13 August 2015


A few days ago over on @HaggardHawks, I posted this:
Which raised this perfectly appropriate question:
The short answer is, yes, there is. But the long answer is—well, much more interesting than that.

So, first things first: the ana– of ananym is the Ancient Greek word ana, which was variously used to mean “back”, “up”, “on”, “around”, “towards”, “throughout”, and just about every other preposition you can imagine. It’s the same root we find in words like anagram, analogy, and analysis, as well as in less obvious places like Anabaptist (literally “one who baptizes again”) and Anastasia (which means “resurrection”).

The suffix –nym comes from the Greek word for “name”, onyma, which is same the root as in much more familiar words like synonym, acronym, pseudonym and anonymous. So put together, an ananym is literally a “back-name”—a word formed by reversing another.

That’s all well and good, of course, but what about examples?

Well, admittedly the majority of ananyms in use today tend either to be proper nouns or fictional inventions: think of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Corporation, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (a partially-reversed “nowhere”), or Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, which was set in the fictitious Welsh town of “Llareggub” (you can work that one out yourself).

There are towns called Adanac in Canada, and Saxet in Texas. The girls’ names Segna and Nevaeh are “Agnes” and “heaven” spelled backwards. Dioretsa is the fantastically fitting name of an asteroid with an appropriately retrograde orbit. And if you’ve ever thought searching the Internet was too straightforward, why not try searching for everything backwards over on elgooG?

None of those will find its way into a dictionary any time soon, of course, but that’s not to say that a handful of ananyms haven’t already done so. Mho, for instance, is the name of a unit of electrical conductance, coined in opposition to the ohm, a unit of resistance. Along similar lines, physicists have at their disposal units called the yrneh (a unit of inverse electrical inductance, derived from the henry) and the daraf (a measure of electric elastance, as opposed to the farad, a measure of electrical capacitance). And not wanting to be outdone by the Michael Faradays of this world, in 1921 the US engineer Frank Bunker Gilbreth invented the therblig, a unit of work in a time-and-motion study. (Shameless plug—there’s more about these in the HaggardHawks fact book…)

By far the most familiar example of an ananymic word, however, is yob, which has been in use since the mid-nineteenth century to refer to what might otherwise be called a hooligan or a ruffian. It’s earliest record comes from a Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words, compiled by the English lexicographer John Camden Hotton in 1859.

The full title of Hotton’s dictionary (which is way too long to reproduce here) goes on to explain that it contains “glossaries of two secret languages spoken by the wandering tribes of London”: the two “languages” in question are Cockney rhyming slang and “back slang”, a much less familiar variety of Victorian English slang that, as its name suggests, involved reversing the letters of everyday words and phrases to form an entirely new (and fairly unintelligible) vocabulary. In other words, back slang it was a language of ananyms.

Like rhyming slang, back slang is thought to have first emerged in the early 1800s. In his dictionary, Hotton describes it as “the secret language of the costermongers”, suggesting that it probably originated among London street traders as a means of communicating exclusively with one another, presumably to the bewilderment of their customers.

So in London back slang, a cabbage was an edgabac, an orange was an edgenaro, and pinurt pots were turnip tops. An exis-yeneps was sixpence, a rouf-yeneps was fourpence, and earth gens was three shillings. After a good day’s trading, one seller might comment that he’d made a doogheno hit, or a “good hit” (“implying that he did well at market, or sold out with good profit,” according to Hotton), after which he might treat himself to a top o’reeb (a “pot of beer”), if not a track (a “quart”)—and end up quite kennurd (“drunk”), or at least flatch kennurd (“half-drunk”).

And second from last on Hotton’s list is yob, listed as Victorian back slang for “boy”:

Although linguistic techniques like back slang have remained in use ever since (and are by no means exclusive to English), aside from yob you’d be hard-pushed to find anyone who still uses any of the other entries on Hotton’s list, or to find any similar terms listed in a modern dictionary. 

Contrast that with rhyming slang, which has contributed considerably more to our language than meets the mince-pies: if you’ve ever used your loaf (loaf of bread = “bead”), 86ed something (eighty-six = “nix”), took the mickey out of someone (Mickey Bliss = “take the piss”), or called them a berk (Berkley Hunt = look that one up yourself), then you’ve used rhyming slang, whether you’ve realized it or not.

Os smynana thgim eb erar, tub er’yeht yb on snaem tcnitxe.

11 August 2015


A few days ago, HaggardHawks tweeted this:
And, well, it’s all just a little too bizarre to leave unexplained... 

