On jeopardy and leopards

5 Jun

Someone used the phrase ‘double jeopardy’ in conversation with me this weekend, and it made me think what a strange word ‘jeopardy’ is. The only word I could think that resembled its spelling in English was ‘leopard’. The two make such an unlikely pairing that I had to investigate.

Much like my last entry about jet and jet, it appears to be coincidence, rather than design, that jeopardy and leopard share similar spelling. Jeopardy is the older word of the two – but not by much. Jeopardy dates in the English written record from around c.1200, whereas leopard appears only 150 years later in c.1350. Given the big cat is native to Africa and south Asia, it’s fascinating to see how its reputation had travelled all the way to the British Isles at a time when few would have even crossed the English Channel, let alone crossed continents.

In simple terms, jeopardy appears to derive from the old French version of ‘jeu parti’ – ‘divided or even game’. Its earliest usage, dating from 1200, referred to a chess problem, but is most clearly explained by this line from Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess of 1369: “But god wolde I had ones or twyes Y-kond and knowe the Ieupardyes That kowde the Greke Pictagoras, I shulde haue pleyde the bet at ches.”

From its origins in the game of chess, jeopardy then took on a number of related meanings, all around the same time. One of the alternate definitions, first recorded in c. 1250, was the point in a game when the opportunity to win or lose hung in perfect balance – the turning point, as it were. You can see this in another of Chaucer’s usages of the word, this time from the later Troylis & Criseyde of 1374: For myn estat now lyth in Iupartye And eek myn emes lyf lyth in balaunce.

Chaucer also provides the original written English record of another definition of jeopardy – the sense of peril or danger, or impending loss. This is the most common meaning of the word in modern English. The same narrative poem, Troylis & Criseyde, provides the quote: For Troye is brought in swich a Iupartye That it to save is now no remedye.

The word also came to mean a daring exploit or dangerous mission, and a stratagem, although these meanings are lost to modern English.

The OED comments that it’s not particularly clear how or why the ‘t’ of ‘parti’ became ‘d’ in jeopardy– and it’s suggested that it may developed in line with the French verb ‘perdre’ (to lose).

But with leopard, the suggested etymology reflects the origins of the beast itself. It was thought the leopard was a cross between a lion ‘leo’ and a pard, an old name for a panther or large cat.  Pard first appears in Old English, in a translation of Alexander’s letters to Aristotle: … leon & beran & tigris & pardus & wulfas

Even in modern English, pard retains a usage in heraldry: The distinction between the pard and the panther is slight, being in whiteness of spots, and they both signify an original bearer of the arms who was not free-born. (The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, 1988.)  The word pard derives from the Greek via the Latin, which can still be seen in the leopard’s genus name of felis pardus.

The full word leopard is first recorded in English in c.1330, and again, Chaucer provides one of the earlier written records of the word, as taken here from The Monk’s Tale of about 1386: Leons, leopardes [v.r. lebardis, luperdes] and Beres.

The leopard’s gone on to lend its name to an exhaustive host of other spotted animals, vegetables and minerals, including, but not limited to: leopard-wood; leopard-tree; leopard-tortoise; leopard-shell; leopard spotted-goby; leopard seal; leopard moth; leopard mackerel; leopard lily; leopard frog and the camelopard.  Disappointingly, the camelopard is not a cross between a leopard and a camel (as I first thought), but is simply an old-fashioned name for a giraffe, with the leopard-part of the name owing a debt to the giraffe’s coat.

So, to answer the original question, perhaps the only thing a leopard has in common with jeopardy is that you find yourself in the latter if you meet the former!

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