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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 32



The Saxon-English negative ne has disappeared, and not has usurped its place. But the position of the negative has been changed. Ne always came before the verb in the sentence (as in Latin); not has its place after the verb. Take as a sample the sentence, "Have you not read?" In the Saxon-English version of the Gospels it stands: "Ne redde ge?" literally, "not have read ye?" Again: "Ne oudrede ge eow" (fear ye not); literally, "not fear ye you," where ge = ye is the nominative case, and eow = you, the accusative or objective, a distinction which we have neglected and lost.

The old negative ne is used by Spencer in his "Faery Queene;" but Spencer affected Archaic forms, just as Sallust did in his day, and ne in Spencer's time was obsolescent, if not obsolete, in common speech.

Lord Byron in his poem of "Childe Harold" adopted Spencer's stanza, and used the old negative ne instead of not, and, moreover, restored its place before the verb:—

Whilom in Albion's Isle there dwelt a youth,

Who ne in virtue's ways did take delight.

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But ne had become obsolete to most of his readers, as much so as hight for named :

"Childe Harold was he hight."

The newspapers have made y-clep'd = called, familiar to the ordinary reader, but they have not done as much for hight.

In Chaucer's time, ne n' was made to coalesce with many verbs, which in this respect were like the Latin verb nolo = non volo. For example :—
Nam Ne am Am not
Nis Ne is Is not
Nas Ne was Was not
Nadde Ne hadde Had not
Niste Ne wiste Wist not, or knew not
Nolde Ne wolde Would not

And many others. We have a trace of this, and that is all, in the provincial expression will-he nil-he (sometimes written, "wille nille) = Will he or will he not—that is, whether he will or will not; but with that faint provincial vestige, Chaucer's coalescent negative verbs have disappeared from our common speech. Possibly, the change in the place of the negative in the sentence may account for this.

We retain a few words in which the old negative ne is obviously embedded, and as none of these are verbs, the altered place of the negative does not interpose any difficulty :—
None Ne one None.
Never Ne ever Not ever.
Neither Ne either Not either.
Naught Ne aught Not aught, not anything.
Chaucer, Gower, and the author of the "Vision of Piers Plowman" (1360—1400) have some other coalescent forms, such as seestow = seest thou; wiltow = wilt thou; but they, too, have disappeared, except a few which still linger in provincial speech; and we retain a few, which may be ranked as recognised words, e.g.
Din do in.
Dout do out.
Don do on.
Doff do off.

There are two other classes of words, the results of a sort of abnormal coalescence, which, for want of an appropriate place, I may as well explain here.

We have a few words which formerly began with the letter n, but which now begin with a vowel; the n, which etymologically

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belongs to the word, having detached itself therefrom, and fastened itself upon the indefinite article; whilst we have a few others which originally began with a vowel, but which have made reprisals upon the article an, having stolen its n and adopted it as an initial letter. There is some reason to believe that there are a few words which have effected a very narrow escape from a similar corruption.

Adder, a snake of the viper tribe, is an example of the first kind. The Saxon-English word is naeddre, which, in Chaucer's time, was written nedder, neddir. The modern German word is natter. There can be no doubt that, etymologically, adder ought to be nadder; but the word has lost its initial n, which has transferred itself to the indefinite article, and a nedder has become an adder.

All the languages belonging to the Teutonic family (in which I include the Scandinavian) are in the older form :—
Moeso-Gothic (circ. A.D. 360) Nadr.
Norse or Old Icelandic Nadhr.
Old High German Natra.
Saxon-English Naeddre.
The Ormulum (circ. A.D. 1200) Neddre.
Piers Plowman (A.D. 1362) Neddre.
Chaucer and Gower (circ. 1380) Nedder.
Modern German Natter.
One M.S. of Piers Plowmen Addris.
Wicliffe Eddre.
Chaucer, folio 1561 (penes me) Adder.
Modern English Adder.

We can actually see the process of change commencing, and almost mark its date.

