The over-enthusiastic etymologist, #3: Fulsome, Rum and Hooker

I’ve always loved words and, as a schoolboy, I desperately wanted to become an etymologist. I had a collection of a few dozen words whose etymologies I thought I knew but which, over the years, I have discovered were mostly bogus. But the internet is a game-changer – the world’s knowledge at your fingertips – and I’ve never lost my curiosity about words, their origins and their use. So what follows is an occasional blog, not just about etymology, but words in general. I hope you find it fun and informative.

Fulsome

Everyone thinks they know what fulsome means. But, mostly, they are wrong. It doesn’t mean “a generous amount” or something similar. Collins English Dictionary has this as its entry: “If you describe expressions of praise, apology or gratitude as fulsome, you disapprove of them because they are exaggerated . . . so that they sound insincere.” The dictionary lists “sickening” as one of the synonyms for “fulsome”. I had a spat once in my Times newspaper days with a famous columnist who claimed he had been praised fulsomely by his many fans for some performance. He was most put out when I informed him that all those lauding him “fulsomely” meant it probably wasn’t genuine hero-worship.

A cartoon of 19th-century pickpockets at work. Their forebears were called rum-divers

Rum

My treasured book of 17th-century London slang* has nearly three whole pages of words with the prefix “rum”, including “rum-diver” – an expert pickpocket; “rum-bluffer – a jolly inn-keeper; and “rum-doxy” – a beautiful woman. It lists the word “rum” on its own as meaning: fine, rich, best or excellent. What you might ask is the connection to the strong alcoholic drink called rum? The answer is that “rumbullion” was the original name for the spirt brewed from cane sugar in the Caribbean, which became shortened to just plain rum. Rumbullion – or rumbustion – means a fine uproar or great turmoil in a Devon dialect, and may have come from the Old French word boullion, meaning a hot drink. So rumbullion, often used to make a hot punch, is an excellent hot drink. And one that after excessive consumption may cause a fine uproar.

In the 17th century, a “hooker” was a girl who lured men into dark alleys to be robbed

Hooker

The word “hooker” is an informal US word for a prostitute but its origins lie back in the 17th century in England, where a “hooker” or an “angler” was a thief who used a metal hook on a stick to lift an item from window sills or through iron bars. The hook could also be used by pickpockets to steal expensive silk handkerchiefs the style of Oliver Twist’s friends but the word “hooker” also came to mean a man or woman who lured – or hooked – their victims into dark alleys to be robbed by their confederates. It’s a short step from pretty girls called “hookers” who set up marks to be robbed to calling all ladies of the night hookers. FYI, in 21st-century London street prostitutes who rob their clients are called “clippers”.

*The First English Dictionary of Slang 1699, by B. E. Gent

Angus Donald is the author of the Fire Born Viking series, which kicks off with The Last Berserker

If you enjoyed this blog and would like to show your appreciation, you can buy Angus a much-needed glass of rum punch during this cold weather or a more sober cup of coffee at ko-fi.com/angusdonald

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x
%d bloggers like this: