These are short essays that I plan, some day, to publish in some form or another. My aim is to explore a word and its relatives, their meanings and changing histories, all in 750 words, give or take a bit.

A descant on descants

I have now to follow Mr. Burke through a pathless wilderness of rhapsodies, and a sort of descant upon governments, in which he asserts whatever he pleases, on the presumption of its being believed, without offering either evidence or reasons for so doing.

— (Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man)

Those of us who either can now, or once could, sing soprano, probably know a descant as an alto part occasionally sung over certain pieces of church music. The 23rd psalm, sung to the tune ‘Crimond’ has a descant, and a few of the Christmas carols give the sopranos a chance to stand out, as they play the part of angels, singing curlicues and ornamentation around the main theme being sung by the rest of us.

Originally, back in the days when just about all singing was church singing, and that singing was no more than plainsong, the descant was the only melodic ornamentation anybody ever heard. Back then, people probably knew that the word came from Latin: from dis, meaning apart, and cantus, a song, because a descant was apart from what the ordinary folk sang. Soon after, in the days of Chaucer, ‘descant’ was also used to describe the art of composing or singing part-music, an early form of counterpoint.

By the time William Shakespeare was born, ‘descant’ had come to mean the soprano or highest part in a musical arrangement, so it was seen in the name of the descant recorder, the descant sackbut, and the descant viol. Not long after Shakespeare died, a descant could also be an instrumental prelude, consisting of variations on a theme. It was a very versatile word, and even before that, the word had been used to mean ‘to comment or enlarge upon’, but it was Shakespeare who made the word famous in this sense, the form that it is used here, when he had the hunchbacked Gloucester, or Richard, in King Richard III start the play with "Now is the winter of our discontent . . ." and go on to say:

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.

My descants are explorations of and around words in English, how they came to mean what they mean, and what else they mean, and maybe featuring a short diversion into a few of the meanings of suspiciously similar words, like ‘decant’, which comes to us from the Latin de, from, and canthus, a jug, and which has nothing to do with the target word, or ‘recant’, which originally meant ‘sing it again’, but came to mean singing it again — and this time getting it right — making it a bit like a related word, ‘recall’, as it is used when a faulty product is recalled, rather than remembered.

Closer to the mark, though, are words like ‘chant’, and the chanter of the bagpipes, the pipe which actually plays a melody, unlike the drones which go over the shoulder and play a sort of plainsong. Then we have the chantry, the cantor in the synagogue, cantabile, canticle, and even the thing that kept sailors merry in days of yore, the sea shanty. The Australian and Canadian rude hut, also called a shanty, probably comes from a different source, though the Australian ‘shanty’, as a place for the sale of rough liquor, may have involved a certain amount of song.

Maybe it even gives us the origins of the thieves’ slang or cant, that gave them the name of The Canting Crew, with their mix of Romany, thieves’ slang and other terms designed to keep the authorities and agents of the law in ignorance in the early 1800s. And one can descant on that single topic all night.


There is always a risk, when we consider statements that are more than a few hundred years old, that some of the key words may have altered drastically in the interim, changing the meaning entirely. When King James II commented that the new St Paul’s Cathedral in London was "amusing, awful and artificial", should Sir Christopher Wren have slipped out the back and slit his throat? Not a bit of it: the monarch was merely observing that he considered the building to be pleasing, awe-inspiring and skilfully achieved, and no insult or criticism was intended.

In Richard II, Shakespeare has John of Gaunt say:

Gaunt am I for the grave, gaunt as a grave,
Whose hollow womb inherits nought but bones.

This prompts King Richard to ask "Can sick men play so nicely with their names?" but this is no praise, as we shall see. In the Reeve’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales, Chauce writes "This miller smyled of hir nycetee", which we might be tempted to take to mean he smiled at their nicety, but a more accurate rendering is that he smiled at the simplicity of the two scholars he planned to swindle.

