Tuesday, August 04, 2009

What's with the pish? and other linguistic miscellany

Events have turned my mind toward language and its uses.

First, the good people at St. Martin's/Minotaur Books sent Inspector Ghote's First Case, a prequel to H.R.F. Keating's long-running series. Then a discussion here turned to the odd happenings when speakers of one language appropriate speech patterns from another. Finally a piece of Scottish slang reminded me of a treasured word from my un-Scottish youth.

As I did when I first read Keating, I noticed in the opening chapters of Inspector Ghote's First Case a speech pattern in which characters use only at the end of a sentence where North American or European speakers would use it in the middle. It transpired that at least one Indian critic had been ambivalent about Keating and unhappy with Ghote's "broken-English patois." You can follow the ensuing discussion here and here.

In the meantime, some questions for readers with knowledge of English as spoken in India: Is only in the end position ("I have been longing to see it since I was at college only.") particular to certain regions of India? And could that speech pattern be a carryover from any of India's own languages?

Finally, pish. The word was part of my youth growing up, a holdover, I assumed, from Yiddish. But it must be part of the Scottish lexicon, too. Christopher Brookmyre has used it in his books, and Allan Guthrie uses it several times in Two-Way Split, most pungently thus:
"Kennedy chucked the paper in the bin, since the journalist was obviously from the west coast and therefore everything he said was unadulterated pish."
OK, lovers of Scottish English. What's with the pish? How did it get into your language?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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26 Comments:

Anonymous LauraR said...

I don't think "pish" is yiddish. However there is the yiddish word "pisher" - either literally a bedwetter, or a insignifcant/inexperienced person.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember pisher -- something like a Yiddish equivalent of squirt or pipsqueak. I also remember the phrase "to have a pish." I had never heard "pish" in the sense of "bull----" until I read Brookmyre and Guthrie, but it would not be hard to imagine a common derivation.

Here's what the Urban Dictionary has to say. I had forgotten that Lowland Scots is a Germanic language and that piss, though from French, has been an English word for a long time. Maybe that's where the connection lies.

In any case, bull----, though a lovely, pungent word, is rather overused in English. I am grateful to Brookmyre and Guthrie for supplying a substitute.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As a child I called the little hanger above the rear door on the inside of a car a "pish hanger." I don't know now why I called it that, and I probably didn't know then either. I just must always have liked the word.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

That is indeed the connection, Peter. 'Pish' in Lowland Scots also means urine, and the word has its origin in the Germanic languages. The latin word 'pissare' (not as commonly used as 'mingo' or the vulgar 'meiare') was taken from the Germanic and so found its way into Romance, most obviously in the French 'pisser' and 'pissoir' and Italian 'pisciare'. The Romance languages owe a lot to the rather rich vocabulary of Latin profanity, so charmingly preserved by Catallus in particular.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

pish is common in Belfast.

on the pish, is a slightly more jovial way of saying on the piss i.e. off for a drink.

have you ever heard the phrase "a piece of piss" it makes no sense especially since it's a good thing. something's that's easy.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

Very OT, but harking back to a recent conversation:

Theresa Nielsen Hayden, who my unfailing memory tells me is Linkmeister's step cousin, has started today her Rereading of Sandman on the Tor Site. While subsequent installments will obviously be very spoilerish, this one is a nice introduction to the series.

August 04, 2009  
Anonymous Jerry House said...

There's also "pish-posh", meaning "don't be silly" or "I can't believe that". Somewhat related to bull****, don't you think?

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Philip, though etymologies I found trace its course from Romance into Germanic, and not the other way around.

I should look for a good, unrestrained translation of Cattulus, especially if it has the Latin on facing pages.

piss (v.)

c.1290, from O.Fr. pissier "urinate" (12c.), from V.L. *pissiare, of imitative origin.


And:

Etymology: ME pissen < OFr pissier, prob. of echoic orig.

I don't have an OED at hand, so a verdict will have to wait.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"pish is common in Belfast."

You mean Belfasters lack a reputation for upright honesty and speaking the truth? No -- heh, heh -- but seriously: Yet one more connection between Scottish and Nothern Irish speech is no surprise. Even I have noticed similarities on my brief trips.

I have read the phrase "a piece of piss" and found it a beguiling synonym for "piece of cake." I shall try to remember to work it into conversation.

I had not heard "on the pish," but "jovial" nicely captures the difference in tone between "pish" and "piss." It's the sibilant, and isn't it odd how the limits of written language force writers to use a single sound to convey evil, as in a snake's hiss, and innocence? I think the sound conveys innocence better myself. Even the word "hiss" is kind of cute.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Marco. You may know that off-topic comments are rarely frowned upon here, and I appreciate yours. That looks like a worthwhile appreciation/introduction.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Jerry. You've doubled my work for me. Pish-posh or even the marvelous pish-tush, which I once read and consider a marvelous expression of comic disdain, may simply be examples of sound reduplication. (And why is the linguistic term reduplication rather than simply duplication?)

