question reads: 'These are the philtres, allurements, jynges, inveiglements, baits, and enticements of love, by the means whereof that may be peaceably revived which was painfully acquired' ('Ce sont les philtres, iynges et attraictz d'amour, moienans lesquelz pacificquement on retient ce que peniblement on avoit conqueste').' (2) Here Rabelais is actually writing on political science, and of military conquest, pacification, and subsequent rule, likening the process to winning a woman with great effort but then needing to retain her by means of love potions. The term iynges, drawn from either Greek or Latin, was not otherwise current in Renaissance France and, with a single exception, is not represented in the French literature of subsequent centuries. Thus, Urquhart's expedient of providing a simple caique, along with his other exuberant word-coining, is understandable but it is imprudent to draw the conclusion that jynge ever--before or after--had widespread currency as an English term for a love philter or charm.

The single exception to the post-Rabelaisian absence of jynges or a congener in French letters is worth pausing over for a moment. Jean Moreas was an exponent of Symbolism and a contemporary of Paul Verlaine, who is judged to have had a significant influence on his work. He was bom Ioannis A. Papadiamantopoulos, and his early written work was in Greek, before he became a recognised poet, essayist and art critic in France. In his collection of poems Les Cantilenes (1886) he writes of love, its sorrows, fatigues, and disappointed hopes.
   L'anacampserote au sue vermeil
   Est eclose: au coeur las panacee;
   Au flux de son aile cadencee
   L'lynge berce Tamer sommeil.
   Mais le jaloux, dont la voix incite,
   S'essore des marges du missel
   Et dit: qu'il nous faut rompre le seel
   De l'incantation illicite.
   Alors e'est la chute et le confin
   Du tier palais qu'abritait la nue;
   Et voici qu'Entelekhia nue
   Rampe en le jour vertical et vain. (Moreas 1886: 'Melusine', 231)

'The anacampserote, scarlet-sapped, has blossomed: panacea to the weary heart; to the beat of its rhythmical wing the iynx cradles bitter sleep. But the jealous one, whose voice incites, takes flight from the missal's margins and says: we must break the seal of the illicit incantation. Then, the fall and confinement in the proud, cloud-sheltered palace, and behold naked Entelechy rearing to the day, vertical and in vain'.

Moreas' Greek-derived anacamperserote, a plant name never at home in English, (3) may be analyzed as 'bending back love'. The plant, with a sap imagined as the colour of Eros, is native to West Africa and was the source of a philtre to restore lost love. Drawn from the same amorous pharmacopoeia, iynge here has a double valence, both a bird capable of rhythmical wing-beats and a philtre or charm intended to coerce the return of lost passion.

Anacamperserote figures in Rabelais in just this same context, although not in proximity to iynge. (4) As a forerunner of James Joyce, Rabelais tapped into all kinds of learned lexicon but it is unlikely that Moreas was so familiar with the latter's work (in which an allegorical Entelechy also figures) that he could pluck out the two comparable terms. Rather, Moreas makes evident that the terms, one analytical, the other borrowed from avian onomastics, were long associated in Greek tradition and learning.

To return, after this Graeco-Gallic excursus, to early Greek magical thought, it seems possible that the wryneck's cranial flexibility did make it a potential symbol of anacampseros, bending love back (the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice may also resonate in the background). But how to account for the progression in meaning of iynx from love potion to 'a person or thing that brings bad luck or exercises evil influence'? Psychological coercion might here be accounted a common element. The wryneck's ability to turn and look back has a formal resemblance not only to 'turning love back' but also to the evil eye, which departs from usual ocular ranging to focus on a specific target, to the accompaniment of malevolent thought. In both cases, an external will is active: in the one instance, to force the return of affection, in the other, to realise ill-will. Yet the modern understanding of a jinx does not similarly imply human volition but rather the workings of some more impersonal fate, which is realised as a consequence of physical juxtaposition and its figurative extension, e.g., an athlete or team again facing a competitor against whom a loss has been suffered. (5)