That aside, most of the time when Chaucer uses ‘nice’, he means foolish, for that was the original meaning of the term. We get this word from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant or unknowing, with the prefix ne- meaning not, and the -scius reminding us of words like scientia, knowledge, or even science. So originally a nice person was somebody who knew nothing, a fool, in other words.

Then began the slow progression of this word to its present meaning of somebody who is inoffensively pleasant. After the simple meaning of ‘foolish’ that Chaucer has as the primary meaning, the word came to indicate people who are foolishly concerned about particular things, and then it became fastidious and precise, and after that, we might have spoken of somebody being nice in their dress, with no hint of praise intended.

At the time when King Richard spoke to John of Gaunt, though, only one meaning would have existed, but Shakespeare’s audience would have understood ‘nicely’ here to mean something like delicately, or with precision, a sense we preserve today when we speak of somebody making a nice point, or performing something to a nice degree. In the same way, we may speak of somebody having a nice sense of discrimination or honour.

Finally, it came to our modern sense of ‘pleasantly agreeable’, and it is a term that is commonly applied to people of a religious persuasion, church-going Christians who might look at Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection and admire it greatly. These are people who would admire Piero for depicting himself as one of the sleeping guards outside Christ’s tomb, and who would glory in the nice precision with which Piero had identified himself by showing his goitre, an outgrowth of the thyroid gland, caused by a lack of iodine in the diet.

While people closer to the sea got enough seafood to provide the iodine they needed, in some areas, people never saw the sea, and food from the sea could not reach them before it went rotten — unless it was preserved in some way, like anchovies. Seafood was expensive, and so many people went without, and developed goitres as a result.

In extreme cases, iodine deficiency and the goitrous condition can bring about a degree of simplicity and gentleness that was seen by their luckier compatriots as like that of the Christians, or chrétiens as the French-speakers in alpine areas called them. That is one version of the origin — the other is that the goitrous were recognised as still being humans with Christian souls, as opposed to the brutes of creation, baptised, but incapable of sin.

Either way, the more goitrous among them became known as chrétiens, or crestins, and so we got our word ‘cretins’, now generally misapplied as no more than a term of abuse. Once, though, cretins were a group who were at once nice in both the original and in the more modern sense. If the cretins had been uniformly naughty, though, would that have been a case of a regional sin?


Once upon a time, there was a Latin title, comes stabuli, literally the Count of the Stable, or in more general terms, the master of the Horse, but this was no mere head groom. In Byzantium, the constable was in charge of the Imperial stables, and that made him a great officer of state.

Thomas Chaucer, the son of Geoffrey Chaucer, was Chief Butler to Richard II, and under Henry IV, he was Constable of Wallingford Castle. Later, Thomas was speaker of Parliament, and one of his grandchildren, the Earl of Lincoln, was declared by Richard III to be the heir-apparent to the throne, in case the Prince of Wales should die without issue, but any prospect of Chaucer’s descendant sitting on the throne died when Lincoln died at the Battle of Stoke in 1487.

So clearly, constables were fairly important people, a bit more than P. C. Plod, pounding the pavement, as even Geoffrey Chaucer knew, because he features a "Constable of the castel" in the Man of Law’s Tale, which was set some time in the past, though after the time of Muhammad.

Similarly, Shakespeare features the Constable of France who was a high official (and the supreme judge in matters of chivalry until the post was abolished in 1627), in Henry V, and in Henry VIII, Shakespeare includes Buckingham, formerly the Lord High Constable among the characters. On the other hand, Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing is a constable, while in Love’s Labours Lost, we encounter "Dull, a constable". In Measure for Measure, we meet "Elbow, a simple constable", who hauls Froth and Pompey before Angelo, the Duke’s deputy in Act II, saying:

If it please your honour, I am the poor Duke's constable, and my name is Elbow; I do lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your good honour two notorious benefactors.

