Trying to guess when a word or phrase was coined can sometimes be easy-peasy — but on other occasions it is extremely difficult. Any technical term that couldn’t possibly have been used before the Industrial Revolution (steam engine, for instance) is easy to place.
But other words can be most misleading. Some that look and sound as if they are mid-20th century turn out to be a good deal older than that.
When ‘riff-raff’ cropped up the other day in conversation, everyone thought it had to be a relatively recent slang term. It can be made to sound as if it refers to scruffy or sleazy people we’d rather not know.
Well, we were all wrong about the chronological slot: it is very much a medieval term. When I checked in the dictionary, I found it comes from the Old French ‘rif et raf’ that meant one and all — with the implication that those referred to were disreputable or undesirable.
Robert de Brunne, the 14th century poet who published a Chronicle of England in 17,000 lines of verse, wrote: “The Sarazins, ilk man, he slouh, alle rif and raf”. (He slew the Saracens, every man of them, every particle of them).
In mediaeval times, ‘rif’ also meant plunder of little value, often something stolen from the dead by invading soldiers. The ‘rif’ word was also associated to the French ‘rifler’, meaning to rifle or ransack, as well as to the Middle French ‘raffler’, to rifle or ravage. The original meaning of rifle was to carry off as plunder, or to strip or rob.
In colloquial English from about 1918, the Raff meant the Royal Air Force and was eventually applied to the other Services. But by the 1950s it was considered bad form in the RAF itself. In the early 1930s, the Riff-Raff was a jocular, and sometimes contemptuous, elaboration of Raff.
Another recent puzzler was why we say ‘money for old rope’. This was mainly a Services term that meant money for nothing (or almost nothing) and it started in the Merchant Navy.
It was customary in the old days for ships to sell old and redundant ropes to shoreside traders or anyone interested in buying them. The money brought in by these sales was shared among the crew.
As this was a kind of bonus, something the men didn’t have to work for, ‘money for old rope’ came to mean any kind of easy money. It was used throughout the Services and was also applied to duties that earned privileges. Gamblers also used it for a winning streak in card games or at the racetrack.
Someone also wanted to know the legal or lexicographic difference between murder assassination. All assassinations are murders but not all murders are assassinations. The main difference is that the assassin’s target is a prominent person in public life. It is frequently a politician but it can also be other prominent figures. As a rule, the killer doesn’t personally know his victim: he is either killing for money or what he considers to be a cause.
When playwright Joe Orton’s lover Kenneth Halliwell killed him with hammer blows to the head, that was murder. But when John Lennon was shot dead in front of his home in the Dakota building in New York City by a complete stranger, Mark David Chapman, that was an assassination.
The difference between murder and homicide is that there is always an element of premeditation in murder. If two men in a bar are fighting and one grabs a knife lying on the counter and fatally wounds his opponent, that is a homicide.
But if after their fisticuffs one man goes home, comes back with a knife and stabs the other man to death, then that is murder because it is premeditated. Even if the man didn’t die after the stabbing, the premeditation makes it a much more serious offence than an impulsive knifing during an argument.
The origin of the expression OK comes in two versions, one linking the eighth President of the United States, Martin Van Buren. He lived in Kinderhook, New York, where he was given the political nickname of ‘Old Kinderhook’.
Many people think ‘OK’ is an abbreviation of Van Buren’s nickname. That’s not true but his campaign workers and voters had a role in popularising the term.
The ‘OK’ expression first appeared in print on March 23, 1839, when it was used in a Boston newspaper. It was the abbreviation of ’oll korrect’, a jocular illiterate spelling of ‘all correct’. There was no immediate connection with the Old Kinderhook name.
However, in the 1840 presidential campaign, when Van Buren was seeking a second term, his campaign workers and voters had a special way of indicting their support for him.
At political gatherings they held up their right hand, thumb and index finger pressed together to form a circle, the other three fingers extended. It was a visual greeting that meant ‘you’re all right with me’ and as such it travelled the world and became the OK salute in all languages.
British people were using the term by the early 1880s and it was sometimes written as ‘okay’. It was often used as a verb, as in ‘to okay a document’.
By the 1930s the English also used perversions of OK, sometimes in the form of ‘okey-doke’ or ‘okey-poke’, which was also underworld rhyming slang for a wallet (poke). This term was often shortened to ‘okey’. I know someone who says ‘okers and your dokers’ instead of OK, but that’s very particular and is unlikely to catch on.
Someone else wanted to know if the origin of ‘shenanigans’, meaning underhand practices or trickery, is as Irish as it sounds. By thinking Irish, she is on the right track that leads to this word. But there are so many others that the Oxford English Dictionary prefers not to go along any of them and curtly lists the word as ‘origin unknown’.
What we do know for sure is that the word first appeared in print on April 25, 1855 in the San Francisco publication, Town Talk. The term became popular during the Californian Gold Rush (1848-59) when underhand practices were rife.
As Irish prospectors hunted for gold at that time, some people think the origin of ‘shenanigans’ is the Irish ‘sionnachuighan’, or ‘I play tricks’. Other popular possibilities include the Spanish ‘chanada’ (trick or deceit), the East Anglican dialect ‘nannicking' (playing the fool), the German’ slang ‘Schenigelei’ (trick) and the Erse ‘sionnach’, pronounced ‘shinnuch’. It’s less complicated if one says ‘origin unknown’.