One of the aspects of language I most cherish is unfathomableness, in its prime meaning of ‘inability to reach the bottom.’ One can never come to the end of word study. Nobody, not even multilingual snooty phuds (Ph. Ds), can plumb the sweet abyss of etymology. All the merrier reason therefore that I lay out upon the worktable of my wordingroom rare and startling forms for your delectation.
This obsolete English punishment was visited upon disorderly women or cheating tradesmen. The cucking-stool might serve to tame an unruly wife or a scolding harridan. The offender was sentenced to be tied to a chair or what was called in medieval Latin cathedra stercoris ‘a shitting chair,’ a board chair with a hole in the seat to facilitate defecation.
The punishment consisted of being fastened to the chair for hours so that passersby could jeer and humiliate the offender. The cucking-stool could also be taken to a river or pond and dipped in and out of the water, an earlier and less lethal version of waterboarding such as madman/quondam U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney once advocated.
Sir William Blackstone in volume 4 of his Commentaries on the Laws of England 1765–69 writes of a 1769 CE punishment: “She … shall ... be placed in a certain engine of correction called the trebucket, castigatory, or cucking stool … now it is frequently corrupted into ducking stool.”
Other sentencing quotations from the annals of British jurisprudence include these:
1534 CE: “ … the two women to be placed in the coqueen stool and dipped to the chin.”
1633 CE: “She was committed to being ducked in a cucking-stool at Holborn Dike.”
Cucking here means ‘shitting,’ from the now obsolete English verb to cuck = to cack = to shit, derived from the widespread Proto-Indo-European etymon /kVk/ that gives words and phrases like kucker Yiddish ‘shitter,’ to cack, to kack ‘to shit’, Latin cacare ‘to defecate’ and even the reduplicative English nursery noun kaka = shit.
A ballad, dating from circa 1615 CE, called “The Cucking of a Scold,” illustrates the punishment:
"Then was the Scold herself,
In a wheelbarrow brought,
Stripped naked to the smock,
As in that case she ought:
Neats tongues about her neck
Were hung in open show;
And thus unto the cucking stool
This famous scold did go."
Rixatrix is a very obscure Old English legal term. It is Latin for scolding woman or shrewish female quarrel-maker. It is the Latin feminine of rixator ‘contentious person.’ From the Latin verb rixare ‘to quarrel’ derive a number of other rare terms, some English, some manorial Latin:
rixation = ‘brawling’
rixa = ‘debate, contest’
rixor = ‘contestant, disputer’
rixosous = ‘quarrelsome,’ from the Late Latin adjective rixosus
Woman scolding a youth, detail from “Topsy-Turvy World” by Jan Steen (1625-1679)
A wittol is a husband who knows of his wife’s infidelity but does not care that she has become unfaithful. He’s a contented cuckold. Wittol is from Late Middle English wetewold, formed in imitation of cokewold or cuckold, with wete (that is, in its modern spelling, wit) replacing coke. It is probably based on a misconstruing of the correct etymology of the word cuckold. The Middle English spellings cokewold and cukeweld were adaptations of Old French cucuault or *cucuald. Cucu was the bird cuckoo in Old French, to which here was added the pejorative suffix -ald, -auld, -ault, -aud. The cuckoo is a bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests; in a similar manner the cuckold suffers that another male sleeps in his ‘nest’ with his bird/wife.
Up now scurries another entrant in our rare English animal-words contest. The desman is a long-snouted, aquatic, insectivorous, musk-secreting Russian rat. The little mammal is endangered. The name is of Swedish origin where desman-råtta means ‘musk rat.’ The odorous, wee desman dwells chiefly along the banks of the Volga and Don Rivers of Russia.
This beautiful, red-feathered honeycreeper Vestiaria coccinea, is a Hawaiian bird whose red feathers used to be collected to make cloaks for fat-assed native chiefs. The name is pronounced eevee and is an imitation of one of the bird’s distinct calls.
The yapok is an amphibious opossum of South America, whose name is taken from the Oyapok River which flows between French Guyana and Brazil. This water-opossum, Chironectes variegatus, has webbed toes to facilitate its swimming and pursuit of prey. These sleek and slippery marsupials do most abound and pullulate upon the slidy banks of the river after whom they were named. O moist clay, never dry!
Warren Clements, the always fascinating Globe & Mail word columnist, reported years ago (March 28, 2009, page R14) that a reader sent him this: “the Yahoo picture-sharing website’s options menu informed us that, with a few clicks of the mouse, we could ‘embiggen’ the photo.”
Love that coinage! Sometimes even a marginally literate bonehead site like Yahoo stumbles upon a novelty that adds to the word stock of a language. To enlarge is the customary verb. But to embiggen adds a clumsy, funsy swelling that teeters and totters and threatens to implode with a feeble, susurrant sssffffffft! — due to “enlargile dysfunction.” Such an enormity may well befall this very column, should I not now absquatulate.
Bill Casselman, April 20, 2017
Text copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman
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