The humour of the malapropism, as we can see, preceded Mrs Malaprop by quite a few years. Equally, the knaves in Shakespeare’s plays could raise a laugh by referring to the constables: in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff speaks to Mistress quickly of how, being found in woman’s attire, "the knave constable had set me i' th' stocks, i' th' common stocks, for a witch." Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, for that matter, were both handed over to the beadles by "the constables" in Henry IV Part 2.

So at some point between 1400 and 1600, the constable’s status fell drastically. Constables of castles remain important, and so do High Constables and Chief Constables, but according to the OED, the constable was, by 1597, a humble officer of the peace. Like the English shire reeve, a great official who became a mere law officer in a town in the Wild West, a sheriff, the constable was no longer a great person in the state.

The butler, whose name literally means the ‘bottler’, the person in charge of managing the drinks in a household did not have quite the same fall. While it is true that Thomas Chaucer held the title of Chief Butler, this was an honorary role, and he had little to do with the management of royal or other beverages , but slowly, the old usage fell away and the butler remained as the one who done it, perhaps in a dim recollection of a famous 19th century robbery

Called in to investigate a robbery at Southampton in 1835, Henry Goddard, one of the last of the Bow Street Runners, took a bullet which had been fired into the butler’s wooden bedhead during the alleged robbery, and showed that the bullet had been cast in a mould which the butler was in the habit of using to make his own bullets, each of which had a small ‘pimple’ from an imperfection in the mould.

Confronted with the evidence, the butler confessed to having staged the robbery to win his employer’s favour, probably the first time that the butler was shown to have done it. Regrettably, history does not record whether Goddard was a constable at the time, or indeed if he ever rose to be a Chief Constable, but clearly he was a cut above your average Elbow, Dull or Dogberry — and much too clever for the average butler.


Before there were chemists, there were alchemists, and in the absence of a proper science of chemistry, the alchemists made do with the equally proper mysteries of alchemy. And as with chemistry, the commencing alchemist had a large vocabulary to learn. It was unsystematic, but it was romantic, and while the names of the stock-in-trade of the alchemist gave you no clues about what something contained, they gave clear indications of how a substance was made — or what it did.

Instead of our methanoic acid, the alchemists spoke of formic acid, made from the destructive distillation of crushed ants (ants are formices in Latin, giving us the word ‘formicate’, meaning to rush around like ants), while a silver diammine solution was ammoniacal moon silver, and marsh gas was the name given to methane, though their combination has the same alarming result, no matter what you called them. In the same way, the substance that we now call hydrochloric acid was dubbed muriatic acid, and this name is still common among metal workers who use the acid in priming metal surfaces for soldering, and brick layers use muriatic acid to clean up stray cement on a brick wall.

In fact, to generations of chemists and building workers, this use on walls has been the well-known derivation, with the word well-known to be derived from the Latin murus, a wall, along with ‘mural’, a painting on a wall, the ‘murenger’, who was a city officer charged with keeping the walls of a town or city in good order, and the word ‘immure’ meaning to wall-in, or surround with walls.

Shakespeare speaks once or twice of a ‘mure’ when he means a wall, and even once, in Troilus and Cressida, of the "strong immures" of Troy, wherein Helen may be found. He speaks more often, though, of those who are ‘demure’, a word which comes from the Old French meur, meaning calm or still. Somehow the word acquired the de- prefix, but it is just another of the mure words which has nothing at all to do with walls.

Sadly for generations of chemists, who have learned the derivation of ‘muriatic’ and passed it on, this word has even less to do with walls, and far more to do with the Latin muria, which is brine, or with muriaticus, which means pickled in brine. Hydrochloric acid was prepared from brine, and so would have been called briney acid, but in the arcane language of the alchemists, this was muriatic acid.

