Don’t blame the birds.
Dear Word Detective: Most bird allusions I get. Magpies do chatter, geese are not intelligent birds, and chickens are not fearless (although fighting cocks are, and they do crow about themselves, although why roosters crow and crows caw is a different subject entirely). But do quail really quail? And the one that has me most puzzled, do grouse characteristically grouse? I know there is a ruff grouse, and if one gets one’s feathers ruffled, he is likely to complain; other than that I see no connection. Help! — Sam Glasscock.
Geese aren’t intelligent? Pshaw. Would it surprise you to learn that both Alexander Hamilton and Albert Einstein had geese in their family trees? Yeah, me too, but you really want to watch what you say about geese. They may be stupid as a box of rocks, but they hold a grudge and they can fly. Speaking of which, why don’t more animals fly? Birds do it, of course, and bugs, and bats, but why are there no larger flying critters? Can you imagine a deer with wings? Flying wolves would be awesome. I’m gonna whip up a t-shirt and get rich.
English has dozens of words and phrases drawn from our acquaintance with our fine feathered friends, of course. We’ve borrowed so many metaphors and idioms from the wild kingdom in general that books explaining the animal origins of popular idioms and sayings will be perennial fixtures of the reference section as long as libraries and bookstores exist. (Which will probably be about another six months, tops. Don’t get me started.) Personally, I am partial to Christine Ammer’s “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs and Other Beastly Expressions” (1989), at least in part because Ms. Ammer is a rock-solid lexicographer and doesn’t simply make stuff up (a real danger in this genre). In her section on geese, for instance, she covers “loose as a goose,” “take a gander,” “goose flesh” and “goose step” among other goose-locutions.
Interestingly, neither “grouse” nor “quail” show up in Ms. Ammer’s book, because you’ve managed to pick two bird names that have absolutely nothing to do with the common verbs spelled the same way (meaning, respectively, “to complain or grumble” and “to cower or tremble”). Disappointing, I know, but I can only go where the trail leads.
The bird we call a “quail” is a small game bird, resembling a small partridge. The word “quail” referring to this bird first appeared in English in the 14th century, derived from the Anglo-Norman “quaille,” which was almost certainly formed in imitation of the bird’s cry. Two fun “quail” facts: use of “quail” as slang for a young woman dates back to the mid-19th century, and former US Vice-President Dan Quayle’s surname is drawn from an earlier spelling of the bird’s name.
“Quail” as a verb meaning “to cower” or “to give way in fear” dates to the 15th century and is of uncertain origin, although it may be related to our English verb “to quell,” from the Old English “cwellan,” meaning “to kill.”
The “grouse” is another sort of “game bird” (“game” in this use carrying the sense of “for amusement or sport,” an enthusiasm probably not shared by the bird). The source of the name “grouse” is a major mystery. Back in the 16th century the birds were called “grows,” but so little is known about that word that etymologists aren’t even certain whether it’s singular or plural. In any case, that’s not our English word “grow,” but a word probably imported from either Latin or Welsh.
The verb “to grouse,” meaning “to complain or grumble” dates to the late 19th century and apparently originated as soldiers’ slang in the British Army (“That’s the only thing as ‘ill make the Blue Lights stop grousin’ and stiffin’.? ‘Grousing’ is sulking, and ‘stiffin’ is using unparliamentary language,” Rudyard Kipling, 1887). Once again, the origin of the word is unknown, but it may well be derived from the Old French “groucier” or “groucher,” also meaning “to grumble or complain.” If so, “grouse” is closely related to our modern English “grouch” meaning both “a complaint” and “one who frequently complains; an irascible person.”
Dear Word Detective: Looking into the roots of “route,” I discovered that it comes from the Latin for “broken way” (“rupta via” or “via rupta”). Why? What was the meaning of “via rupta”? Was this later generations referring to the crumbling stones of the old Roman roads? If so, why was it expressed in Latin? — Lucy Merrill.
Yeah, what’s up with that? That’s a darn good question, dagnabbit, and you get bonus points for your mildly prosecutorial tone. It’s evocative of that moment in the old Perry Mason TV mysteries when Perry would finally get that weaselly husband on the stand under cross-examination. The feckless District Attorney, Hamilton Burger, would leap to his feet and object that Perry’s questions were “Incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial,” but the judge would tell Ham to can it and instruct the witness to answer the question.
That explanation you saw tracing “route” to “broken way” in Latin does seem odd. Unless the Romans were total slackers at road maintenance, the term seems to make no sense. But if the Romans were so lazy, how did they build that awesome system of aqueducts to bring water to Rome, much of which system still stands today? Fortunately, there is an explanation, and “route” turns out to have an airtight alibi which doubles as an interesting story about several other English words.
Today we use “route” literally to mean a regularly traveled road or a course of travel either commonly used (“Do you know the route to San Jose?”) or one we have selected in order to reach a given destination (“What route are you taking to Philadelphia?”). Figuratively, a “route” can be a means, method or progression of reaching a goal of any kind (“Bob’s route to office manager was smoothed after he brought a camera to the Christmas party”).
