Visions of woodpecker stew.
Dear Word Detective: There is a woodpecker in our neighborhood who always seems to be hungry. I am routinely out on ladders filling in the holes he pecks in our house. This is hard work, and I usually come in feeling a bit peckish myself. Is the word “peckish” related to my nemesis’ destructive habits? — Steve Ford.
So a woodpecker is pecking at your house? Weird. We have woodpeckers around here, but they stick to pecking at the trees. Come to think of it, that’s probably because the trees don’t sport vinyl siding. But still, since the birds are hunting for bugs in the wood, doesn’t that mean you might have termites? And that, boys and girls, is why I don’t get invited to parties.
Incidentally, in the Southern US woodpeckers are often called “peckerwoods,” and “peckerwood” also has a considerable history as a derogatory term for a poor white person, particularly among African-Americans in the rural South. This use gave us “peckerwood” as an adjective meaning “shabby,” “inferior” or otherwise supposedly characteristic of the poor white Southerner (“The stern, melodramatic portrait of Earl’s older brother Huey [Long] as a fantastic demagogue — a Peckerwood Caligula,” 1989). “Peckerwood Caligula,” by the way, was a term coined by the great A.J. Liebling in his writings about Louisiana Governor Earl Long, who in his third term took up with a stripper named Blaze Starr and wound up in a mental hospital.
I seem to spend most of my time around here explaining why words that look as though they must be related actually aren’t. So it comes as a positive pleasure to affirm that “peckish” and “woodpecker” are, in fact, related; not directly related, because the world can stand only so much fun, but nonetheless solid second cousins.
In the beginning was the verb “to peck,” which first appeared in the 14th century and apparently arose as a variant form of “to pick,” which came in turn from “pike,” a spear-like pointed object, which came from a confusing tangle of ancient forms that may have involved “picus,” the old Latin word for “woodpecker.” In any case, “pike,” “pick” and “peck” are closely related and share many senses, but we’ll focus on “peck” here.
Most of the early senses of “peck” as a verb have to do with birds striking things with their beaks (“These … Parrots peck the fairest Fruit,” Dryden, 1690). Such “pecking” can include attacks on other animals (“The dog’s nose shot into the flowers and was promptly pecked by an angry mallard hen,” 2002) and even, as in Daphne du Maurier’s story The Birds, people. But birds “peck” most often in search of food, so by 1390, “to peck” with reference to a bird meant “to pick up small amounts with the beak” (“Small clusters of pigeons were pecking crumbs from the paving stones,” 1984).
“Woodpeckers,” of course, “peck” in both senses of the term. They “peck” holes in trees, houses, etc., with their beaks, and then “peck out” insects or larvae from within the wood. It seems like a large expenditure of energy for such slim pickings, but since we still have woodpeckers it must make sense in the long run.
The behavior of birds “pecking up” small amounts of food at a time led, by the 16th century, to the use of “peck” in reference to humans who ate small amounts of food or ate reluctantly or fussily (“His little brother pecked at the food on his plate, eating little,” 1966). This produced, by the early 18th century, the use of “peckish” to mean “somewhat hungry” or simply “hungry” and metaphorically eager to “peck” (“I wish we had dinner; I’m proud to say I’m quite peckish,” 1793). If you’re “peckish” you may not be feeling famished, but you’re definitely in the mood for a snack (“At four in the afternoon, everyone feels a little peckish, but only the British have institutionalized this feeling,” 1988).
Bit by bit.
Dear Word Detective: I am wondering about the derivation of two phrases my mother used to use. These go back a ways (she was born in 1911). The first is: “We have to pull in our horns,” meaning “we have to spend less money.” The second is “dribs and drabs,” meaning “small amounts of stuff.” — Bob Poulson, Tokyo.
Interesting question. Serendipitously, I happened to be reading “The Adventures of Sally,” a novel by P.G. Wodehouse, the other night on my little Nook e-reader. It was included in something called “50 Classic Humor Books” that I bought for $1.99 or so. I certainly got my money’s worth, because the whole shebang is apparently 9866 pages long (unless the page- number-thingy is wrong, which is entirely possible). The only reason I use a Nook, incidentally, is that my eyes are wonky, and the Nook lets me make the type big enough to be read from across the room. Anyway, the Sally of the title goes through numerous financial ups and downs, and, on page 604 (?), her sister-in-law, speaking of Sally’s brother Fillmore’s similar reversals, says, “Well, you know Fillmore, poor darling. Anyone else would have pulled in his horns and gone slow for a spell, but he’s one of those fellows whose horse is always going to win the next race.” Fillmore, it seems, has boldly squandered the last of his money on yet another bad bet. Unfortunately, Fillmore had borrowed that money from Sally, who is now suddenly broke.
