Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

7 June, 2012

Words, Words, Words: Cop-Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Now, hopefully, this post won’t actually be a cop-out, because that seems excessively self-referential. After my last post on etymology, I’ve started paying a bit more attention to words and phrases in the hopes of mining them for content, and I’ve started to wonder about cop-out. What is being said here? Are cops widely known for phoning it in? And, slightly related, why is cop slang for police in the first place?

To the Internet!

I’m going to start with cop, clinging to the no doubt erroneous belief that the two terms are so closely related. The Online Etymology Dictionary is, as usual, my friend. The noun cop, in the meaning policeman, is attested in 1859, as an abbreviated form of the earlier copper, which is found from 1846. Copper ultimately comes from the verb cop (which incidentally means that the word went from cop to copper and back to cop again – language is fun!). The verb cop hails from the 18th century, where it began life in a dialect in northern England – which is, of course, the best kind of England – meaning “to seize, to catch”. The OE (which, for obvious reasons, foregoes the D) gives two possible further origins – it is either Romance, through French caper from Latin capere, “to take”; or Germanic, from Old Frisian capia, “to buy”, via the Dutch kapen.

Wiktionary also gives these two possible origins, but skips the northern dialect bit. Any explanation that includes northern England is obviously superior to any explanation that doesn’t, so I think I’ll trust the OE.

And now we get to cop-out, which also originates in the verb cop. Cop-out is American slang, attested from 1942. OE thinks that it comes from a variation of cop a plea, which again springs from the northern English verb cop.

So, it goes “catch” -> “take the lesser charge” -> “sneak off, escape” -> “inadequate performance or the poor excuse for it”. Cop goes “catch” -> “person who catches criminals”, which when put like that, doesn’t really seem like much. Still, though, now I know that the fact that I associate policemen with shoddy work is purely due to a linguistic coincidence.

19 April, 2012

Words, Words, Words: Siren

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Picture a siren.

Now, chances are that you’re imagining one of these two things:

"The Siren" by John William Waterhouse

Possibly more mermaidish.

Fire engine siren.

Probably also involving an auditory dimension.

Those are certainly the two things I associate with the word “siren”: Pretty women luring Greek sailors to their deaths, and loud noise makers heralding the arrival of emergency services. Because this is the way my mind works, I suddenly started wondering yesterday how that word came to mean both.

I mean, obviously the mythological sirens came first, but how did the concept of evil temptress women singing an irresistibly beautiful song develop into the word for obnoxious and penetrating howls of hideous noise? Speculating wildly, it might have something to do with the idea of a sound that cannot be ignored, that demands attention and reaction, but that seems a bit high concept for a common word.

Of course, words change meanings in weird ways all the time, and diving into the etymologies of  the most innocent terms can lead to some amusing discoveries, but this one seems so strange to me because we still have the original meaning with us. Maybe it’s not the everyday usage, but I think most people will have heard of the sirens Odysseus escaped. Time for some cursory research.

The sirens of mythology, which incidentally are the main “Siren” article on wikipedia, were female creatures with hypnotic voices who got their jollies by tricking sailors into wrecking their ships. As in the painting above, they then presumably had a good laugh while the sailors drowned. They’re often depicted as mermaids or other sea-dwelling creatures, but in the original tale they were women living on an island, not in the sea itself.

What of the noisy siren, then? Where did that get its name? Wikipedia’s article, this time under “Siren (noisemaker)” claims that the first sirens were used as musical instruments, and the first model to be given the name, from 1819, got it because it “could produce sound under water, suggesting a link with the sirens of Greek mythology”. Ah, see, now it all makes sense. It was made for music, and the mythological sirens made music. The noisy version must have come much later. As for the underwater part, it would hardly be the first time something was named based on a misunderstanding of source material.

The Online Etymology Dictionary (what, you haven’t added that as a custom search in your browser?) says that the first recorded use of “siren” to mean “device that makes a warning sound” comes in 1879, sixty years after the instrument version, so it apparently took people a while to realise that this maybe wasn’t the best sound to listen to for fun. Or maybe it was?


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