“Route” first appeared in print in English in the early 13th century in that literal “road” sense, and the figurative use followed almost immediately. We borrowed “route” from the French “route,” which the French had adopted from the Latin word “rupta,” short for the “rupta via” you mention. “Rupta via” did indeed mean “broken way,” “via” meaning “way or road” and “rupta” being a participle form of the verb “rumpere,” meaning “to break.” But the sense of this “broken way” was not that it was riddled with potholes, but that it was a trail, path or road that was well traveled and established after having been forcefully “opened” by clearing trees, brush, etc. So “rupta via” was essentially a “beaten track,” a sense that lives on in our “route.”
Incidentally, our modern word “rut” is probably essentially the same word as “route.” It first appeared in English in the 16th century meaning “track of a wheel,” and the colloquial use of “rut” to mean “a monotonous routine” dates to the 19th century. And speaking of “routine,” that’s another descendant of “route,” adopted separately from French. If we back up a bit to that Latin verb “rumpere,” meaning “to break,” we discover that its other English descendants include “corrupt,” “disrupt,” “erupt” and “rupture.”
Having examined the “rupta” of “rupta via” pretty thoroughly, it’s only fair to spend a moment with that “via,” which is a Latin noun meaning “road” or “way.” It’s rarely used as a noun in English, but the ablative singular form of the noun (which is, conveniently, also “via”) is used as a preposition millions of times a day to mean “by way of” (“Arthur and his father walked via the scullery into the living-room,” 1958) or “by means of” (“It would in theory be possible to provide five more services with national coverage via satellite,” 1977).
Please pass the passé.
Dear Word Detective: I have heard the phrase “to the manner born” (or “to the manor born”) fairly frequently, and I understand it to mean someone born to the upper classes (or someone who has the appearance of being born to the upper classes). First, which is correct: “manner” or “manor”? Second, where did the phrase originate? — Mary Funke.
That’s an interesting question, but not as simple to answer as it seems. I did a column last year on the phrase “getting into the weeds,” meaning “delving deeply into the details of a situation, possibly to the point of irrelevance.” The answer to your question involves a bit of such weed wading, but I’m fairly certain that most of it will be relevant. So put on your old hip boots and mind the snakes.
To begin at the beginning, the original phrase was definitely “to the manner born.” It was coined, as many of our best idioms were, by William Shakespeare, in this case in Hamlet, Act I, Scene iv, when Hamlet observes of the drunken atmosphere at Elsinore, “But to my mind, though I am native here / And to the manner born, it is a custom / More honour’d in the breach than the observance.”
Though Hamlet was, of course, a prince, he was not referring to his noble birth when he spoke of “manner.” He was saying that he had been born into an environment where such a “manner” — customs or behavior — was expected, and thus not surprising. “To the manner born” went on to be used for the next few centuries in just this class-neutral sense; one could be born on a farm and “to the manner born” of rising at dawn, for instance, or by upbringing be accustomed to “the manner” of energetic argument as city-dwellers often are (“If occasion demanded he could do or think a thing with as mercurial a dash as can the men of towns who are more to the manner born,” T. Hardy, 1874). The phrase eventually took on the added meaning of “naturally suited to a given task or role” by interest or aptitude, rather than by place or situation of birth (“John F. Kennedy was to the manner born. Nothing became him so much as the White House,” 1963).
In the mid-19th century, however, a variant of “to the manner born” appeared. “To the manor born,” meaning “born into, or naturally suited to, upper-class life,” substituted “manor” (the house on an estate; a mansion) as a symbol of an aristocratic lifestyle for “manner” meaning simply “customs or habits.” It’s unclear whether this new form was the result of an error (“manner” and “manor” being pronounced identically by most English-speakers) or a deliberate pun by some obscure Victorian wit. In any case, “to the manor born” spread rapidly and is by far more commonly seen today (“Not unequivocally to the manor born, he allied himself by marriage … and personal preference with the first families of Virginia,” 1962).
The rise of “manor” in place of “manner” set the stage, however, for a long-running battle over which is the “correct” form, and made “to the manor born” a favorite target of scorn for usage scolds (the same people who insist that “decimate” can only mean “to kill every tenth person in a group”). Complicating the question, however, is the fact that although the two phrases had, at their outset, substantially different meanings, “to the manner born” is rarely used today in its original sense of “born into certain habits or customs.” On those increasingly rare occasions when it crops up, “to the manner born” is most often used synonymously with “to the manor born” to mean “suited to wealth” (probably because “manners” and “mannered behavior” are popularly associated with the wealthy). So it appears that “to the manor born” has won and “to the manner born,” at least in its original sense, is headed for extinction. We can mourn the loss of the original “born into certain customs” sense, but them’s the breaks, kids.
This does not mean, of course, that the usage cops will drop their case against “to the manor born.” But the bottom line is that “to the manor born” means something quite different from what Shakespeare meant by “to the manner born,” so complaints about the “manner/manor” spelling shift miss the point. As the eminently sane Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Usage notes, “If someone intends a meaning that is not Shakespeare’s, why use Shakespeare’s spelling?”