Nonetheless, the iynx is still very far, if only in terms of possible lexical transference, from the ill-luck that plagues American baseball and football teams or boxers in certain encounters. A fresh approach is required, one that will encompass another dimension of the history of Scots, in addition to the possible influence of Urquhart's translation of Rabelais. For the Canadian author, jink is best known in the phrase "high jinks", lightly antisocial behavior by one or more children or young adults. In Scots, however, the semantics are broader and the opprobrium even more muted. The verb to jink, attested from the late eighteenth century, is variously explained by the Dictionary of the Scots Language as 1) 'to turn quickly or move nimbly, e.g. to one side, so as to elude or dodge someone or to escape notice', 2) 'to move quickly or suddenly, to dart about from side to side, to zig-zag, "to make quick motions'", 3) 'to jaunt, frolic, dance, ramble from place to place, esp. in search of amorous enjoyment', 4) 'to evade, dodge, elude, escape the notice of; hence to cheat, trick.' The OED suggests that the origin of the word is onomatopoeic and that its matrix is indeed Scotland, where variant forms such as jick and jouk are also found. (6) Nominal use of jink is comparable ('a quick or sudden twisting, tortuous movement, a jerk'). From its use in popular outdoor games as dodging and other evasive moves, jink moved into a specific niche in the vocabulary of English sport, in particular rugby football (cf. the early North American examples of sporting jinxes): '[Poulton Palmer's] "jink" is all by itself in modern-day Rugger' (1914). (7) This said, earlier figurative use, as in Scotsman A. L. Orr's 'Fickle fortune's jinks Are like to drive us mad', seems tantalisingly close to the modern use of jinx (Orr 1882: 118).

While there are certain structural correspondences among 1) the clandestine use of a love potion to reverse disappointment and gain advantage, 2) an unexpected and evasive physical move on the playing field, and 3) a recurrent bringer of ill-luck and disappointment (sporting and other), modern English jinx can owe nothing to Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (except its mock-learned orthography, reflecting Latin iynx, with the possible influence of lynx), which may have occurred when the plural jinks became a singular jinx. Scots jinks and English and Scottish immigrants to North America are the most plausible explanation for the appearance of jinx in early twentieth-century sporting jargon and then beyond. The semantic development reflects a transfer, in which focus moves from the agent of deceptive action (the 'jinker') to an assessment by the disappointed victim of its effects or by his/her supporter (game lost, jinxed), face being only partly saved by the attribution of the loss to a supernatural force. (8)


The Oxford English Dictionary defines spree as 'a lively or boisterous frolic; an occasion or spell of somewhat disorderly or noisy enjoyment (freq. accompanied by drinking)', and notes its extension to 'shopping sprees', etc. The etymological note offers only 'a slang word of obscure origin' and continues 'compare SPRAY n.4'. This reluctance to pursue the origins of non-standard language, variously cant, slang, popular, obscene, is a hold-over from earlier editions of the dictionary. As for spray (var. sprey) in this sense, here the definition reads 'a spree or drinking-bout; frolic'. Neither spree nor spray is attested with this meaning in English letters until the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Several of the early instances of the word have Scottish connections, e.g., William Tarras's Scots verse, 'I'm blythe to see a rantin spree' (1804: 73). Walter Scott's vignette confirms the tone (1819): 'The serjeant was apt to tarry longer at the Wallace Arms ... than was consistent with strict temperance ... After such sprays, as he called them, were over' (Scott 1819: III, 144). The Dictionary of the Scots Language, however, with perhaps a sharper focus on the local, situates the semantic centre of spree/spray rather differently: 'spree also spray, a boisterous quarrel, a spirited argument; a disturbance, hubbub'; in verbal collocations, 'to go courting', of an animal 'to be in heat.' The early nineteenth-century lexicographer Jamieson (1818) is rather more lenient: "Spree, innocent merriment'. An early example of the main signification is found in William Walker (1812: 600) 'Twa Emperors ance had a bit o' a spree, I believe they fell out 'cause they cud na agree'. (9) The link between lessened verbal inhibitions, if contention may be so characterised, and comparable behavior marked by boisterous action, is momentarily deferred in favour of the question of primacy--spree or spray?--and a possible source for the word(s) that may explain the rather late appearance and isolated status in English, and the lack of any plausible antecedents in the languages of continental Europe, be they Old Norse, Anglo-French, Low German, or Middle Dutch (the OED's 'usual suspects').

