The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 16/Of the Antiquity of the English Tongue
THE ANTIQUITY OF THE ENGLISH TONGUE;
DURING the reign of parties for about forty years past, it is a melancholy consideration to observe how philology has been neglected, which was before the darling employment of the greatest authors, from the restoration of learning in Europe. Neither do I remember it to have been cultivated, since the Revolution, by any one person, with great success, except our illustrious modern star, doctor Richard Bentley with whom the republick of learning must expire; as mathematicks did with sir Isaac Newton. My ambition has been gradually attempting, from my early youth, to be the holder of a rush-light before that great luminary; which, at least, might be of some little use during those short intervals, while he was snuffing his candle, or peeping with it under a bushel.
My present attempt is, to assert the antiquity of our English tongue; which, as I shall undertake to prove by invincible arguments, has varied very little for these two thousand six hundred and thirty four years past. And my proofs will be drawn from etymology; wherein I shall use my readers much fairer than Pezro, Skinner, Verstegan, Camden, and many other superficial pretenders have done; for I will put no force upon the words, nor desire any more favour than to allow for the usual accidents of corruption, or the avoiding a cacophonia.
I think, I can make it manifest to all impartial readers, that our language, as we now speak it, was originally the same with those of the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans, however corrupted in succeeding times by a mixture of barbarisms. I shall only produce at present, two instances among a thousand from the Latin tongue. Cloaca, which they interpret a necessary-house, is altogether an English word; the last letter a being, by the mistake of some scribe, transferred from the beginning to the end of the word. In the primitive orthography, it is called a cloac, which had the same signification; and still continues so at Edinburgh in Scotland, where a man in a cloac, or cloak, of large circumference and length, carrying a convenient vessel under it, calls out, as he goes through the streets, "Wha has need of me?" Whatever customer calls, the vessel is placed in the corner of the street; the cloac, or a cloak, surrounds and covers him; and thus he is eased with decency and secrecy.
The second instance is yet more remarkable. The Latin word turpis signifies nasty, or filthy. Now this word turpis is a plain composition of two English words; only, by a syncope, the last letter of the first syllable, which is d, is taken out of the middle, to prevent the jarring of three consonants together: and these two Engllsh words express the most unseemly excrements that belong to man.
But although I could produce many other exampies, equally convincing, that the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Romans, originally spoke the same language which we do at present; yet I have chosen to confine myself chiefly to the proper names of persons, because I conceive they will be of greater weight to confirm what I advance; the ground and reason of those names being certainly owing to the nature, or some distinguishing action or quality in those persons, and consequently expressed in the true ancient language of the several people.
I will begin with the Grecians, among whom the most ancient are the great leaders on both sides in the siege of Troy; for it is plain, from Homer, that the Trojans spoke Greek as well as the Grecians. Of these latter, Achilles was the most valiant. This hero was of a restless unquiet nature, never giving himself any repose either in peace or war; and therefore, as Guy of Warwick was called a kill-cow, and another terrible man a kill-devil, so this general was called A-kill-ease, or destroyer of ease; and at length, by corruption, Achilles.
Hector, on the other side, was the bravest among the Trojans. He had destroyed so many of the Greeks, by hacking and tearing them, that his soldiers, when they saw him fighting, would cry out, "Now the enemy will be hack't, now he will be tore. At last, by putting both words together, this appellation was given to their leader, under the name of Hacktore; and, for the more commodious sounding, Hector.
Diomede, another Grecian captain, had the boldness to fight with Venus, and wound her; whereupon the goddess, in a rage, ordered her son Cupid to make this hero to be hated by all women, repeating it often that he should die a maid; from whence, by a small change in orthography, he was called Diomede. And it is to be observed, that the term maiden-head is frequently, at this very day, applied to persons of either sex.
Ajax was, in fame, the next Grecian general to Achilles. The derivation of his name from A jakes, however asserted by great authors, is, in my opinion, very unworthy both of them and of the hero himself. I have often wondered to see such learned men mistake in so clear a point. This hero is known to have been a most intemperate liver, as it is usual with soldiers; and, although he was not old, yet, by conversing with camp-strollers, he had got pains in his bones, which he pretended to his friends were only age-aches; but they telling the story about the army, as the vulgar always confound right pronunciation, he was afterward known by no other name than Ajax.
The next I shall mention is Andromache, the famous wife of Hector. Her father was a Scotch gentleman, of a noble family still subsisting in that ancient kingdom. But, being a foreigner in Troy, to which city he led some of his countrymen in the defence of Priam, as Dictys Cretensis learnedly observes; Hector fell in love with his daughter, and the father's name was Andrew Mackay. The young lady was called by the same name, only a little softened to the Grecian accent.
