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What Makes a Bonzer Etymology?

Exploring the mysteries of bonzers, boshters, boskers, and bontodgers

James Lambert



[James Lambert is the Contributing Editor of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. In this special guest blog he has been looking into the etymology of one of Australia’s quintessential slang words: bonzer and with it a variety of associated terms. The conclusions he draws, based on extensive research, take our knowledge of this unique group of superlatives to a new level. Now read on. JG]


The Etymologist’s Art

Etymology is the science/art of determining the origin of words. As a discipline, it requires recourse to various linguistic subfields, especially phonology and semantics, but also an equal amount of historical research.

I say science/art quite deliberately as the wide-ranging field covers both ends of the spectrum. But, in all honesty, the watchword of all good etymologists is ‘common sense’. That common sense, however, must be predicated on cold hard evidence, without which etymological speculations are nothing more than speculations, and very often very poor speculations at that, not only because they lack any solid evidentiary basis, but because they often fly in the face of what evidence there is. In other words, etymology works best when the etymologist has a very deep understanding of the history and development of the language or languages involved (there is frequently more than one) and is also able to draw on considerable linguistic evidence.

In this blog we will examine some of the essential tools of the etymologist and see how they can be applied to sift through different and competing suggestions so that unverified and unverifiable speculations are sidelined and we are left with more realistic and likely theories.

One of the major analytic heuristics is analogy. The basic idea here is that if a certain sound or sense or spelling development is known to have occurred with a certain word or set of words some time in the past, then it is reasonable to assume that the same development could happen again. For example, take the relatively new word newb, meaning ‘a newcomer or novice’, which first appears in the 1990s. We can suggest a tentative etymology, namely, that newb is a clipping of the word newbie, which has the same meaning. Now, it doesn’t take an etymologist, nor a rocket scientist for that matter, to intuitively know that this suggested derivation is 100% correct – even to the untrained eye it is clear that newb is obviously a shortening of newbie. However, one of the reasons we can be so sure is analogy. For when we ask ourselves if there are any analogous examples, the answer is a resounding yes, there are countless analogous examples: pug ‘a boxer’, clipped from pugilist (1858); pub, clipped from public house (1800), rhino and croc clipped from rhinoceros (1858) and crocodile (1884); gym, from gymnasium (1871), and so on. One of the earliest examples being gent, a clipping of gentleman dating back to the 1600s.

In fact, the process of foreshortening words is a common formative process in the English language (and other languages besides), and as English speakers, we know this. This knowledge is part of our overall comprehension of our language and it is on the basis of our knowledge of these many analogous examples that we can be confident that newb is a shortening of newbie.

You will have noticed that I have given the examples of clipped words followed by a year in parentheses. These are, as you will of course have already discerned, the year of earliest record for each of the terms. This brings us to the next tool of the etymologist, namely, chronological precedence. Quite simply put, if a certain term is meant to be the origin of another term, then the first (called the etymon) must have existed prior to its derivative. This is just common sense. Importantly, all the examples of clippings I have given above antedate the appearance of newb, thus showing that the process of forming neologisms by clipping was already in place in the language.

Nevertheless, as common sensical as this may seem, amateur etymologists often put forward theories that completely ignore this essential point. A good example of a chronologically impossible (and therefore incorrect) etymology is for the birdwatcher’s term jizz, meaning ‘the overall structure of a bird’. The erroneous theory goes that this word was originally an acronym GISS, standing for General Impression, Shape, and Size, which was used by fighter pilots in the Second World War in reference to a method of recognising aeroplane types. The fatal problem with this theory is that the birdwatcher’s term was first used in the 1920s, considerably before WWII.

This leads us to the next implement in the etymologist’s toolbox, namely documentary evidence. As etymologies are by and large dealing with the speech habits of the past, sometimes the very ancient past, our only access to the way words were formerly used is if they happen to survive in historical texts. This is one essential that good etymologists always rely on. For example, with the jizz/GISS etymology discussed above, we know it must be wrong because there is documentary evidence that jizz was used in the 1920s (it occurs in the Manchester Guardian of the 6th of December 1921), and there is no documentary evidence that GISS was used before WWII. However, if, for instance, there were no surviving copies of the Manchester Guardian from 1921 – if say they had all destroyed during the Manchester blitz of 1940 – then the GISS derivation would have seemed eminently plausible, rather than entirely impossible.

