I came across two interesting bits of Enlightenment etymology today.
The first is Whig. As a term from political history, it can characterise an individual’s views on anything from the principle of free trade to the religion professed by the King of England – but its origins are to be found among the pre-Union Scots.
Whigg was a Scots term for sour milk or whey. It was the nourishment of the poor and indigent, and so was a handy term of abuse for the Presbyterian ‘covenanters’, a crowd of whom marched on Edinburgh in 1648. Their advance became known as the ‘march of the Whiggamores’, or – even better – ‘the sour milk men’.
I’ve always liked the word whig on account of its euphoniousness (oh, and its associations with universal suffrage and the abolition of slavery, too, I suppose). It’s nice that it has such poetic origins. I think I might start referring to the Liberal Democrats as the Sour Milk Men, just for fun (you have to find your fun wherever you can in these hard times).
The second word whose ancestry I learned today is polite. I suppose it’s obvious (though I never realised it) that the word has the same latin root – polire – as ‘polish’ (the likes of policy and politics, however, are later derivations); the OED gives us ‘smooth, polished, burnished’ as an obsolete definition.
Here’s the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper:
All politeness is owing to liberty. We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision. To restrain this, is inevitably to bring a Rust upon Men’s Understanding.
That made me very happy on this sunny spring day.
(Postscript: another thing that has made me very happy is the fact that I have just tagged a blog-post with the word ‘Whigs’ – as though some gouty, stockinged throwback is going to be furiously googling WordPress in search of corroboration for his stance on the Rye House Plot).