Posts Tagged ‘Italian’

zany /ˈzeɪnɪ/

Sometime last week, I was doing a crossword where one of the answers was zany. The clue was along the lines of “Back from Arizona to the Big Apple the crazy way.” For those who don’t typically do cryptic crosswords – a staple for any cruciverbalist from the UK – the “back from Arizona” gives you the ZA elements (the abbreviation for Arizona backwards), the “Big Apple” gives you NY, and the “crazy” is the clue itself – the meaning of the word zany.

On reflection, it seemed to me a little old-fashioned, and not a word I recall using or seeing for many years. If anything, my recollection would be in relation to ads for “zany” American TV shows or movies. And I say “American” because classic Brit comedies like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Benny Hill show, even The Young Ones, were never, to my recollection, labeled “zany” – more likely “crazy,” “loony” or perhaps “surreal.”

According to the Corpus of Historical American  (COHA), my go-to source for questions about word use over time, the word seems to have made its appearance in the 1930’s, peaked in the 70’s, and is now on a slow decline.

Zany over time

Zany over time

As to its origins, it’s a relatively recent word from the 16th century where it was used to refer to;

…a comic performer attending on a clown, acrobat, or mountebank, who imitates his master’s acts in a ludicrously awkward way; a clown’s or mountebank’s assistant, a merry-andrew, jack-pudding; sometimes used vaguely for a professional jester or buffoon in general.

Resisting the temptation to go off and explore the delightfully intriguing – and clearly underused – Jack-Pudding, the reason the word applies to a comic performer is that it refers to the name of characters in a form of Italian comedy called Commedia dell’arte. In its day, which is the 16th century, it was the Improv comedy of the age. Actors wearing masks would give improvised performances, and the clown characters would be called zanis or zannis, which in turn comes from the Italian Gianni meaning “John.” From this, it was just a small step to switch the word from a noun to an adjective that could be used to describe someone behaving like a “zani.”

This use of the word – as an adjective – is now the dominant one. In fact, it’s so dominant that most people don’t even know that it was originally a noun and are surprised to discover its origin. The single reference to zany in the COHA chart above in 1840 is as a noun from Herman Melville’s Mardi and a Voyage Thither, where he writes, “Azzageddi, you are a zany!”

Between 1870 and 1890, the COHA examples similarly have it as a noun, but by 1940, we see a mix of examples of the word as both noun and adjective, and by 1960 it is almost exclusively used as the adjective.

The flip has happened.

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On a recent trip to the UK, I picked up a copy of Simon Schama’s collection of essays entitled Scribble, Scribble, Scribble. This is a reference to a quote attributed to Prince William Henry, the Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh who, when he received another volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said, “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?” At his most populist, Schama is fun to read and capable of some hilarious turns of phrase; at his more scholarly, I’m afraid he reminds me of how stupid I am and how little I know. I get the impression that if we were sat at Hooters just chatting about anything, he’d not only already know what I was talking but always have something else to add that I didn’t know, making for a miserable time until the alcohol kicked in and I said, “Simon, just quit being a smart arse tell me who you think’s going to win the World Series this year.” Beer, boobs and baseball are great levelers.

Schama describes his collection as a salmagundi, which he defines as “a thing of various tastes and textures.” In that sense, it’s close to a potpourri, a cornucopia, or a gallimaufry. I’m sure he could have used any of those words and been just as happy to quote the etymology of each and every one. However, I’m just interested in the one.

The OED tracks its first citation in Thomas Blount’s 1674 edition of Glossographia, where he defined as;

…a dish of meat made of cold Turky and other ingredients.

The OED itself gives the following definition:

Cookery: A dish composed of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions with oil and condiments.

Blount says it is of Italian origin whereas the OED cites it as French, presumably noting its entry into English via French cuisine rather than Italian. Its variations into salmagondi, salamongundy, and salad-magundy.

I was originally struck by how similar it sounded to a children’s rhyme I used to sing called Solomon Grundy, which went like this;

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Grew worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday.
This is the end
Of Solomon Grundy

Well wouldn’t you know it, this appears not to be a coincidence. The suggestion is that Solomon Grundy is simply a corruption of salmagundi. What’s also fascinating to me – at least – is that when I now reread the rhyme, it could, indeed, be a poetic description of a stew made up from all the odds and ends that were hanging around on a Monday! You could eat it on Tuesday, even on Wednesday, but by Thursday, in the absence of a refrigerator, it would certainly begin to turn sickly. By Saturday, it would be no use at all, hence its burial on the Sabbath. In fact, this make more sense than applying it to a fictional person with a one-week lifespan.

The OED chooses to consider its origins earlier than the 17th century as being obscure, which is not that I suspect they don’t think there are contenders to the throne but that they feel these to be pretenders and not verifiable royalty.

This wasn’t always the case. Way back in 1888, the Oxford University Press published An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language by Walter William Skeat, the Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of (shh!) Cambridge.

Skeat was the first to use the term “ghost word” to refer to words;

… which had never any real existence, being mere coinages due to the blunders of printers or scribes, or to the perfervid imaginations of ignorant or blundering editors.

One example he gives is the word morse in the following sentence by Sir Walter Scott in the book, The Monastry: “… dost thou so soon morse thoughts of slaughter?”

One etymologist at the time explained the words as being derived from the Latin mordere meaning “to bite” and so morse meant “to indulge in biting, stinging or gnawing thoughts of slaughter.”

Tragically for his reputation, the truth turned out to be that it was a misprint of the word “nurse!” Sometimes, etymologists can be too clever for their own good. Which is another reason why the OED possibly wanted to avoid entertaining speculations about the pre-17th century origins of salmagundi.

But not Skeat. He was quite happy to point out that;

We may fairly explain it from Italian salame, salt meat, and condito, seasoned. This is the more likely, because the Ital. salame would make the pl. salami, and this was once the term in use… The derivation of Ital. salami is clearly from Lat. sal, salt, though the suffix is obscure. The F. –gondi, for Ital. condito (or pl. conditi), is from Lat. conditus, seasoned, savoury, pp. of condire, to preserve, pickle, season. Thus the sense is ‘ savoury salt meats.’ (Skeat, 523)

This sounds pretty convincing, both from the sense aspect and from the phonetics. I’d be OK with taking Skeat’s assessment and inclined to believe that this is NOT an example of one of his ghost words.

Meanwhile, it seems that salmagundi also found its way to Jamaica as a fish paste dish called Solomon Gundy. Yes, the name is just an /r/ away from the British Solomon Grundy and it is likely to have originated from that. And apparently, there is a dish served in Nova Scotia consisting of pickled herring and onion in sour cream that is also called Solomon Gundy.

It’s use in a transferred non-cooking sense is first noted by the OED as in 1761, and since then had cropped up with this meaning, although not as a particularly high-frequency word. The Corpus of Historical American English shows 60 examples between 1810 and 2000, with the decade from 1910 to 1920 being the highest scoring period with 11 examples.  Compare that with the British National Corpus that includes only shows three instances during the 1980s through to 1993, and all these are in reference to an American journal called Salmagundi. So, not exactly a popular word.

So if you enjoy reading essays, it’s worth taking a look at Schama’s smorgasbord. Just be prepared for the occasional spoonful of stodge.

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