"Local" Words I
Bill Long 8/17/08
Beginning with Scurrile
After taking an "international word" digression, which itself was a digression (where did this ever begin?), I return to some words either derived from classical or English words or which have a resonance in English-speaking North America. Let's begin with scurrile. Everyone knows that scurrilous means "coarsely opprobrious," but not everyone knows that the underlying Latin word, scurra, means a buffoon. Thus, the first meaning of scurrilous given by the OED is "Using such language as only the license of a buffoon can warrant." Though when the word was invented in English (1576) it first have had a "jocular" or "buffoonery" dimension and only later took on the notion of something indecent or coarsely inappropriate. Scurrile is a synonym of scurrilous. Shakespeare used the word in its original sense in Troilus & Cressida, "With him Patroclus...Breakes scurrill Jests." Milton, in the next generation, used it similarly: "It had bin plainly partiall..to correct him for grave Cicero, and not for scurrill Plautus." Perhaps we can or ought to recover the "buffoonery" meaning of the term and go light on the "indecent" part.
Staying on the "S's"
If a scurra is a buffoon, a struma in Latin is a "scrofulous tumor." But if we take the word apart we see how it became that. Behind struma is the Latin verb struere, which means to build up or pile up. Our word structure captures the meaning. So, a struma is bodily growth that has "built up." The word scrofulous comes from scrofula, which is a little scrofa (a sow). But I am not sure how a scrofula relates to the disease which is characterized by "chronic enlargement and degeneration of the lymphatic glands." The OED suggests that the scrofa, or sow, is supposed to be subject to the disease. In any case, something strumous is scrofulous, which suggests swollen glands or glandular tumors. Scrofula was also known in England as the King's evil, for it was supposed to be cured by royal touch. The OED tells us that the practice of touching for this disease continued from the time of Edward to the Confessor (11th century) to the death of Queen Anne in 1714.
This book on the history of the Book of Common Prayer tells us that there used to be a liturgy for the healing of the King's evil. The earliest liturgy for the practice of touching was used by Henry VII, in Latin. Henry VIII continued to use it, though he omitted mention of the saints and the Virgin Mary. By the time of Charles I the service was in English, and was only slightly altered from then until the reign of Queen Anne. The form, given below, appeared in the Prayer Book from 1661-1715. Here it is:
After an initial prayer and the Gospel (for Ascension Day) reading from Mark 16:14-20, where the risen Jesus promised his disciples that they would have power to heal, the liturgy continues:
"Let us pray. Lord, have mercy on us & c. Our Father (Lord's Prayer?)..
Then shall the infirm persons, one by one, be presented to the Queen upon their knees; and as every one is presented, and while the Queen is laying her hands upon them, and putting the gold around their necks (what gold?), the Chaplain that officiates, turning himself to her Majesty, shall say these words following:
"God give a blessing to this work; and grant that these sick persons upon whom the queen lays here hands may recover, through Jesus Christ our Lord."
After all have been presented, the Chaplain shall say, "O Lord, save thy servants, & c. "(the Versicles from the Commination Service) [my three essays on the Commination Service are here].
"Let us Pray. O Almighty God, who art the Giver of all health, and the aid of them that seek thee for succour, we call upon thee for thy help and goodness mercifully to be showed upon these thy servants, that they being healed of their infirmities, may give thanks unto thee in thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Then the Chaplain, standing with his face towards them that came to be healed, shall say,
"The Almighty Lord, who is a most strong & c. (from the Visitation of the Sick.)
"The grace of our Lord, (benediction)"..
Well, I think it safe to say that this is one idea which will never be resurrected again. I suppose, however, that before the time when medical science was much respected or very able to do much of anything to reverse the tide of illness or disfigurement, any putatitve source of power would be attractive for a sufferer. Why was it that the King/Qeen only seemed to have competence to deal with swollen glands or goiters? Why didn't it relate also to other maladies that afflicted a person?
Finishing on Less Elevated Terms--Spalpeen
A spalpeen is a "mean fellow; a rascal." It is a term of contempt for a man or boy. It is derived from the Gaelic spailp, pride or self-conceit. The Century has the following quotation:
"The spalpeen! turned into a buckeen that would be a squireen, but can't."
This begs the question of what a buckeen is. The OED tells us that the word is Anglo-Irish and denotes a "young man belonging to the second-rate gentry of Ireland, or a younger son of the poorer aristocracy, having no profession, and aping the habits of the wealthier classes." We lack for terms in America to express various "classes" of people who are tyring to "make it" in society. Maybe we should try to recover the spalpeen and the buckeen.
In the meantime, however, we are out of space.