Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Swash yer bucklers, laddie!

Last week, two students came into my classroom after school.  One of them asked me, "I'm wondering if you know what a swash is, and how you buckle it?"

It is probably not a coincidence that the student who asked the question was wearing a pirate hat at the time.

This led to a highly amusing, and as it turns out, completely irrelevant conversation about how pirates had to not only check to make sure that their flies were zipped, but that their swashes were securely buckled.

Actually, the word "swashbuckler" has been in use since the sixteenth century, and (according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology) comes from the verb "to swash," meaning "to clash together noisily," and the noun "buckler," meaning "a small round shield."  Apparently "swashbuckler" didn't begin as a noun at all, but as a verb meaning "to clash a sword noisily against your shield so as to intimidate your foe."  A highly appropriate action for a pirate to engage in, but this means that "swashbuckling" is a truly lovely example of one of my favorite linguistic phenomena -- that of back formation.

Back formation occurs when a word is treated as if it contains a common inflection -- such as the -er ending meaning "someone who does a particular action," -ing meaning "currently doing something," or -ed meaning "this action occurred in the past" -- when in fact the apparent inflection is just a coincidental part of the word itself.  Then, someone "undoes" the fake inflection, and a new word is born.  The classic example of back formation is "to burgle," which is a back formation from "burglar."  Even though the -ar ending in "burglar" sounds like the usual -er ending (as in "farmer" and "teacher") by pure coincidence only, the word was verbified in the nineteenth century by following the logical pattern:  farmers farm, teachers teach, so burglars must burgle.  Others include "to gel" (or "jell"), originally from "jelly," which is a cognate to the French word gelĂ©, meaning "frozen" or "congealed;" "to lase" (from "laser," which is an acronym having nothing to do with the -er morpheme -- it stands for Light Amplification from Stimulated Emission of Radiation); and "to loaf" (from "loafer," which comes from the German landlaufer, meaning "hobo").

A fairly obscure, but awfully funny, example of back formation is "to maffick," meaning "to cause trouble, to riot."  It originated during the Siege of Mafeking (pronounced like "maffick-ing") during the Boer War in what is now South Africa -- a siege that lasted 217 days and apparently involved large quantities of troublemaking and riot.  Someone evidently decided that Mafeking was the present participle of a verb (in fact, it's the name of a town, and is of Dutch origin), and decided that the people in Mafeking must engage in mafficking.  It prompted the British satirist Saki (H. H. Munro) to write the couplet,

Mother, may I go and maffick,
Tear around, and hinder traffic?

It seems that "swashbuckler" works the same way.  "Buckler" comes from the French boucle, meaning "shield;" so like "burglar," its ending in -er is entirely a coincidence.  In fact, as a composite, the "swash" part is the verb and the "buckler" part is the noun; so instead of "swashbuckling," it should probably be "bucklerswashing," but that sounds silly and unbefitting of a pirate.

So fear not, lads and lassies; go forth and be swashbucklers to yer hearts' content, and ye needn't worry about having to buckle yer swashes.  Ye should still probably make sure yer flies are zipped.  Arrrr.

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