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The Scrivener: Of Tides And Tucks

Did you know that the the name of Friar Tuck, famous friend of English legend Robin Hood, in effect means Friar Sword?

Brian Barratt, continuing his outstandingly entertaining series on words which have more than one meaning, confirms yet again the richness and flexibility of the English language.

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Homonyms: Words which have several meanings, 7

About 1,400 years ago, the author of the great Beowulf saga wrote (in line 146):
Ws seo hwil micel: twelf wintra tid

Yes, that is English. You might not recognise it. It is written in Old English, the ancient forerunner of our language. It means: This went on for a long time: twelve winters tide = a period of twelve years. Here, tid meant "year".

One of the monks who compiled The Saxon Chronicle for the year 879 wrote, also in Old English:
& y ilcan gere aystrode seo sunne ane tid dges.

This means: And the same year also the sun was eclipsed one hour of the day.

In Old English, tid originally meant a period of time, and could be used for specific aspects of time such as year or hour. Its descendant, our word "tide", has given rise to homonyms, which means literally "same names" the same word is used with different meanings. Yuletide, for instance, is the season, the time of the year, for celebrating the god Jol. The Christian church borrowed it for the Christmas season. In modern Icelandic, the old Viking word jol is still used to denote Christmas.

The early form of "eventide" is seen in Old English efrn ws tid, evening was the time. Like many of the words referring to specific times, it is hardly even used nowadays noontide, Springtide, Shrovetide, and even more unusual times and seasons such as the one that occurs on August 24, referred to by Shakespeare in Henry V:

I will wink on her to consent, my lord, if you will teach her to know my meaning; for maids well summer'd and warm kept are like flies at Bartholomew-tide, blind, though they have their eyes; and then they will endure handling, which before would not abide looking on.

By the 1300s, the "ebbes and flowes", times of high and low water in the sea, were referred to as tides. Although this makes tide a homonym, it comes from exactly the same original idea. Shakespeare used it in a picturesque metaphor, also in Henry V:

...the tide of pomp that beats upon the high shore of this world

In the mid-1300s, "tidy" in Middle English developed from meaning good, or of good appearance, to timely or seasonable and even honest. Our current usage as neat or in good condition does not seem to have emerged until the 1700s. In its own way, tidy is a sort of homonym of tide.

Now let's have a look at the word "tuck", which is a perfect example of a homonym because it has some totally unrelated uses. As folding or tucking cloth, the word originated over 1,200 years ago in Old English tucian, which meant, rather surprisingly, to punish, to torment, to chastise. It is linked to tucken in other European languages, in the sense of to tug, to pull sharply.

These meanings have given rise to it as a way of handling a piece of material or a sheet when we are tucking it in, pushing and pulling almost as punishment. In the 14th century, to tuck a piece of cloth was to finish it after it came from the weaver.

By the late 1500s it was also used in the phrase we still have, to tuck something away to put something into a place where it is safe or hidden.

Meanwhile, from the early 1500s the spelling of the word was used in an adaptation of an unrelated Old French word denoting a rapier, a long slender sword. Shakespeare used it only twice in all his plays. In this passage from Twelfth Night, it refers to a rapier:

Dismount thy tuck, be yare in thy preparation, for thy assailant is quick, skilful, and deadly. (Take out your rapier, be deft/swift in your preparation.)

And in this hilarious insult Henry IV Part 1 a standing tuck is a rapier held upright and therefore of no use as a weapon:

Falstaff. 'Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat's-tongue, you bull's sizzle, you stockfish O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor's yard, you sheath, you bowcase, you vile standing tuck!

Tuck as food has a more difficult history to trace. Partridge's Dictionary of Historical Slang offers a possible origin, in the 18th century British schoolboy and slang use of "tuck up" and 19th century "tuck in" as to over-eat, to push too much food into one's mouth. Morriss's Dictionary of Australian Words, first published in 1898 as Austral English, confirms the schoolboy slang of tuck for food, especially pastry, in relation to the Australian slang word tucker, food. In the mid-1800s, tuck denoted a daily ration of food for a station-hand or a gold-digger.

Tucker also refers to an item of clothing, a piece of cloth or lace perhaps by a women over the neck-line of a low-cut dress. Charles Dickens mentions it in context in this extract from David Copperfield:

They were dressed alike, but this sister wore her dress with a more youthful air than the other; and perhaps had a trifle more frill, or tucker, or brooch, or bracelet, or some little thing of that kind, which made her look more lively.

Friar Tuck, the famous friend of Robin Hood, had no particular liking for food. According to one source, his name was actually Tooke. But there is a more likely story in Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. A renowned friar in Yorkshire is said to have challenged Robin Hood to a sword fight. Robin won the fight but invited the friar to join his band, naming him Friar Tuck. This goes back to the use of tuck to mean a sword, a rapier he was in effect named Friar Sword.

This compilation Copyright Brian Barratt 2010


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