Astyanax was the son of Hector and Andromache. When Troy was taken, this young prince had his head cut off, and his body thrown to swine. From this fatal accident he had his name; which has, by a peculiar good fortune, been preserved entire, A sty, an ax.
Mars may be mentioned among these, because he fought against the Greeks. He was called the God of war; and is described as a swearing, swaggering companion, and a great giver of rude language. For, when he was angry, he would cry, "Kiss my a—se, "My a—se in a bandbox, My a—se all over:" which he repeated so commonly, that he got the appellation of My a—se; and by a common abbreviation, M'ars; from whence, by leaving out the mark of elision, Mars. And this is a common practice among us at present; as in the words D'anvas, D'avenport, D'anby, which are now written Dauvers, Davenport, Danby, and many others.
The next is Hercules, otherwise called Alcides. Both these names are English, with little alteration; and describe the principal qualities of that hero, who was distinguished for being a slave to his mistresses, and at the same time for his great strength and courage. Omphale, his chief mistress, used to call her lovers her cullies; and because this hero was more and longer subject to her than any other, he was in a particular manner called the chief of her cullies: which, by an easy change, made the word Hercules. His other name Alcides was given him on account of his prowess: for, in fight, he used to strike on all sides; and was allowed on all sides to be the chief hero of his age. For one of which reasons, he was called All sides, or Alcides: but I am inclined to favour the former opinion.
A certain Grecian youth was a great imitator of Socrates; which that philosopher observing, with much pleasure, said to his friends, "There is an Ape o' mine own days." After which the young man was called Epaminondas, and proved to be the most virtuous person, as well as the greatest general of his age.
Ucalegon was a very obliging inn-keeper of Troy. When a guest was going to take horse, the landlord took leave of him with this compliment, "Sir, I should be glad to see you call again." Strangers, who knew not his right name, caught his last words; and thus, by degrees, that appellation prevailed, and he was known by no other name even among his neighbours.
Hydra was a great serpent, which Hercules slew. His usual outward garment was the raw hyde of a lion, and this he had on when he attacked the serpent; which, therefore, took its name from the skin; the modesty of that hero devolving the honour of his victory upon the lion's skin, calling that enormous snake the Hyde-raw serpent.
As to Jupiter himself, it is well known that the statues and pictures of this heathen god, in Roman catholic countries, resemble those of St. Peter, and are often taken the one for the other. The reason is manifest: for, when the emperors had established Christianity, the heathens were afraid of acknowledging their heathen idols of the chief God, and pretended it was only a statue of the Jew Peter. And thus the principal heathen god came to be called by the ancient Romans, with very little alteration, Jupiter.
The Hamadryades are represented by mistaken antiquity as nymphs of the groves. But the true account is this: They were women of Calabria, who dealt in bacon; and living near the seaside, used to pickle their bacon in salt water, and then set it up to dry in the sun. From whence they were properly called Ham-a-dry-a-days, and in process of time, mispelt Hamadryades.
Neptune, the god of the sea, had his name from the tunes sung to him by the Tritons, upon their shells, every neap or nep tide. The word is come down to us almost uncorrupted, as well as that of Tritons, his servants; who, in order to please their master, used to try all tones, till they could hit upon that he liked.
Aristotle, was a peripatetic philosopher, who used to instruct his scholars while he was walking. When the lads were come, he would arise to tell them what he thought proper; and was therefore called Arise to tell. But succeeding ages, who understood not this etymology, have, by an absurd change, made it Aristotle.
Aristophanes was a Greek comedian, full of levity, and gave himself too much freedom; which made graver people not scruple to say, that he had a great deal of airy stuff in his writings: and these words, often repeated, made succeeding ages denominate him Aristophanes. Vide Rosin. Antiq. 1. iv.
Alexander the Great was very fond of eggs roasted in hot ashes. As soon as his cooks heard he come home to dinner or supper, they called aloud to their under-officers, All eggs under the Grate: which, repeated every day at noon and evening, made strangers think it was that prince's real name, and therefore gave him no other; and posterity has been ever since under the same delusion.
Pygmalion was a person of very low stature, but great valour; which made his townsmen call him Pygmy lion: and so it should be spelt; although the word has suffered less by transcribers than many others.
Archimedes was a most famous mathematician. His studies required much silence and quiet: but his wife having several maids, they were always disturbing him with their tattle or their business; which forced him to come out every now and then to the stair-head, and cry, "Hark ye, maids, if you will not be quiet, I shall turn you out of doors." He repeated these words, Hark ye, maids; so often, that the unlucky jades, when they found he was at his study, would say, "There is Hark ye, maids' let us speak softly." Thus the name went through the neighbourhood; and, at last, grew so general, that we are ignorant of that great man's true name to this day.