There’s an old language myth that claims toad-eater comes from the Spanish mi todita (literally “my little everything”), which is itself a diminutive of toda, the Spanish word for “all”. Todita, so the story goes, was once a jocular title used by well-to-do Spaniards for their closest and most servile assistants or aides, who were only too ready to help their masters out in whatever way necessary, hence the definition above. 

It’s a neat theory—but unfortunately it’s completely untrue. In fact, the true history of the toad-eater is much more interesting, much more literal, and considerably more revolting, than all that.

According to the OED, the earliest record we have of a toad-eater comes from a seventeenth-century diarist named John Rous. Rous kept a diary from 1625-43, during which time he was the Anglican vicar of the village of Santon Downham in Suffolk, England. He recorded a predictably eclectic mix of events from both home and abroad, ranging from the coronation of Charles I in 1625 (described as “very joyous to the well-affected, but to the Papists not very welcome”) to reports of a rebellion in Portugal, Spanish ships returning from the West Indies being attacked by Dutch pirates, and, inevitably, growing unrest across England in the lead-up to what would eventually become the Civil War.

Alongside all the headlines, however, Rous’s diary contains several accounts of local goings-on in and around his own parish—including, in 1629, this account of a conversation with a shopkeeper in the nearby village of Laxfield:
I inquired of him if William Utting the toade-eater … did not once keepe [i.e. stay] at Laxfield; he tould me yes, and said he had seen him eate a toade, nay two.
Rous goes on to explain how “the toade-eater” apparently went about his business:
The man in whose house he kept went to him and … tould him that a friend of his would give a groate [4 pence] to see him eate a toade (thus was the way to see it): he accepted the offer, and went and fetche in, from under blocks, ij toads … He swallowed them downe, but presently he cast them up into his hands, and after some pawse, “Nay,” sayeth he, “I will not loose my groate.” So taking that which came up last (saith he), “thou wentst in first before and shalte doe againe.” When both then were downe, his stomach held them, and he had his groate.
Seemingly, Utting somehow managed to swallow two toads whole (after having already vomited them up once), and thereby won himself the princely some of one groat—or just under £2 (or just over $3) in 2015. But how do we get from this fairly disgusting story to the considerably less disgusting meaning in the tweet above?

Well, back in Rous’s day, toads were widely believed to be incredibly poisonous. Not only that, but their warty skin, their fondness of dark, dank places, and their ability to survive both on land and in water led to an association with black magic and witchcraft; even the Devil’s coat of arms is traditionally said to be decorated with “three unclean spirits like frogs”. To even touch a toad was, frankly, to dice with death—and so to be able to eat one was quite some feat.

Can’t you two get a room?

Rous’s toad-eater, and the many more like him who worked the country fairs and fêtes of Georgian England, knew precisely that. They also presumably knew that toads—or, by any rate, the two species of toad native to Great Britain—aren’t really as poisonous as most people believed: they can secrete a foul-tasting “milk” from glands on their skin when disturbed that contains an impressive battery of unpleasant chemicals, but unless you’re an overly-inquisitive dog or cat, or unless you fully digest the toad and its toxic skin (which toad-eaters seldom did, opting instead to either rely or sleight of hand, or else regurgitate them later), the chances are you’ll escape unharmed. 

Nevertheless, if these toad-eaters could convince people that they were somehow immune to the toad’s toxicity—or, better yet, that they had invented some kind of all-curing antidote or medical procedure—then they could not only put on an impressive show, but make an equally impressive profit.

Based on this presumption, by the late 1600s, quack physicians and itinerant charlatans all across England had begun working with toad-eaters to come up with a brand new sting: in front of an enthralled (and presumably somewhat nauseated) crowd, they would have their assistant eat, or pretend to eat, a live toad, just as William Utting had. Although unharmed, the assistant would then promptly collapse to the floor in feigned agony, whereupon the quack could either make a great show of his miraculous healing powers, or else administer some kind of homemade concoction to his assistant, who would consequently stage an immediate and impressive recovery—leaving his quack associate to sell vials of their bogus cure-all to the assembled crowd.

The original seventeenth century “toad-eater”, ultimately, was nothing more than a con artist’s assistant, and it’s from there that the sense of “someone who corroborates a lie” came about. Over time, however, toad-eater came to be used more loosely for any assistant or subordinate, and in particular one who acts obsequiously or servilely and is only too happy to perform any duty required of him—no matter how unpleasant it might be.