Blast from the past.
Dear Word Detective: While this is not of earth-shaking importance, I hope you can “hope” me out of this quandary. As I was growing up during the Great Depression in rural East Texas, my grandmother used the word “hope” to mean “help.” She also used the word “help,” but maybe with a slightly different meaning. Was this just ignorance on her part, a holdover from her Irish heritage or is there an etymological basis for this usage? She wasn’t the only one who used “hope” in this sense; many aunts (pronounced “aints”) used the word in the same sense. — Morgan, New Mexico.
Thanks for a great question. It may not be earth-shaking, but it’s exactly the kind I like, namely one that leads me down an unfamiliar trail. My initial suspicion was that this was simply a question of unusual pronunciation (on a par with “aints” for “aunts”) that had become standard in a region, but it turned out to be a more complicated and interesting story.
George Bernard Shaw is often quoted as saying that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” referring to the many differences between US and British vocabulary and usage. But if Shaw had spent a few months hitchhiking around the US (there’s a screenplay for you), he’d probably have concluded that America actually spoke at least fifty varieties of English all by itself. American English is a patchwork of dialects, many of which can seem pretty mysterious to an outsider, and it’s not unusual to find a regional word or usage, unknown in (or long ago dropped from) the mainstream national vocabulary, alive and well outside our large cities. Fortunately, there are scholars cataloging and preserving these regional quirks. The most ambitious project in this field, the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), now stands at four large volumes and its dedicated staff is still out there collecting.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that your grandmother was not ignorant or eccentric, and she was far from alone in her use of what sounded like “hope” to mean “help.”
Our modern English word “help,” both the noun and verb form, is very old, drawn from the Old English “helpan” (meaning “to help”), which in turn was derived from the Proto-Germanic root “kelb,” which also produced the equivalent of “help” in a number of other European languages. The general sense of “help” has been “to aid, to assist,” with various related meanings added along the way, such as “to help” meaning “to serve food to,” which gave us our modern “helping” meaning “a portion of food.”
In modern usage, the verb “to help” follows the standard English conjugation form in number and tense (I help, she helps, they help, they helped, etc.), but it was not always so simple. “Help” retained, in various English dialects, the old forms of irregular English verbs (as in “begin/ began/ begun” or “sleep/slept”) well into the 18th century, and the traces of this “irregularity” persist in some regional dialects, including in the American South (which, for linguistic purposes, includes Texas). The specific archaic form of “help” that persists to this day in the region is “holpe,” “holp” or (tada!) “hope” used as various tenses of “help.” This “hope” is indistinguishable in pronunciation from “hope” meaning “wish for.” So your grandmother was actually saying “help,” but she was saying it in a very old way.
Dear Word Detective: Recently in reading a P. G. Wodehouse story I found him referring (twice!) to someone as “twiddling his fingers.” I always thought that one could only twiddle one’s thumbs. Did the British of Wodehouse’s era discover some new talent? And what does “twiddle” mean anyway? — FJW.
Oh, no, there are all sorts of things one can twiddle. As a child, I used to pass hours twiddling my toes, my fingers and my ears, sometimes simultaneously. And when I worked in an office, I mastered the art of twiddling a pencil like a miniature drum major’s baton, a pastime I truly enjoyed until my officemates began to wonder aloud if said pencil would fit up my nose. I still like to twiddle Brownie the Dog’s ears. I find this enormously entertaining but she doesn’t seem to appreciate it, even when I show her how funny it looks in the mirror. And no, I don’t plan to grow up anytime soon.
One of the things I love about the folks who run the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is their ability to lend an air of solemnity to definitions of even the silliest words in English, including “twiddle”: “To cause to rotate lightly or delicately; to turn (anything) about, especially with the fingers; to twirl; to play with idly or absently; also, to adjust or bring into some place or condition by twirling or handling lightly.” Is it just me, or does that make “twiddling” sound like something you’d actually need lessons to do?
The roots of “twiddle” are, thankfully, both simple and poetic. “Twiddle” is onomatopoeic (or “echoic”) in origin, the sound of the word itself intended to evoke the light, twirling action of “twiddling,” and (to quote the OED again) “intended to combine the idea of ‘twirl’ or ‘twist’ with that of trifling action, as in ‘fiddle,’ ‘piddle.'” In the case of “twiddling” one’s thumbs, the usual routine is to interlock the fingers of your hands while resting them in your lap or on a surface in front of you, and twirl your thumbs around each other. “Twiddling one’s thumbs” is such a universally-recognized expression of extreme boredom that it would almost certainly get you thrown off a jury if the judge caught you doing it.
“Twiddling one’s fingers,” however, is open to interpretation. Your thumbs are, of course, legally fingers, so perhaps Wodehouse simply meant the standard gesture of boredom. Then again, it is easy to add one’s index fingers to the mix, so maybe that’s what he meant. By the way, I have just now tried it with all my fingers simultaneously and I seem to have hurt myself, so there are, apparently, limits to “twiddling.”
Incidentally, “piddle,” to which “twiddle” is linked by the OED, meant originally “to fool around, to work ineffectually,” and is also “echoic” in origin. “Fiddle,” however, while also used to mean “to play with” or “to act frivolously,” was originally a perfectly serious synonym for “violin” and actually comes from the same medieval Latin root (“vitula”) as “violin” itself.
Dear Word Detective: Every now and again it is my utmost pleasure to “run across” your website. At this juncture I am looking for the origin of the term “scott free” and, alas, you do not have the answer. I hope that you will come through for me soon. — ncarolinafran.
Well, there you go. More evidence that I’m just a digital wallflower, waiting patiently by the side of the web, hoping that strangers will happen by my rickety little stand and read my glittering prose, perchance to tell their friends and someday propel me to Hollywood fame and fortune as the George Clooney of etymology. As a marketing strategy, this plan has clearly not caught fire.
As for your question, however, I can steal the slogan of the Staples office supply chain and declare “Yeah, we’ve got that.” I actually did a column on this question back in 1999, which is, even as we speak, snoozing peacefully in my online archives at www.word-detective.com. But 1999 was a long time ago, so it can’t hurt to revisit the topic.
The reason you didn’t notice the answer to your question in our archives is that the phrase is properly spelled “scot-free,” with only one “t.” That correction, of course, raises the next question many folks have about “scot-free,” which is its relation to Scotland (and the Scots who live there). There isn’t one. Really. No connection whatsoever.
The “scot” in “scot-free” is an English word taken from Old Norse, where it meant “tax or assessment.” In the Middle Ages in England, each town levied a general tax on residents which was called the “scot.” If for some reason a citizen was ruled exempt from the tax, he was said to go “scot-free.” This tax-related literal sense of the phrase first appeared in the 13th century. But by the 16th century “scot-free” was being used in its more general modern sense of “exempt from punishment, responsibility or blame” (“She should not, for all the trouble she has cost you, go away scot-free,” 1740).
Speaking of words that sound as if they must have something to do with Scotland but don’t, “scotch,” meaning “to abruptly deflate or disprove” a rumor or theory, is another. This “scotch” comes from the Old French word “escocher,” meaning “to cut.” In this case it meant to “cut out” or destroy a rumor. It is, in fact, the same non-Scottish “scotch” as is found in the name of the children’s game “hopscotch,” referring to the playing lines cut into or drawn on the ground. And while we’re at it, butterscotch candy doesn’t come from you-know-where. It’s called that because it is made from butter and used to be cut (“scotched”) into small pieces.