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The African Origins of Common English Words (IV)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Jitters.  The English language owes this alternative word for nervousness to an African language, accordi...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Jitters.  The English language owes this alternative word for nervousness to an African language, according to Holloway and Vass who trace it to “ji-to,” a Mandingo word that, according to them, means “frightened, cowardly.”  I initially thought the authors’ evidence for the African origin of this word was at best tentative and at worst accidental, but after consulting other authorities, I think they have a strong case.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word is “of unknown origin” and dates its appearance in the English language to the 1920s. The Online Etymology Dictionary doesn’t suggest a root for the word. It only says it began as an American English word in 1931. Only the Random House Dictionary traces the word’s roots to Middle English; it says it’s a variation of “chiteren,” but dates the emergence of “jitters” in English to between 1920 and 1925. That’s an implausible proposition.

First, a word that has roots in Middle English (that is, between 1100 and 1450) should have a longer history in the language than the 1920s. Second, the authoritative Middle English Dictionary Volume 5 (published by the University of Michigan Press in 1998) disproves the Random House Dictionary’s etymology of “jitters.” None of the meanings of “chiteren” given in the Middle English Dictionary corresponds to the contemporary meaning of “jitters.”  The two meanings of “chiteren” in the dictionary are “of birds: to twitter, chatter” and “of persons:  (a) to jabber, talk idly; (b) to mumble or say (a prayer).”

However, the Middle English Dictionary does give the meaning of a different word, chiveren (also chivever or chievere), that corresponds to the contemporary meaning of “jitters.” But it says this word (or its many variations) is the lexical progenitor of “shiver,” not “jitters.” So it seems entirely reasonable that “jitters” evolved from the Mandingo “ji-to.” The fact that the word was initially a uniquely American English word redounds to this theory.

Phony or phoney. This word used to be a peculiarly American English word for “fake.” But it now enjoys wide currency in international English. Holloway and Vass etymologized this word as having roots in “fani” or “foni,” a Mandingo word that means “(to be) false, valueless….Counterfeit, sham, something false or valueless,” according to Holloway and Vass.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that the origin of “phony” is uncertain but admits that it emerged in American English in the late 19th century. The Online Etymology Dictionary, for its part, says it’s “perhaps an alteration of fawney, itself a corruption of the Irish “fainne,” defined as a "gilt brass ring used by swindlers."

When I put both etymologies on a scale, I am more inclined to believe the theory of a Mandingo origin of “phony” than the Online Etymology Dictionary’s history of the word’s origins.

Ruckus. Like hullaballoo from last week, ruckus means a noisy disturbance. Holloway and Vass say the word is derived from the Bantu “lukashi,” which they say is “sound of cheering and applause.” All the authorities I consulted on the etymology of this word didn’t indicate an African origin for it. They all say it’s “perhaps” a blend of “ruction” and “rumpus,” which both mean noisy disturbance. For me, the best that can be said about this word is that its origins are shrouded in mystery. Neither the theory of its African nor the suggestion that it’s a portmanteau of ruction and rumpus is persuasive.

 “Lukashi” doesn’t strike me as a phonetically tenable cognate of ruckus. On the other hand, portmanteau words often combine the semantic properties of two different words (such as “brunch,” which combines the meanings of “breakfast” and “lunch” or “motel,” which blends the meanings of “motor” and “hotel,” etc.). If ruction and rumpus mean exactly the same thing, what’s the point of blending them?

Tote. This word is probably not in common usage in non-native varieties of English. It certainly isn’t in Nigerian English. But it is in British and American English. As a noun, it means a bag for carrying things. (It’s also called a “tote bag” or a “holdall,” especially in British English). When used as a verb, it means to carry with a lot of effort, as in “I helped the old man tote his bag of books.” Speakers of Nigerian English are more familiar with the adjectival sense of this word in expressions such as “gun-toting police officers,” etc.

Holloway and Vass, following previous scholars, say “tote” is derived from Bantu languages. It’s rendered as “tota” in Kikongo, a Bantu language spoken in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of the Congo, where it means “to pick up.” In Kimbundu, another Bantu language spoken mainly in Angola, it is rendered as “tuta” and means “to carry, load.” In Swahili, the most popular of the Bantu languages, “tuta” also means “pile up, carry,” according to Gerard Dalgish in his A Dictionary of Africanisms: Contributions of Sub-Saharan Africa to the English Language. Several variations of “tot”—and with the same meaning as the English “tote”— appear in many other Bantu languages in Cameroun, according to linguists who study African languages.

Nevertheless, the Oxford English Dictionary discountenanced the African origin of this word, but it has not provided an alternative etymology for it. This seems to me rather churlish and unhelpful. I think the facts of the word’s history and development point to a decided Bantu origin. First, according the Online Etymology Dictionary (which, like the Oxford English Dictionary, claims that the word is “of unknown origin”), “tote” was first recorded in the English language in the 1670s in the US state of Virginia. So we’re certain that the word has not even the remotest origin to Early or Middle English. That means it’s not an Anglo-Saxon word.

Now, consider this: According to historical records, 85 percent of the African slaves brought to Virginia were from four ethnic groups—Igbos from present-day Nigeria, Akans from present-day Ghana, Bantu speakers from present-day Angola and the Congo, and Mende people from present-day Senegal and the Gambia. Given the presence of a substantial number of Bantu-speaking people in Virginia in the 1670s when “tote” was first recorded, I don’t understand why the Oxford English Dictionary is reluctant to accept that “tote” could be derived from the Bantu word of the same sound and meaning, especially in light of the tremendous lexical influences of Bantu languages in many creoles in the Western hemisphere, such as the English- and Spanish-based creoles of the American south (Gullah), Jamaica (Patois),  and Colombia (Palenquero)--and in in the liturgy of Africa-derived religions in Jamaica, Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

Yackety-yak. It means noisy talk. “Yak” also means long and prolonged talk about a boring subject, and can be used both as a noun and as a verb. Oxford English Dictionary says it’s an imitative word that began in the 1950s, but Holloway and Vass insist it’s derived from “yakula-yakula,” a Bantu word that means “gabbing, chattering, talking.” The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that there is also an Australian English slang term called “yacker,” first recorded in 1882, which means "talk, conversation." The evidence for the word’s African origin is, I think, rather tentative but worth thinking about.

This series will be concluded next week

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