Strabo was a famous geographer; and to improve his knowledge, travelled over several countries, as the writers of his life inform us; who likewise add, that he affected great nicety and finery in his clothes: from whence people took occasion to call him the Stray beau; which future ages have pinned down upon him, very much to his dishonour.
Peloponnesus, that famous Grecian peninsula, got its name from a Greek colony in Asia the Less; many of whom going for traffick thither, and finding that the inhabitants had but one well in the town of * * * *, from whence certain porters used to carry the water through the city in great pails, so heavy that they were often forced to set them down for ease; the tired porters, after they had set down the pails, and wanted to take them up again, would call for assistance to those who were nearest, in these words, Pail up, and ease us. The stranger Greeks, hearing these words repeated a thousand times as they passed the street, thought the inhabitants were pronouncing the name of their country, which made the foreign Greeks call it Peloponnesus, a manifest corruption of Pail up, and ease us.
Cæsar was the greatest captain of that empire. The word ought to be spelt Seizer, because he seized on not only most of the known world, but even the liberties of his own country: so that a more proper appellation could not have been given him.
Cicero was a poor scholar in the university of Athens, wherewith his enemies in Rome used to reproach him; and, as he passed the streets, would call out, O Ciser, Ciser o! A word still used in Cambridge, and answers to a servitor in Oxford.
Anibal was a sworn enemy of the Romans, and gained many glorious victories over them. This name appears, at first repeating, to be a metaphor drawn from tennis, expressing a skilful gamester, who can take any ball; and is very justly applied to so renowned a commander. Navigators are led into a strange mistake upon this article. We have usually in our fleet some large man of war, called the Anibal with great propriety, because it is so strong that it may defy any ball from a cannon. And such is the deplorable ignorance of our seamen, that they miscall it the Honey-ball.
Cartago was the most famous trading city in the world; where, in every street, there was many a cart a going, probably laden with merchants goods. See Alexander ab Alexandro, and Suidas upon the word Cartago.
The word Roman itself is perfectly English, like other words ending in man or men, as hangman, drayman, huntsman, and several others. It was formerly spelt Rowman, which is the same with Waterman. And therefore when we read of jesta (or, as it is corruptly spelt, gesta) Romanorum, it is to be understood of the rough manner of jesting used by watermen; who, upon the sides of rivers, would row man o'r um. This I think is clear enough to convince the most incredulous.
Misanthropus was the name of an ill-natured man, which he obtained by a custom of catching a great number of mice, then shutting them up in a room, and throwing a cat among them. Upon which his fellow citizens called him Mice and throw puss. The reader observes how much the orthography has been changed, without altering the sound: but such depravations we owe to the injury of time, and gross ignorance of transcribers.
Among the ancients, fortunetelling by the stars was a very beggarly trade. The professors lay upon straw, and their cabins were covered with the same materials: whence every one who followed that mystery was called A straw lodger, or a lodger in straw; but, in the new-fangled way of spelling, Astrologer.
It is remarkable that the very word dipthong is wholly English. In former times, schoolboys were chastised with thongs fastened at the head of a stick. It was observed that young lads were much puzzled with spelling and pronouncing words where two vowels came together, and were often corrected for their mistakes in that point. Upon these occasions the master would dip his thongs (as we now do rods) in p—, which made that difficult union of vowels to be called dipthong.
Bucephalus, the famous horse of Alexander, was so called because there were many grooms employed about him, which fellows were always busy in their office; and because the horse had so many busy fellows about him, it was natural for those who went to the stable to say, "Let us go to the busy fellows;" by which they meant, to see that prince's horse. And in process of time, these words were absurdly applied to the animal itself, which was thenceforth styled Busy fellows, and very improperly Bucephalus.
I shall now bring a few proofs of the same kind, to convince my readers that our English was well, known to the Jews.
Abraham was a person of strong bones and sinews, and a firm walker, which made the people say, "He was a man (in the Scotch phrase, which comes nearest to the old Saxon) of a bra ham;" that is, of a brave strong ham, from whence he acquired his name.
Thus I have manifestly proved, that the Greeks, the Romans, and the Jews, spoke the language we now do in England; which is an honour to our country that I thought proper to set in a true light, and yet has not been done, as I have heard, by any other writer.
And thus I have ventured (perhaps too temerariously) to contribute my mite to the learned world; from whose candour, if I may hope to receive some approbation, it may probably give me encouragement to proceed on some other speculations, if possible, of greater importance than what I now offer; and which have been the labour of many years, as well as of constant watchings, that I might be useful to mankind, and particularly to mine own country.