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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!


On spotting trends for your favourite clichés – warning: you could distract yourself for hours!

21 Mar

The Guardian’s Style Guide blog ran a brilliant article today about a little-known search feature within Google that allows you to see how words and phrases grow or decline in popularity over time. It’s the perfect tool to accompany any round of ‘buzzword bingo’!

To access the tool, simply search for any word or phrase – and then when the results are returned, you see a range of options on the left-hand side (e.g. pages from the UK).  At the bottom of this list is ‘More Search Options’ – and from that list, choose ‘Timeline’.

Google then searches Google Books and online newspaper articles – and will generate a little timeline graph of all the instances of that word or phrase.  (Remember to use “inverted commas” to search for every word in that phrase.)

There are countless examples in The Guardian article, and readers are encouraged to submit their own examples in the comments field.  I particularly like ‘the elephant in the room’, which is a phrase I first heard in about 2002.  It seems like the phrase really gained popular usage in the 1980s – and you can see its massive growth in the 1990s and 2000s.

The search engine isn’t 100% accurate as it can confuse a phrase used in a modern book about a historical event with a contemporary usage.  For instance, I looked up ‘mission creep’ – a foul phrase I learned when briefly contracting in the public sector that describes government and charitable bodies expanding their remit.  According to the timeline, ‘Mission creep’ first appears in 1550AD – but in reality, it appears to have been coined in the 1990s.

In honour of my football-loving husband, here are a few overused sporting clichés.

“Squeaky bum time” – I’ve heard this unattractive phrase several times in the last few weeks as the Premiership is still yet undecided.  The phrase was coined by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2002 – and we can see the usage of the phrase grow and grow across the rest of the decade.  The chart suggests it starts to fall out of usage in 2010 – but if the commentary on Radio 5 is anything to go by, this isn’t true!   I wish they’d stop using it.

“At the end of the day” (as meant in the same sense as ‘when all is said and done’) – this is harder to track as it also has a literal meaning – but if you view the timeline, you see a massive growth throughout the 1980s until the present day.  This usage by Princess Diana in 1995 is a good demonstration of its upward trajectory.

“It’s a game of two halves” – interestingly, this is a relative late-comer into the language.  Google identifies the first significant usage in an Independent article in 1995.  The phrase does grow in popularity – but appears to fall in and out of favour throughout the 2000s, and seems to be comparatively unfashionable at the moment.

“Bouncebackability” – many years ago, the TV show Soccer AM championed the word ‘bouncebackability’, a coinage by Iain Dowie, the then-Crystal Palace football manager in 2004.   People all round the country adopted the phrase and it became an in-joke to hear the word snuck into other communications, including the BBC Weather forecast!  I remember that one newspaper even started each feature with one of the letters of ‘Bouncebackability’, with the first feature starting with a ‘B’ and the last with a ‘Y’ and all the others in the right order in-between!

The phrase has remained pretty popular for the rest of the decade – with its top years being 2005 and 2010.  It would be interesting to analyse whether it had any seasonal usage – perhaps being used more commonly towards the end of a football season!

How to access the full Oxford English dictionary online from home, for free and entirely legitimately!

15 Nov
Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...

Cover via Amazon

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the granddaddy of all dictionaries.  It’s not only the most comprehensive dictionary in the world, but it provides much more than simple definitions. What the OED does is show word histories – when did a word first enter the language, what did it mean when first used, how has the word’s meaning changed over time and so forth.

If you wanted to own a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, you’d not only need a lot of money, but you’d need plenty of room.  The last full printed version (1989) ran to 20 volumes and 21,730 pages!

But it is possible to access the OED online – although paying for individual access is expensive.

However, there is a way to access the OED for free, from your own computer and it is entirely above board.  All you need is a card for your local library (this is UK only).

If you search on Google, or talk to your librarian, you’ll find that your local library has paid for access to the OED and many other resources – and all you need is the relevant web page on the library’s website and the number of your library card.

Once you click on the resource that you want, you’ll be asked to enter the number of your library card – and hey presto!

I’ve tried this with my local library service (Northamptonshire), which I found by googling ‘Northampton’ and ‘OED access’, and I can confirm that it works perfectly.

Among the other resources are:

and many more.  Give it a go!