It is not until a few years after A.D. 1200 that we find the indefinite article an well established—e.g., in the Ormulum and Layamon's Brut. The definite article the had become common nearly half a century earlier. Before the former date, therefore, there was no indefinite article to rob, or be robbed, or to confuse the ear by a coalescent sound. In the MS. of "Piers Plowman's Vision," used by Mr. Thomas Wright in his edition of 1856, the old form appears; but in the MS. used by Mr. Skeat, in his edition of 1869, we find "addris;" but the date of the MS. is not given, and probably is not known. In the Wicliffite versions of the Bible, edited by Sir F. Madden and the Rev. Mr. Forshall, from the earliest MSS., we find "eddre," singular; and "eddres," plural. Wicliffe's date is about 1389, so that the new form began to creep in before A.D. 1400. How much later the older form "nedder" held concurrent sway, I have no means of tracing. The folio page 44 editions of Chaucer are no authority. Caxton and his followers altered the reading and spelling to the English of their own day. It has been left to modern scholars to restore the text of Chaucer and other writers of his age.

Another word which has shared the same fate, is the name of the well-known shipwright's and wheelwright's tool, an auger. Look at this word auger, and who would suppose that the nave of a wheel lies embedded or fossilised therein? Yet so it is. The Saxon-English word is Naue-gar, sometimes found in the form Nafe-gar. Hence, Naue-gar, Nafe-gar, has been referred to Nafu, the nave of a wheel—the f and u (or w) being inter-changeable letters. The last syllable, gar, is, primarily, a dart or javelin, and, secondarily, any pointed instrument or tool capable of boring a hole. Naue-gar is therefore a nave-borer. Ladies will not object to this secondary meaning of gar* when I remind them that they employ the name of a murderous weapon for one of the implements of the work-table—stiletto.

Naue-gar has lost its initial n, which has attached itself to the article, and that which ought to have been a nauger has become an auger.

I am strongly induced to think that the word apron—an article of dress—has suffered a similar change, being probably derived from napperon—a small linen cloth. This word nap-peron, it is true, is never, like Nadder and Naue-gar, found in the earliest English, and therefore, if derived as I suggest, it must have parted with its initial n at the moment of its adoption. The French, too, have another word for an apron—tablier. Some etymologists derive the word from the Saxon a-foren—something worn before the person, as in pin-a-fore; but this seems to me to be less probable than the suggested French origin, inasmuch as the French language has been a fertile source of our English names of dress. The thing itself may have been introduced by some enterprising trader, who had heard the word napperon for a fragment of linen cloth, but whose ear was deceived by the word. Perhaps, like Chaucer's prioress, he spoke French,

"After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,

For French of Parys was to him unknowe;"

and napperon would become first an apperon, and would soon be shortened to an apron.

Nappenap means linen cloth, just as Drap means woollen cloth. We have the first in nap-kin. As drap-ier (now contracted to draper) is a dealer in woollen cloth, so nap-ier is a page 45 dealer in linen. I have heard a fanciful attempt to derive the proper name Napier from Ne-pier or Ne-peer—no equal, peerless. But this is not tenable.

Among the words which have made reprisals in the article, Newt, a small water-reptile is the most conspicuous. Perhaps it is the only one which is entirely free from doubt. Shakespeare has "eye of newt, and toe of frog," among the ingredients of the witch's cauldron, and he has the word in other places. The oldest form of the word is efet, or eft, which our language still retains. I have already mentioned that the change from f to w is a common permutation, and eft and ewt are the same word, which has become newt by the process to which I have referred—an ewt = a newt.

According to Latham, the word nag, for a small horse, belongs to the same class, the initial n, as he contends, not being radical. He considers that the radical word is the old Norse, or old Icelandic word, ög, and was probably transplanted to Northumbria where many Danish forms prevail. The Saxon form of the word would be ág. It has, if Latham be right, stripped the article of its final n, which has fastened itself on the radical, and nag is now a well-established word. Notwithstanding Latham's high authority, however, which in Teutonic learning is very great, it is proper to point out that his explanation of nag is not supported by such conclusive evidence as the derivation of the word newt. We have the word eft or ewt from the very earliest times down to our own day, whereas the word ög or ág does not appear upon English soil, that I am aware of, before the article an made its appearance to lend its aid to such transformations. In addition to this negative reason for doubt, we have in Saxon a word which may have given birth to nag, namely the verb hnaeg-an, to neigh, in which the n is radical.