A first consideration must naturally be spray in its several other meanings: 'twigs of trees or shrubs'; 'water blown from, or thrown up by, the waves of the sea'; lastly, the rare and obsolete sense 'outcry' (only two examples cited in the OED, from ca 1400). The ingenious etymologist could concoct a derivation from the botanical or marine applications, but doubtless win little conviction. The all-but-forgotten third option is, however, of interest, in particular by reason of the OED's cross-reference to spraich. The dictionary's entry for this word, defined as 'scream, outcry', calls the etymology 'imitative' and the usage Scottish, and rare or obsolete. Gavin Douglas's translation of the AEneid (1513) offers this example: 'With hair down schaik, and petuus spraichis and cryis' (Douglas 2011: xi.i.82).

As for the OED's onomatopoetic explanation, we need not speculate on what human or other sound spraich might be seeking to imitate, when we consider Scottish Gaelic spraic, variously (with regional emphases) 'reprimand, frown, command, vigor, exertion, sprightliness, cleverness' (related forms are the adjective spraicell and the action noun spraicealachd). Old Irish, the antecedent of Scottish Gaelic, knew spraic in the senses of 'reprimand, rebuke; power, dominion; force, vigor' (cf. another nominal form, spracad 'movement, power, vigor'). (10) The spray and spree of Scots and English can be seen as vocalic variants on spraic, which in Irish already had a less well-attested, apparent synonym spric/sprioc. Joining this phonological resemblance are the relatively close semantics of Scottish Gaelic spraic and Scots spray, earlier seen as 'boisterous quarrel, a spirited argument; a disturbance, hubbub'. A simplified but admittedly teleological historical sequence, whose centre of gravity shifts from speech acts to other forms of (often garrulous) social action, might be as follows: Old Irish spraic/spric/sprioc 'rebuke, vigor' [right arrow] Scottish Gaelic spraic 'argument, disturbance' [right arrow] Scots spray 'uninhibited, unconventional behavior' (as stimulated by alcohol) [right arrow] English spree 'drinking bout' (large amounts of alcohol in a short time, often at several locations). (11) A byproduct of the semantic narrowing and accompanying pejoration was to put spree in a register deemed beyond the proper interests of the OED's etymological investigation.

One feature in this reconstructed history which remains a bit of a puzzle is the late attestation of spree in Scots and English (1804, as noted above). Was it a late borrowing from Gaelic or a familiar word that found no dignified entry into letters? Or could it be that a spree required some semblance of infrastructure (note the expression 'on the spree'), a town environment, more than a single public house, or the like? Athough doubtless fortuitous, a tag recorded from early twentieth-century Irish reminds us that a spree requires a supportive milieu: 'cuir spraic ar an gcanna'--'hurry up with the tankard'. (12)


Cotgrave, Randle. 1611.4 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues. London: Fawne.

Dinneen, Patrick S (comp.) 1921. Focloir Gaedilge agus Bearla--An Irish-English Dictionary. Dublin: Irish Texts Society.

Douglas, Gavin. 2011. The AEneid, edited by Gordon Kendall. London: Modern Humanities Research Association.

Frisk, Hjalmar(ed.) 1960-72. Griechisches etymologisches Worterbuch. Heidelberg: C. Winter.

Moreas, Jean. 1886. Les Cantilenes. Paris: L. Vanier.

Neat, Timothy. 1996. The Summer Walkers: Travelling People and Pearl-Fishers in the Highlands of Scotland. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

Orr, Alexander L. 1882. Laigh flichts: and Humorous Fancies. Glasgow: [s.n.].

Phillips, Edward (ed.) 1706. The New World of Words: or, Universal English Dictionary. 6th edn. by John Kersey. London: [s.n.]

