What Is The Origin Of (200)?…

Have no truck with

Those of you who have persevered with my two hundred etymological searches into idioms and phrases with which we pepper our wonderful English language will know that I have (or perhaps brook) no truck with fanciful or unlikely theories. When we say we have no truck with something, we mean that we no longer have any dealings with or time for something.

These days truck appears with a negative but when it first made its appearance in the Middle Ages it had no negative limiter. Coming from the French word, troque, it was used to describe a form of business transaction which involved the exchange of goods without the transfer of money; in other words, bartering. The Vintner’s Company Charter in the Patent Roll of Edward III, dating to 1364, describes the securing of some wine “by truke, or by exchange.

By the 17th century, the meaning of truck had broadened from the narrow constraints of trade to a more general sense of having dealings with, associating with or communicating with someone. It appears to have only been conjoined with a negative from the 19th century. The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society noted, in 1834, that “theoretically an officer should have no truck with thieves.” Sage advice, for sure, but the theoretically suggests that this was not always possible.

Henry Cockton in his novel The Steward, published in 1850, suggests that the expression was used by the lower sorts; “Do what yow like, replied aunt Ann. It makes no odds to me; I’ll ha’ nothing to do with him! – I’ll have no truck with a tocksicated man.” The phrase crossed the pond to appear in Mark Twain’s 1885 masterpiece, the True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – “it was just like I thought. He didn’t hold no truck with me” – and aficionados of Sherlock Holmes may recall its use in the Sign of the Four (1890); “But I tell you now that if it is anything against the safety of the fort I will have no truck with it, so you can drive home your knife and welcome.”

Trucking shops were a feature of 19th century life for itinerant workers such as navvies. They were often working in areas away from towns and villages and so their obliging employers set up shops from which they could buy the necessities of life, often exchanging tokens or vouchers supplied by their ever obliging employers. William Cobbett in his Rural Rides, published in 1825, observed that “in the iron country… the truck or tommy system generally prevails.

Of course, it wasn’t for philanthropic reasons that the trucking system was established. The unscrupulous companies sought to further exploit their impoverished workers by ripping them off with extortionate prices. It was only with the passing of the Truck Act in 1887 that this egregious practice came to an end.

Truck also appears to have been countryside slang for an association, courtship or dalliance with a member of the fairer sex. Notes and Queries commented in 1866 that in Suffolk “a man who has left off courting a girl, says that he has no more truck along o’har.

And now to brook.

Brook comes from the Old High German word, bruhhan, via the Middle English brouken, and meant to use. When it is used in the context of truck it acts as an intensifier and means to tolerate. So brooking no truck means to have absolutely no association with something.

Glad we’ve cleared that up.

What Is The Origin Of (142)?…

The Great Wen

Regular readers will be aware that I spend a little time exploring some of the highways and byways of our metropolis, London. I find its history fascinating and still miss, albeit fleetingly, my daily commute up to the Smoke. For some, though, the hustle and bustle, the noise and the dust is so off-putting that they would do anything to avoid it. They might be tempted to refer to the capital as the Great Wen, a rather uncomplimentary, if archaic, sobriquet that it has earned in certain quarters.

But what is a wen? Its origin is from the Old English noun, wenn, which was used to describe a tumour or a wart, coming into our language from the Proto-Germanic wanja. Specifically it was the best type of tumour to have, if you were unfortunate enough to have one as I do, one that is benign and was generally situated on the scalp. By the Middle Ages it was beginning to be used to describe any form of protrusion and in a figurative sense as a form of insult, a kind of medieval version of a big lump. Shakespeare used the word in this sense in Henry IV Part 2, first performed in 1600. Prince Hal uses it pejoratively to describe his free-booting companion, Falstaff, who was a little on the chunky size; “I do allow this Wen to be as familiar with me, as my dogge.

By the 18th century, though, wen started to be used as a descriptor for a city. Cities were beginning to increase in size as more and more people fled the countryside in search of employment and those mythical streets paved with gold. Men of sensitive dispositions were appalled at the squalor and noise of these conurbations, full of ramshackle tenement buildings and streets, not to mention rivers, full of rubbish and excrement. One such soul was the Dean of Gloucester and economic theorist, Josiah Tucker, who wrote in his Four Letters of National Importance, published in 1783, of London “if therefore the increase of Building, begun at such an early period, was looked upon to be no better than a Wen, or Excrescence, upon the Body-Politic, what must we think of those numberless streets and squares that have been added since?”  The gloss on Wen may lead us to conclude that even then its meaning was beginning to be lost in the mists of time.

It was William Cobbett in his Rural Rides, published in 1822, who specifically nailed London as the great wen when he wrote, “but what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called by the silly coxcombs of the press, the metropolis of the empire?” For the next thirty years the custom was to use the phrase, the great wen of London, but by the 1850s the phrase that was sufficiently well known that the possessive was dropped and capital letters at the start of each word were used to denote that they were talking about London.

In a game of word association, I would probably respond to great wen with Big Yin, a phrase used by our Scottish friends to describe anyone of above average height, although these days most people associate the phrase with the comedian, Billy Connolly. Its antonym is a wee bauchle, which is used to describe a short-arse, often one who was shabby in appearance. A bauchle, after all, was a shabby, down-at-heel shoe.