The word also lives on as ‘muriate’, which can either be a lay term for ‘chloride’, or a verb, meaning to pickle in brine, but these days, ‘muriated’ only means a compound containing chlorine, or treated with chlorine, which is also derived from brine. There are a couple of other names given to muriatic acid, like acidum salis, a Latin term meaning ‘salt acid’, but none of them has anything whatsoever to do with walls. Still, the generations of deceived chemists are no worse off than earlier generations who were deceived about antimony by Dr Johnson.

According to our first lexicographer, an abbot gave antimony in their feed to pigs, who thrived on it. Then, according to the worthy doctor, the abbot fed the same mix to his monks, who promptly sickened and died, causing the mix to be called antimonachus, bad for monks, but like muriatic acid getting its name from the walls it cleaned, the tale is untrue.

If you want to pull somebody’s leg, though, think of the way formic acid is produced by the destructive distillation of crushed ants: while ‘muriform’ is a specialist word for botanists, ‘murine’ means having to do with mice, so with a bit of effort, if you want to persuade somebody that muriatic acid is prepared by the distillation of crushed mice, then why not? In any case, they will be no worse off than the generations imposed upon by Dr Johnson, or the succession of chemists and artisans who thought muriatic acid was a product just made for walls.


The cursor we all know best these days is the little blinking dot on our computer screen, which runs along, showing us where we are on the screen. To a generation of engineers and physicists who are now mainly retired, the last generation to wield the slide rule, the cursor of their youth was a small slide with a hair-line on it, that was used to read off the results of complex sums, back in the days before calculators became the standard thing to use.

Literally, a cursor is a runner, and the word comes to us from the Latin. In that tongue, ‘to move rapidly’ is currere, from which we get a variety of words like curriculum, but Latin is an inflected language, and what is currere at one point in the life cycle of the word, at other times appears as cursum, which gives us terms like cursor and course — whether it is a race course, or a course of study. Oddly enough, the Latin ‘curriculum’ has had both meanings, changing from a small race course to a syllabus to be followed, though a currum and a curricle are both carriages.

Other related words include ‘cursitate’, which means to run hither and thither, rather like formicate, but without the need for ants to be involved, and the cursitor, who was a medieval court clerk, who wrote things, of course, in a cursive or running style, rather than in an uncial style.

But back to ‘cursor’, aside from its meaning as a slide on a slide rule or similar instruments, the normal medieval university would have had an entirely different sort of cursor, who was a student with a bachelor’s degree in theology, to whom fell the task of giving preliminary lessons on the Bible to the new students. In zoology, the cursores were the running birds that we now call the ratites (which led me recently, through a research paper on dinosaurs, to explore the acetabulum).

A current in the ocean or in a stream moves rapidly, and this word also comes to us from the Latin currere as well, and current events are events that are still developing rapidly. But given the way that computers can reduce us to bad language, is a cursor anything to do with a curse? It seems not, for ‘curse’ is just an isolated Old English word, found nowhere else, a mystery term, unrelated to anything at all. It does not even relate to the English dialect term ‘cursen’, which means to christen or baptise.

That leaves us just a couple of possible relatives to consider. First, the dried grapes called currants have nothing to do with this family of words, for they are just the raisins of Corinth, somewhat corrupted over the years. That disappointed me, since I once wrote for a competition, the world’s worst multiple choice question, on an aspect of sedimentary geology gone badly awry, which ran something like this:

What is current bedding?
(A) a leaky water bed.
(B) an electric blanket.
(C) your present partner.
(D) sleeping with a sultana.

Now I find the currants are an entirely different family. Ah well, you can’t win them all.

What, though, of the currency we hand out to pay for our electric current or our currants, or to meet the needs of the curriculum? That word is in the same word family, because currency flows from hand to hand, and as we all know, it flows much too fast, and runs out all too often.

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You can find more of the descants posted as occasional items to The Banyan Tree, which can be accessed through — and in the next version, I will try to give more detail.

These essays were written in 2000, and posted here on February 11, 2001. Copyright © Peter Macinnis, 2001, all rights reserved.

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