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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tush, say they

No doubt you have been tormented by a burning question in the last couple of weeks, to wit: "Where in the world is Wordlady?"

I apologize for leaving you postless as I was off escorting a group on a very enjoyable ballet trip to Hamburg and Copenhagen, and incidentally contemplating the fact that the Danish will never ask for a Danish, since they call those pastries... Vienna breads! (By the way, once you've had Danish pastries in Denmark, there's no going back.)

(I didn't try to order a hamburger in Hamburg either).

But lo! I am back. And singing again, which gave me the subject for this post: archaic interjections. This week the Evensong psalm was Number 73 (Quam bonus Israel! Truly God is loving unto Israel), which, in the King James Version, has some pretty smirk-inducing lines:

9 For they stretch forth their mouth unto the heaven : and their tongue goeth through the world.
10 Therefore fall the people unto them : and thereout suck they no small advantage.
(good heavens, now that I think of it, this could be a description of Twitter)

11 Tush, say they, how should God perceive it : is there knowledge in the most High?
12 Lo, these are the ungodly, these prosper in the world, and these have riches in possession.

It's almost impossible to sing, "Tush, say they," with a straight face.

I find interjections fascinating. It is so hard to say where they come from. The OED famously attributes the origin of most of them to "A natural utterance" although what's "natural" about "tush", I do not know, since no one apparently felt moved to naturally utter it before the 1400s. (Apparently it had some competition from another "natural utterance" in the 1500s: "twish!")

And, once we have been moved to naturally utter them, why do they then disappear from the language? "Tush" (rhymes with hush) is great as "An exclamation of impatient contempt or disparagement", as the OED puts it. But already by the 19th century it had become archaic, to the point that the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson invented the word "tushery" to deride a "conventional style of romance characterized by excessive use of affected archaisms such as ‘tush!’"

It's not as if we are lacking in impatient contempt or disparagement, so do we have something to replace "tush" among our modern interjections? Pish and pshaw have also died.  I guess "bah" and "fooey" fit the bill (if you can think of any others, please share in the comments).

Most modern translations have no interjection in this line of the psalm at all.
Just as well, because, although "tush" is bad enough, I seriously cannot imagine singing, with due Anglican solemnity, a psalm that included the line "Fooey, say they"

You will of course, be wondering about the other "tush" (rhyming with "push"), meaning the buttocks. This comes from Yiddish tokhes from Hebrew taḥaṯ ‘beneath’. Speaking of which, I will be giving a talk about Hebrew and Yiddish words in English at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, Bloor and Spadina, Tuesday May 27 at 1 pm.

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  1. Hello,

    Particularly hard seems, when learning a foreign language, to adopt the interjections of the natives. One feels these may regard the impersonating "impostor" as being a "fraud"!

    Imagine crossing the Atlantic, getting immersed (submerged ?!) in the academic world, and start picking up:

    - Oh, Gosh!
    - Jeez!
    - Oh, shucks!
    - Bummer!
    - Rats!

    and perhaps others like that, uttered in the heat of the scholastic effort to untie another academic Gordian knot.

    Now, these are certainly trivial to most of you, ...but, to a freshly parachuted alien, not exactly. After all, these are the last things to be learned in a new language, the kind of things never to be seen in manuals.


  2. We use "pfffft" on Facebook a fair bit. I think it means the same thing.

    1. I think we should start using "tush!" on FB.

  3. Pish-Tush and Pooh-Bah live on as characters in ' The Mikado ' of Gilbert and Sullivan

  4. My latest and greatest "exclamation of impatient contempt or disparagement" is "blurgh". A good old "Ugh" also works well too.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.