If you see your money devoured, going down the drain (y), if you feel like a diver – entirely under water – your debts have overwhelmed you, and you aver that the die is cast, this is a word for you. It’s a term from old Scottish law; it means “bankrupt” and can be a noun or adjective.

As it happens, it is pronounced exactly like diver, and some people think it may actually have come from diver – the Oxford English Dictionary has two citations from around 1600 that have it in the context of being “drowned in debt.” The more commonly given etymology derives it from devoir, French for (in this case) “owe”, but there is no clear explanation for the shift of stress or the change of the first vowel.

It’s an odd-looking word, isn’t it? It seems constricted at the start – y isn’t automatically seen as a wide-open vowel – and the yv is a pair of notches (perhaps on a tally stick), or almost even a w with a tail or foot or hook on it. Or an accordion file, stuffed with bills owing. But the sound of it has that wide arc of the [aI]. Meanwhile, the back half looks open, with its two vowel characters, but in fact it barely has a vowel, if at all; many will say it with a syllabic /r/.

For further confusion, consider that when this word was in its heyday, u and v were one character with two sounds, written two ways, but the shape tended to be varied according to position and taste and not according to sound, so one might see it as dyvovr or dyuour. So many things about this word thus seem bivalent, or ambivalent, and anyway deceptive. It almost aims to defeat: if it had been spelled divour, we could see an IOU in it, but instead all we know is that we see you and our but hear I – so again we do not know which is the reality, or if they both are; we cannot tell which is black and which is white, as it were.

Or perhaps we should say yellow and brown. Under Scottish law in the 17th century, debtors were required to wear a coat or upper garment that was half yellow and half brown, along with hose and a cap similarly half yellow and half brown. (No mention of where they would get the money to pay for this new habit.) And so even in clothing we have the same duality and the same paradox. After all, how does it come to be that someone half in yellow and half in brown can be seen to be entirely in the red?

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