Tuesday, November 24, 2009


A Humorous Look at Etymology

Yargy, the adjectival of the exclamation “yarg,!” itself a variant of “arg,” “argh,” “aarg,” or “aargh” is an archaism of polyglot origins. Rarely used since the Websterian lexicographic and orthographic reforms of the early 19th century in its American English survivals, its extinction in the rest of the world is sadly remarkable. Regarded by linguistic purists as slang of the lowest socio-economic orders, yargy has an honored and expressive past among the literate and sophisticate of all classes.

Denotatively, yargy refers to a task or event that is tedious, unpleasant or otherwise revolting; i.e., nauseating. Such references are clear in the Middle English gargy from the Norman French gargou, via the Old French gargouille, namely the throat. See gargle, gargyole.[i ] Yargy is readily found in several medieval pieces, particularly in the anonymous Kent and Sussex poets [ii] and in one unpublished fragment of Lady Katharine Swynford:

Ruls in our reye
And roted in the stree,
For wickede wederes
And yargy brokes and brynke... [iii]

That these uses continued down the centuries can be seen in subsequent references in such variant forms as:

At ten o’cock at night the whole cargo of the chamber utensils is flung out of a back window that looks unto the street or lane, and the maid calls “Gardy loo” to the passengers.—Smollett, Humphrey Clinker (1771)[iv]

Yargy, though of diminshed use generally, enjoys a plentitude of currency among Midwestern descendants of mid-nineteenth century Norwegian immigrants, especially from Valdres and Balestrand areas. The continued use of yarg! and its inflections has been found due to the cognate use in Old Norse of yo argene, the berserker battle cry of the Viking raiders, clearing their throats, expectorating or (says Henrik Lunde Larsson) vomiting on their victims.[v]

In a seminal work, Raji Pouri Bannashari has traced yarg to the proto-Indo European “ghargh,” a hacking cough. His efforts to further link the word to Cro-Magnon speech would have been a linguistic breakthrough, which unfortunately, he did not live to achieve.[vi]

i Cf the monograph of professor Hector de Sainte Genevieve, La Grande Gargouille et Ses Associations dans les Langages Europeens, Paris, 1865.

ii See the fine collection of Sir Reginald Rexroth-Jones, Expletive and Invective References in the Doggerel of the Sudbury Poet and His Circle, 1312-1343, Canterbury, 1912.

iii Ms. D777S77 in the private collection of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Efforts of Dame Angela Potter-Lamely to attribute these lines to Chaucer have not been accepted by other scholars of the Chaucerian canon. See her "Rules in our reye," Drawn & Quarterly, XCVI (October 1948) 312-337.

iv As quoted in The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, based on the original book of Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, revised by Bergen Evans, Ware, Hertfordshire, 1994 reprint of 1970 edition, page 449.

v See "Yarg og Oofta," Papers before the International Conference on Going Berserk, Nordic Council, 1955, 177-212 [Norwegian with English summary].

vi See his Glottal and Epiglottal Interjections among Gothic and Sanskrit Cognates and their Pre-Literate Origins, New Delhi, 1989.

I wrote this spoof in the latter 1980s when our son, Kristofer Sween, asked me if I could find the origin of "yargy." Finding any origin impossible, I made up a “likely” explanation and sent the report to him. Kristofer turned around and shared it at a gathering of his friends who remarked on my information. When I found they had taken it seriously, I afterwards made sure to call it humor.

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© Copyright 2009 by Roger Sween.

1 comment:

  1. This remains hilarious, Dad. Great to read it again.