On the other hand, what about tosh! as an independent expression?

I shall have to investigate further.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

You are quite right, Peter. That it went from Germanic to Latin to Romance was, now I think about it, an assumption on my part, together with my supposing the movement took place earlier than perhaps it did. The OED states without qualification that it went from French to Germanic. On Catullus, Peter Green's The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition may be the very thing for you. Published by UCal at Berkeley about four years ago. Very direct, lively stuff, rightly bawdy where it needs to be, with useful commentary but no excess of scholarly apparatus.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

marco, how the heck did you remember that TNH and I are cousins-by-marriage? Did I post a link to that post in which we discovered it?

I just happened to use "pish" in the title of a blog post recently. I had the urinary meaning in mind.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger marco said...

marco, how the heck did you remember that TNH and I are cousins-by-marriage? Did I post a link to that post in which we discovered it?

Yes ;)


better watch your words, ye'all...I forget NOTHING.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Philip. I've read Peter Green's short history of the Hellenistic Age and some of his articles. That man is the kind of scholar who could get contemporary readers interested in the classics again.

I'd have guessed that "pish" and "piss" came from Latin/Romance because of the sibilant rather than some harsh Germanic guttural.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A colleague calls my attention to the unexpected versatility of pish.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, see the comment immediately above. This string could spark an explosion of pish.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Linky,

he really does forget nothing which is why I hope the words Villa and Park are tormenting him to this day.

Peter

Bon chance on the radio tomorrow, try and say pish and see if you get bleeped.

Incidentally I read 3 of those Inspector Ghote novels. Doesnt one of them take place in the hill station where they invented snooker or am I mixing it up with something else? My memory is not Marco-like.

August 04, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I love these linguistic threads. English seems a particularly good sponge for soaking up other languages and adapting them to its purposes (although I suppose I might think this because it's my first language).

Here's another one from Great Britain that I just ran across in John Lawton's first Frederick Troy novel, "Black Out": (describing a woman suspect's dress and accessories) "...the whole appearance contrived femininity in irony...It was, he thought, a snook cocked at fashion with more panache than he had seen in a long time."

To cock a snook (at), snook-cocking. Are you familiar with this expression? Any guesses? OED says "of obscure origin" but the context helps.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I'll try to spice up the airwaves with a bit o' pish.

Supposedly the guests will be taking calls from listeners. If someone accuses me of talking pish, I'll say, "Aye, don't be daft, ya wee shite."

I'm not up on my Ghote. I think Keating has been writing the books since 1964, and I've read just two or three. There is one line of possible sociological interest in this one, a remark about a pioneering Indian official, "but he's probably Parsi." My colleague from India who loves cricket is of Parsi descent, so I shall have to ask him about this.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, to cock a snook is one of those expressions I could use with some accuracy without being able to define it precisely. It appears that no one else can, either.

I like one reference to it as the five-finger salute. That gesture is used only ironically these days, at least in America.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

English seems a particularly good sponge for soaking up other languages and adapting them to its purposes (although I suppose I might think this because it's my first language).

I have read that English has a vocabulary many hundreds of thousands of words larger than that of any other language. I have seen this attributed to the very profusion you mentioned, the willingness to soak up words from everywhere. Just look at England: founded early by Germans who assumed rule in a country where Romans had conquered the Celts who had superseded the aboriginal inhabitants. Britain got a boost from Irish monks and was ravaged and ruled in part by Danes before the Normans, Frenchman who themselves had been Scandinavians, came on the scene. And then came words from every corner of the empire, once Britain got one going. So the linguistic diversity is no surprise.

Lawton's fun with words is no surprise, either. I've read just one of his novels, and I enjoyed his infusion of P.G. Wodehouse into a set amid one of England's less proud moments in World War II.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Borges was always complaining that Spanish wasn't as rich a language to write in as English. Clive James who never met Borges says that Borges's English wasn't good enough to make a professional judgement, but Paul Theroux who practically lived with Borges for a few months in the early 70's says that Borges was fluent.

A word you can say on American radio but cant on British is fanny because they mean different things.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, I know about fanny.

And I'll choose to trust Theroux in this matter or at least to grant that Borges may have been sensitive enough to English to envy its riches.

August 04, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Well, Peter, once again, what you and others are up to is exactly why your blog is so fascinating and informative. The flowing current of a conversational topic meanders wonderfully in helter-skelter fashion and accumulates along the way something like the flotsam and jetsam of all that is intriguing about detective fiction (and other topics). I learn more about the genre (and other areas of interest) than I could ever learn (and smile about) anywhere else. Bravo!

August 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Flotsam and jetsam have long been two of my favorite words. Many thanks.

August 07, 2009  

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