There is another word, not recognised by Latham as belonging to this class, but which Skinner places therein, and, I think, with good reason—I mean the word nook, a corner. Home Tooke, who saw past participles in a vast number of nouns, thinks that nook is the past participle of the word nick. Why, it is not easy to conceive.

The Dutch and Belgic een hoek is a comer. I do not find that the Saxon word hóc—hook—bears the meaning of a corner or an angle, in any glossary to which I have access. But it may have had that meaning. Without relying upon a supposed Saxon origin, we undoubtedly derive many words from the Dutch, and this may be one. Een hoek, dropping the aspirate, would be sounded very like "a nook," the article parting with its initial n to the noun, as already explained.

Latham, in his new Dictionary of the English Language, makes page 46 the word neddy, the familiar name of a donkey, a word of the same class as newt and nag. He considers that the word was heady, from the headstrong character of the animal, and that by dropping the aspirate, and robbing the article of the n, it has become neaddy, neddy. In spite of the great respect which is due to Latham, I cannot but regard this as an ingenious freak of etymology. In the first place, neddy is sometimes applied to a pony as well as to an ass, and I suspect that neddy is only one out of many instances in which men apply human names to animals. Asses are commonly called Jack and Jenny; goats, Billy and Nanny. We have Jack daws, Jenny wrens, and Poll parrots. Why seek a more recondite origin for a Neddy? Still, there is another aspect of the word which shadows forth a possibility, but no more than a possibility, that the initial n may have the origin imputed to it, without resorting to the headstrong or heady donkey. We have several Christian names commencing with a vowel, which, in a familiar form, have the letter n prefixed. For instance, Ann, Nan, Nanny, Nancy; Ellen, Nell, Nelly; Oliver, Noll; Edward, Ned, Neddy.

The article was sometimes used before names. In a battle cry, the combatants would thus use the name of their chief:—"A Percy," "a Percy;" "a Douglas," "a Douglas;" "an Oliver," "a Roland," and so forth. This appears from many of our old romances and ballads. Several of our Edwards have been great in battle as in council. Thus, "an Edward," "an Oliver," rapidly repeated, may have given rise to Ned, Neddy, and Noll. But it seems to me more probable that Nan, Nell, Ned, and names of a like nature, are mere phonetic tricks of the vulgar, for the sake of ease of utterance. "Ann, Ann, Ann," repeated by a child would become Nan.

There are a few other words to be found, perhaps, in a single old manuscript, which show that some words commencing with a vowel have had a narrow escape from having the n of the article fastened upon them.

Halliwell, in his Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial Words, has several of these. A nail, for an awl, is one of these, and it is found in two printed books, "Tusser's Hundred Points of Good Husbandry" and "Tipsell's Beasts," ed. 1605, p. 183. A nage, for an egg, is also mentioned, but no authority is cited. A nye, for an eye, occurs in a MS. in the Cambridge University Library:

"Fro nyce japis and ribaldry
Away thou must turne thi nye,
Turne thi nye that thou not see
This wicoud worldis vanyté."

Thi nye, instead of thine eye, is probably due to the carelessness page 47 of the scribe. The two forms are what lawyers call idem sonans; but thi nye never seems to have got farther. Error must, however, have a beginning. It had a beginning in newt, auger, and adder, and got perpetuated. Eye has been more fortunate in its escape.

I now take leave of the reader. The examples which I have given are not very numerous; but I have endeavoured so to shape my explanations as to set the student upon the proper track of investigation—namely, the reading of our English authors who lived before the reign of Elizabeth. If the reader once dives into Chaucer, he will be very likely to be tempted farther back.

Printed at the "Daily Times" Office, Rattray Street, Dunedin.

* This same word gar appears in gar-fish, from the dart-like form of its sncut. It is sometimes erroneously called guard fish, but it was gar-fish in King Alfred's time, and is still so called in the North of England. The gar-fish is abundant in Victoria and New Zealand.