Fred's got a way with words

He knows that hotch-potch comes from Old French, that we get the word 'idiot' from 13th Century Greek (via Latin) and that English, German and Swedish have similar slang for breaking wind.

Steven Russell

He knows that hotch-potch comes from Old French, that we get the word 'idiot' from 13th Century Greek (via Latin) and that English, German and Swedish have similar slang for breaking wind. Fred Sedgwick has a way with words, as Steven Russell discovers

PRESENT the average schoolboy with a new dictionary and chances are his first thought will involve looking up rude words. Old habits die hard, so former Ipswich headmaster Fred Sedgwick's new book on word origins is a temptation too far for me. And I'm not disappointed: he hasn't chickened out. “Frankly, I had to decide if I was going to put the taboo words in, and I decided I would,” he reports. “My great hero is Samuel Johnson” - the Dr Johnson of 18th Century writing and lexicography fame. “When his dictionary came out, after many years of hard labour, a very respectable women said to him 'Ah, Dr Johnson, I see you have not put in the vulgar words.' And Johnson replied 'Ah, madam, I see you have been looking for them!'

“The most extreme taboo, the dreaded C-word, has a fascinating history. It's in Chaucer, in The Miller's Tale and The Wife of Bath's Tale, spelt queynte. It's not exactly respectable, but it's quite common. It was common in its modern form in street names in Oxford and London. It became taboo much later.”

Fred has long been fascinated by words and where they come from. He remembers Latin master Mr Cooper telling his London grammar school class that sincere came from two Latin words: sine, meaning without, and cera, meaning wax. To stress that a jar for sale in the market was sound, rather than a broken one glued back together with wax, a stallholder might say it was sine cera - without wax, and therefore genuine.

“I was only about 12 and I loved it. He was quite wrong, however!” laughs Fred. “What he's got there is a faux etymology. People will tell you that butterfly comes from flutterby, which it doesn't. And Michael Caine on the telly, apropos of absolutely nothing, said marmalade comes from the fact that when Mary Queen of Scots was ill, the only thing she'd eat was this stuff. People in the palace would shout 'Ma'am est malade' - and that's the origins of marmalade. Which is absolute rubbish! It comes from the Portuguese for quince.”

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Fred was thus delighted when his publisher agreed to an A to Z on where words come from.

“I'd like it to be approachable. I'm involved in a lot of poetry, but if you're in the pub or at a dinner party, no-one's interested in poetry - or very rarely. But I've been talking about the book and people have been interested in the origins of words.

“Children always like to know the origins of their name. Chloe never knows that hers means green shoot, or that your name is, I think, 'bright and shining.' [Hmm . . .] Mine is Danish for peace.

“Interestingly, Muslim children always seem to know what their name means. Fatima will tell you she's the daughter of a prophet, and so on - though I have to say I've never met a Leah who knew her name came from the Hebrew for cow, or was happy when she was told!”

In fact, knowing the provenance of words can root us in our culture and history - giving us a sense of foundation, stability and worth. That's something that seems to be lacking in our busy, dog-eat-dog world, he feels. “I think the decline of religion has left a hole in that sense for many people.

“I don't want to get all corny and 'grouchy old man' about it, but the total materialism of society . . . even people who don't realise it have, I think, got a hunger for something less crude and coarse than reading about Peter Andre, Jordan and Paris Hilton.

“The great thing in English is that we are unique: we've got both Latin and the Anglo-Saxon. Recently I rewrote my will. When you look at the document, it says 'will and testament.' The reason it says both is that 'will' is the old Anglo-Saxon word and 'testament' is the Latinate word. So in Norman times they kept both. Law, because of that, is full of tautologies.

“A guy called John Cheek tried to translate the Bible back in the 1700s, I think, and he had this militant anti-Latinate approach. He said we shouldn't use words like centurion, which is from the Latin. When Jesus heals the centurion's servant, Cheek calls the centurion a hundreder. Of course, it didn't catch on!”

Start thinking about words and your journey never ends, as Fred's discovered. Take the butterfly . . .

“I was very disappointed to hear that it didn't come from flutterby. It's Old English. They thought this insect stole butter from the dairy.”

Some words have changed in our own lifetimes. Like gay. “Its history is extraordinary. It's always had a dodgy connotation. If you said a woman was gay in Victorian times she was, as my mother would have put it, not everything she should be. So if you, as a person of either sex, were wearing gay clothes in Victorian times, you were probably putting it about a bit.”

Our language is, of course, heavily influenced (and poetically improved) from outside. Bungalow, for instance, was brought back from India by soldiers and means 'house from Bengal'. Canoe is from the 16th Century Haitian, canoa, while anorak owes its existence to the 20th Century Greenland Inuit for a piece of clothing: anoraq.

Fred likes 'star', which is there everywhere in Indo-European languages. The connections can easily be seen in the German stern (we get our word from a Germanic source), Italian's stella, the Spanish estrella and stjarna in Swedish.

The great joy about vocabulary is that its rhythm and quirkiness adds so much colour.

“One thing about English is that we have a fondness for words like namby-pamby; willy-nilly; itsy-bitsy. There was a sentimental 18th Century poet called Ambrose Philips, and [Alexander] Pope and the other poets didn't like him - I think he was effeminate and his verses were a bit . . . well, airy-fairy! - so they called him Namby-pamby!”

As well as writing, Fred also still teaches in schools - both the supply kind and encouraging children in creative writing. For the past five or six years he's had a book project on the go most of the time, but not now. There are proposals in, but nothing signed, sealed and delivered.

“It's like looking over the edge of a cliff; I just don't like it!” he smiles. “There's a lot of the Puritan in me. I like to be on the go.”

Did you know?

Bloomers: A 19th Century word after Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), a pioneering feminist who wore long loose trousers

The F-word: Two folk etymologies suggest it is an acronym - For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge or Fornication Under Consent of the King. “Both rubbish, of course,” says Fred Sedgwick. It's probably Scandinavian in origin. A Norwegian dialect has fukka for copulate, while a Swedish dialect has focka

Influenza: 18th Century Italian for “influence” - or “outbreak”. So “influenza di catarro”, for instance, means outbreak of catarrh

Mattress: From 13th Century Arabic matrah, for mat, which derives taraha - so, something thrown on the floor

Nicotine: Fourteenth Century. “The dubious honour goes to Jacques Nicot, French ambassador at Lisbon, who introduced tobacco to France in 1590

Palaver: From 18th Century Portuguese word palavra (speech) and Latin parabole

Pukka: From 17th Century Hindi pakka - ripe

Pyjamas: From 18th Century Urdu pay jama - leg clothing

Where Words Come From - A Dictionary of Word Origins is published by Continuum at �9.99. ISBN 978-1847062741

Right says Fred

Fred Sedgwick used to be head of Downing primary school in Ipswich, and Bramford school

Where Words Come From is Fred's 30th book, give or take

He's written many about education, such as How To Teach With A Hangover

The Saatchi Gallery in London has ordered 100-odd copies of his new book!