The over-enthusiastic etymologist, #4: egg on, tinker, sausage
I’ve always loved words and, as a schoolboy, I desperately wanted to become an etymologist. Life intervened, of course, but I’ve never lost my curiosity about words, their origins and their use. So what follows is the fourth episode an occasional blog, which not just about etymology, but which celebrates English words in general. I hope you find it fun and informative.
It’s an odd expression – to egg someone on. And I’d always assumed it has something to do with poultry. Perhaps offering someone an egg or two as a reward to induce them to do something. But I discovered the other day, while reading a fascinating book about the lives of great Vikings, that the phrase actually comes from the Old Norse word “eggja” meaning to goad or incite. Our word edge is related. So when you are egging someone on to do something you are sharpening their edge, or making them keener.
It seems obvious to me now, but I hadn’t realised until recently that the word “tinker” was related to tin. It refers to itinerant metal workers who went from village to village in these islands mending pots and pans using tin (which has a relatively low melting point and so it easy to work). They would “tinker” with the household objects until they were fixed. The word is now considered offensive when applied to Travellers but it was in use from the 13th century as “tyckner” or “tinkler”. Some modern-day nomads, particularly with Irish or Highland Scots roots, call themselves “techno-tinkers”, which I think is rather charming.
In Victorian times, sausages were sometimes known as a “bags o’ mystery” because you could not be sure what kind of meat went into them. They were also called “bangers” then because of their propensity for exploding during cooking. British sausages have long suffered from stigma – and are often disdained by more refined European palates – however, their pedigree is very ancient. Sausages were being made in Mesopotamia some five thousand years ago, according to ancient cuneiform texts. And the word “sausage” comes, via the Old North French saucische, from the Latin word salsicus, which means salted. Which makes sense because sausages evolved as a way of using up otherwise unpalatable bits from an animal carcass (offal, intestines, blood) and transforming them with salt into a delicious preserved food.
If you have enjoyed this blog, perhaps you might like to buy me a coffee or a pint on my Ko-fi page. Or take a look at some of my more recent Viking novels. The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1) is available here.