Piatigorskii, A.M. 1993. Mythological Deliberations'. Lectures on the Phenomenology of Myth. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Rabelais, Francois. 1546. Le Tiers livre des fails et dits Heroiques du noble Pantagruel. Paris: [s.n.].

--1964. Le tiers livre, edited by M. A. Screech. Geneva: Droz.

Raphael, John E. 1918. Modern Rugby Football. London: [s.n].

Scott, Walter. 1819. Tales of my Landlord. 3rd Series. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable & Co.

Screech, M.A. (trans.) 2006. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tarras, William. 1804. Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect. Edinburgh: [s.n.].

Urquhart, Thomas (trans.). 1693. The Third Book of the Works of Mr. Francis Rabelais, Doctor in Physick containing the heroick deeds of Pantagruel the son of Gargantua. London: [s.n.].

Walker, William. 1887. The bards of Bon-Accord, 1375-1860. Aberdeen: Edmond & Spark.

Wilson, J. 1826. 'Nodes Ambrosianae xxviii'. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, October 1826.


(1) See the ample entry, with a listing of classical authors, including Aristotle, in Griechisches etymologisches Worterbuch, Hjalmar Frisk (ed.), Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1960-72.

(2) Urquhart (1693; 1.23); Rabelais (1546: Ch. 1). For a modern edition, see Rabelais (1964: Ch. 1,11. 98-100, p. 430). The editor of this last volume is also Rabelais's most recent English translator and renders the passage as follows: 'Those are the love-filters [sz'c], spells and charms by which one peacefully retains what has been painfully conquered'; Screech (2006: 415).

(3) It figures in Cotgrave (1611): 'Anacampserote, a certain herb whose touch reneweth decayed love'.

(4) Philip Anthony Motteux's continuation of the translation of Rabelais begun by Urquhart (1708: Book Five, Chapter 31): 'Let's taste some of these Anacampserotes that hang over our heads'.

(5) Piatigorskii (1993: 119-20) offers an attractive definition relevant to jinxes, although his subject is fate: 'a conceptual basis for the interpretation of an event; as an idea by means of which one event is related to another within a given situation'.

(6) Cf. what might be called a transitive form (with vocalic variation) of to jink, viz. the similarly unexplained to yank, also found in both Scots and American English. Even if the correspondence does not obtain, we note the typical association in English and Scots of front vowels with 'finer-tooled' action, back vowels, with 'coarser' (using these descriptors as simplifications).

(7) Raphael (1918: 122). The first recorded match in Scotland was in December 1857, Edinburgh University vs Edinburgh Academicals.

(8) Jinx has returned to its origins: 'Unlucky names. Unlucky things.... Nor did we like to hear the name MacPhee, not in the forenoon--it was a jinx!'; Eddie Davies in Neat (1996: 20), cited from DSL, s.v. jinx.

(9) Cf. Wilson (1826: 619): 'A feather that's got rumpled by sport or spray'.

(10) Forms are to be traced to the productive Indo-European roots *spereg-, *pereg-, *spersg-, *perag-, *spreg, *preg- 'to quiver, spring, dispatch, scatter, squirt', also seen behind English speech and German sprechen, even the tribal name Franks, whence France.

(11) The line of reasoning advanced here would dissociate the OED's two examples of Middle English spray 'outcry' and Scots spraich. The Middle English Dictionary offers two comparable instances of the former from the romance King Alexander. 1) 'Men miztten seen (iere hondes wrynge, Palmes beten, hondes [read: heres] tirynge, Spray and grade and dismayeyng'; 2) pere men miztten reujje ysen ... Michel spray [Auch: defray], mychel gradyng, Michel weep, mychel waylyng', vv. 2797 and 7876, resp., from Laud Miscellaneous MS 662, a transcription of which is held by the MED. The dictionary suggests a possible origin in Anglo-French desrei, desrai 'disorder' but this seems unlikely.

(12) Literally closer to 'put some vigor onto the tankard'; Dinneen (1927: s.v. spraic).

William Sayers

Cornell University
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