To “pull in one’s horns” (or “draw in,” “shrink” or “pluck” them) is a remarkably old phrase, first found in print around 1400. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, it means “to restrain one’s ardor; to repress one’s pride; to lower one’s pretensions” as well as, more practically, “to restrict one’s expenditure, especially of money.” The freshly pauperized Sally, for instance, goes back to the dance hall job she had before becoming briefly wealthy. I’m going to assume, since this is Wodehouse, that there is a happy ending to this story, but at the moment things look rather grim.
“Pulling in one’s horns” is an odd phrase in part because most, if not all, animals possessing real horns (bulls, goats, etc.) cannot retract them. Horns are also generally considered weapons of a sort, making them a strange metaphor for calming down and pinching pennies. It turns out that we just need to broaden our definition of “horns.” The term “horn” has been applied at least since the 14th century to “hornlike” protuberances on the heads of many creatures lacking conventional horns, e.g., the antennae of insects and the tufts of feathers on an owl’s head.
In the case of “pull in one’s horns,” the critter is the common snail, and the “horns” are its two eye-stalks (technically “retractile tentacles”). When a snail is threatened or disturbed, its first (and pretty much only) defensive recourse is to “pull in its horns” and hide in its shell. As a metaphor for “withdrawing into modesty and/or thrifty behavior,” the snail’s behavior is a good fit. And the famous English passion for gardening would have made the average homeowner familiar with the behavior of snails.
“Dribs and drabs” has been used to mean “small and intermittent amounts” since the early 19th century (“Whether it be better to have a little [news] and often, or a great deal and seldom, I leave to your better judgment to determine. … You may have it in dribs and drabs if you like it better,” 1809).
“Drib” was first noticed as a Scots dialect word meaning “a drop or very small quantity” in the 18th century, and it’s related to the verb “to drib” meaning “to fall in small drops” or “to go or do something by small amounts.” Both words are clearly related to “dribble,” and the whole family of “dribs/dribble” is onomatopoeic, the words themselves intended to evoke a sense of something dribbling away. “Drab” as been used to mean “a small amount of money” since the early 19th century, but most often in the phrase “dribs and drabs.” It doesn’t seem to be related to any other sense of “drab” as a noun or adjective, and probably became popular largely through its “reduplicative” rhythm in the phrase “dribs and drabs.”
A Field Guide to Serfs.
Dear Word Detective: Where do we get the word “feudal” from? The connection with the word “feud” appears too strong to be just coincidence, and I can think of an explanation of sorts, in that the feudal system could only have been supported by a form of organized thuggery by king and noble and church, and I suppose gave the serfs and villeins a life-long enmity, a life-long grudge against the said noble and king and church. Is that anywhere near close? — Partha Sen Sharma.
Um, no. The “feud” meaning “long-standing bitter dispute” is a completely separate word from the “feud” that lies at the heart of “feudal,” “feudalism” and similar words. Your theory is certainly reasonable on its face, and etymological authorities have argued in the past that “feud” in the Hatfield-McCoy sense may owe at least its spelling to the “kings and serfs” kind of “feud.” But apparently not, since the “serfs” sort of “feud” appeared after the “hate your family” kind of “feud.” That “hate” kind of “feud” first appeared in English around 1300 and comes from the Old High German “fehida.” Not surprisingly, this “feud” is etymologically related to our modern word “foe.”
The other sort of “feud” comes from the Latin “feudum” or “feodum,” which also produced our modern English word “fee.” We usually think of “fees” today as the charges we pay for parking violations or the money charged for services by lawyers, doctors, etc., But in the feudal system, a “fee” (also known as a “feud” or “fief”) was an estate granted to a vassal by the lord who owned the land in exchange for the vassal’s pledge of loyalty, service and payment to the lord. “Feudalism” is the name given to this social, political and economic system, which was common in medieval Europe. “Fee” comes from Germanic roots, and originally meant simply “movable property,” “money” or “livestock.” The ultimate root of “fee,” “feud” and “fief” is probably the Indo-European root “peku,” which meant “cow.” Interestingly, although “fee” in this original “feudal” sense dates back to the early 14th century, the term “feudalism” used to describe the system was actually invented by historians in the 19th century.
I suspect that there are at least a few readers who have mentally flagged your use of “villeins” in your question as a puzzling typo, but it’s not. A “villein” in feudal society was one of a class of people bound to a lord or a lord’s manor; the term, which comes from the Latin “villa” (country house) was also used to mean simply “a rural dweller” or “peasant.” In the variant form “villain,” the term at first meant “slow-witted country bumpkin,” then someone with depraved morals, then a dishonest person, and finally, in its modern sense, someone who is deeply involved in criminal activity. The word “serf” also comes from Latin, in this case from “servum,” meaning “slave.” Serfs weren’t slaves, exactly, but in practical terms they weren’t far from it.