Daily Archives: August 31, 2010

hoard, horde, whored

They’re taking down the hoarding in front of the Sony Centre, across the street from where I live. That’s nice – for so long it felt as though they were hoarding it to themselves. Soon, renovations done, they will open their hoard to the hordes who will come to see acts from the hortatory to the hoary. Some may accuse the artists who play such a cavernous space of having whored themselves, sacrificing art for cash. But who’re they to criticize who work uninspiring day jobs just to earn the pay to see someone else’s output? Well, let them make themselves hoarse preaching “with a little hoard of maxims,” as Tennyson put it in “Locksley Hall”; their end would be the state Tennyson described in “Don Juan”: “Society is now one polish’d horde, Formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored.”

Hoard, horde, whored… These words are tolerable in British accents that drop the /r/, starting with a light breath and then holding on a lax mid-back rounded vowel until the final voiced stop. But in North American English generally, they come too close to what is sometimes called “throat hawking,” that thing one does to produce a “loogie.” The tongue is raised at the back and curled up at the front, and the /d/ is the saving grace, keeping it from burying in the back.

But that pulling back and gathering in, that curling and bunching, at least may seem to have some iconicity with respect to the sense of the words: the retentiveness of hoard, the clannishness of horde, the dim bedchambers and clandestine involvements of whored. There’s no particular reason to think the words came about because of this, but it may or may not have helped their persistence. In any event, their sources are separate. Hoard is from a Teutonic word for “treasure”; horde is from a Turki word, orda, meaning “camp”, which also gave us Urdu, the name of a language; whored is from whore, of course, which in turn came from an old Germanic word for “adultery” – and whore is a word that never had a pronounced /w/ (the w was added to the spelling rather late) and that is also often pronounced with the vowel as /u/ or /U/, and a word that has a common root, back in Proto-Indo-European, with charity, which really is ironic, isn’t it?

I should add, too, that hoarding is from another word hoard that came about as a reanalysis of hurdis (taking it for a plural), which in turn comes from Latin and French words for “palisade”. As for hoary, it comes from hoar (as in hoar frost), which refers to grey hair but comes from a Germanic root meaning “old” and “venerable”.

We find, indeed, that this simple sound string gives us quite a hoard of words – even, perhaps, metaphorically, a horde, except that the words do not form a clan per se, not being related. But perhaps a horde need not be seen as related; after all, horde shows up most often with media (as in the media horde or a horde of media) – the rough and bunchy sound, redolent of hairy sorts on horses screaming themselves hoarse, seems apt for the muddled huddle of paparazzi and assorted reporters. But it also shows up with Golden – the Golden Horde were central Asian conquerors of the 1200s – and thus we have a link with hoard, as gold and (more especially) cash are the two things most often spoken of with hoard. And no doubt we have heard on occasion of the sterotype of a “whore with a heart of gold” – but that’s not as common a usage, and the past tense verb, whored, is much less common and does not have any usual golden collocation.

But now I feel that I have reached my maximum, and I hope that you are not of the tribe of the bored.

Thanks to Gabriel Cooper for suggesting hoard, horde, and whored.


If you’re more of a Johnny-come-lately than a summa cum laude (watch that snag in all the spam filters), if in fact you’re perhaps a bit non compos mentis, you might well be a nincompoop. You could be a rich nincompoop – there’s nothing requiring an income pooped out – but if you remain a ninny, a cumbersome old poop, then you get the one-two-three punch of this word: nin – first at the front, on the tip of the tongue, with a high front vowel sliding into a nasal – com – a bounce from the back back to the front by way of a central vowel, rhyming with dumb poop – a little puff from the lips, like blowing off a bit of fluff, but the vowel is high and back, so the sequence of vowels is front-mid-back while the consonants start on the tip of the tongue, bounce off the back and end on the lips.

It makes for a good effect. I recall a Bugs Bunny cartoon wherein Bugs is deriding a nemesis only to be bonked on the head and left in a daze: “Why, you big nincom… [bonk] …poop!” with the “poop” on a high note. It also has a modest flexibility, as when Frank Burns in M*A*S*H referred to a non-commissioned officer (corporal or sergeant) as a “non-com-poop”. And the repeated letters – n and n, p and p, and those googly eyes oo – add to the childishness, as repetition often tends to do.

No doubt the excremental undertones of the ending of the word help maintain its dismissively derisive tone. Not that the poop is necessarily the fecal one; it may be from a less common word, a verb meaning “cheat”. But that word in its turn likely has influence from the dung, perhaps through the back door, as it were. And from dung to dung returns – the word poop in you old poop (as in Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond) is likely shortened from nincompoop.

But whence comes this word entire? Samuel Johnson thought it came from non compos mentis, but there is no good evidence of this, and the oldest forms (mid-1600s) appear to be nicompoop – the second /n/ coming later. A later writer, John Ciardi, followed the sound-coincidence trail of folk etymologists everywhere and decided that since there was a Dutch phrase that could be constructed that sound somewhat similar and meant something kind of similar – nicht om poep, “niece of a fool” – it must be the origin, even though there was a lack of any other evidence to the cause (such as actual instances of usage of the Dutch phrase).

In truth, the best evidence is that it’s formed from Nicodemus, via French nicodème meaning “simpleton” or “naïve person”, with the derisive poop tacked onto the end in place of the original final, and extra nasals inserted along the way. That’s not certain, but it has more to back it up than the other proposals. But evidence doesn’t always manage to get in the way of a cute story, a contrived sound coincidence, or a dedicated nincompoop.