This of course shows a weakness in etymological research – that is, it can only be as good as the documentary evidence allows. Etymologists, and lexicographers as well, are bound by the resources available to them. One can never see every use of a word, especially as most language takes place in speech and is for all practical purposes lost forever once it is spoken. Only the thinnest minuscule modicum of the daily language of billions gets written down or electronically recorded, and then only a paltry sampling of what is recorded ever passes under the gaze of the lexicographer or etymologist.

So, to conduct high quality etymology, one must have recourse to historical texts, and the more the better. Thankfully, these days more and more historical texts are being digitised and made available, and the task of the etymologist is becoming ever more easier with respect to accessing documentary evidence upon which they can conduct their careful and often painstaking detective work. And, as we shall see below, this can either make or break an etymology.

Another important string to the etymologist’s bow is historical knowledge, both linguistic and sociocultural; a knowledge of who was in contact with whom, of what languages or dialects or lingos were formerly in use and when and where they were. An absence of this can result in highly improbable folk etymologies, which, while often providing a pleasing story, are utterly ridiculous. A classic example of this I once experienced was the origin of the word pothole put forth by a tour bus driver in Bath, England. His theory, presented as absolute fact, of course, was that during the Roman occupation of England (roughly 43–84 AD) the native Celts needed clay to make pots and they took advantage of a ready supply of good clay by excavating it from Roman-built roads, leaving ‘potholes behind. This explanation was generally received with much interest and ‘oohing’ from the bus occupants, while I bit my tongue reasoning that one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story and that to deflate the tour guide in front of everyone was just bad manners. Yet, anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge will see the gross impossibility of the tale. First, during the Roman occupation of England, Celts spoke Old Brythonic and the Romans spoke Latin. The words pot and hole are both Germanic words first brought to England around 450 AD, long after the Romans had left. Second, the word pothole itself is only recorded since the beginning of the 19th century. So, as a result of ignoring historical knowledge, the tour guide’s etymology of pothole was impossible by a distance of some seventeen centuries. Third, Roman roads did not use clay, or used clay mixed with rubble as one of the lowest layers, not easy to dig up, nor very useful for potting. (Actually, the proposed etymology also fails from an absence of documentary evidence, just for good measure).

Finally, the last arrow in the etymologist’s quiver is Occam’s razor, also known as ‘the law of parsimony’. For our purposes, this simply means that when a suggested etymology requires too many steps or too many assumptions, then it is probably wrong, and suggestions with the least complexity have a greater chance of being right. This is a rule of thumb, not a hard and fast rule, but it often comes in handy. A great example of a suggested etymology that violates Occam’s razor is the famously preposterous etymology for the word hoodlum first outlined in the fourth edition of Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1877), and restated thereafter by many authorities. Repeating a story he had heard, Bartlett posits that the word hoodlum originated by a printer’s error for the term noodlum, which is backslang for Muldoon, the name of the leader of a San Franciscan gang of street Arabs. This makes the assumption that there was a backslang version of Muldoon’s name (no evidence for this), and then the assumption that a printer made an error and typeset hoodlum instead of noodlum (no evidence for this), and then the assumption that from this single error the word entered general slang (there are, at least, a few examples of a single text contributing a new word to the slang lexicon, so this last assumption is not entirely fanciful). In any case, this piling up of assumption on assumption would make William of Occam spin in his grave, and makes the suggested etymology highly unlikely indeed. An alternate etymology suggests that hoodlum may be from German dialect words, such as hudelum ‘disorderly’, Hudellump ‘slovenly person’, and is to be preferred as it relies on less assumptions.

These principles of etymological investigation work in concert with one another, but depending on the derivation suggested often only one or two may apply. In the following, I will begin by making it clear when I am invoking one of the principles, but then will tail this explicitness off so as not to belabour the point and clutter up the text.