Hunting the origins of “tantivy”

Dava Sobel’s book of popular astronomy The Planets reintroduced me to a word I’m fond of but rarely encounter, when she described Mercury’s “tantivy progress through space”.

Tantivy’s origins are uncertain, its functions manifold. As an adjective, it means “rapidly, at top speed, at full gallop”, this last gloss suggesting a possible etymology. It can also serve, or historically has done since around the 17th–18thC, as a noun, verb, adverb, and interjection (as a hunting cry).

The OED says tantivy is “probably imitative of the sound of galloping horses” – one of the more evocative etymologies I’ve read in a while – and that it was “later influenced by tantara” (a blast or fanfare on a trumpet or horn). Michael Quinion believes the hunting horn holds a more likely origin story.

Sequence of a horse galloping by Eadweard Muybridge

When I first saw tantivy in print I assumed the stress fell on the first syllable, maybe because of a similar word I knew from childhood, rumpeta, used in The Elephant and the Bad Baby to suggest the sound of a running elephant (“And they went rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta, all down the road”). Tantivy, however, is stressed on the second syllable, according to most authorities: tan-tiv-y.

It is not a common word. There are no examples in COCA or GloWbE, or even in the British National Corpus; only a handful may be found in the Corpus of Historical American English, including:

the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by two and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air (Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854)

Jack then placed himself on the opposite side of the pit, farthest from the giant’s lodging, and, just at the break of day, he put the horn to his mouth, and blew, Tantivy, Tantivy. This noise roused the giant… (Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales, 1898)*

He then put his horn to his mouth, and blew such a loud and long tantivy, that the giant awoke and came towards Jack… (Martha Finley, Fairy Tales Every Child Should Know, 1905)

How does it come that a few short hours later we find him galloping tantivy over the dusty hills, no less than two hundred miles, as the birds fly, from the counter railing of welcomings? (Francis Lynde, Empire Builders, 1907)

The middle two are interesting to compare, since they tell the same story but use tantivy in different grammatical ways: as interjection and noun, respectively. It is interesting, too, that tantivy has two competing etymologies, one from hunting, one from horses (probably also hunting), both onomatopoeic. Now I just need an excuse to use it.


[image of horse galloping by Eadweard Muybridge via Wikimedia Commons]

* Joseph Jacobs featured in an earlier post on folktale diffusion and ethnolinguistic variation.

14 Responses to Hunting the origins of “tantivy”

  1. Eddie says:

    I love the OED’s etymology! If you say it fast enough (with tantivy enthusiasm), it works: Tantivy, tantivy, tantivy … Hmm; this is one of those ‘facts’ that’s worth believing in, even if it is rather dubious : o )

  2. Stan says:

    Eddie: Yes, it’s a pleasing one to repeat aloud! Almost as much fun as rumpeta. I’m not qualified to assess the etymologies’ relative likelihoods; but both, being onomatopoeic, are appealing.

  3. William Hofmeyr says:

    No possible link to Latin ‘tantum’ (so much, to such a degree)?

  4. Stan says:

    Not that I’m aware of, William.

  5. John Cowan says:

    I had never heard of The Elephant and the Bad Baby before, so I found an online copy (unfortunately without pictures) and read it to my five-year-old grandson yesterday. However, I had to translate all the names of the stores (i.e. shops) and the associated things and people into American English on the fly, thus:

    The ice-cream man remained an ice-cream man.

    The pork butcher became just a butcher, and the pie concomitantly had to become a pork pie.

    The baker’s shop became a bakery.

    The snack bar became a convenience store. My wife said afterwards that it should have been a bodega, which is U.S. Spanish for the same thing and widely used in New York, especially in our neighborhood. The crisps of course became chips.

    The grocer’s shop became a produce market, and the chocolate biscuit a chocolate cookie.

    The sweet shop became a candy store, and the lady who works there became a woman.

    The fruit barrow became a fruit stand, and the barrow boy the man from the fruit stand.

    Finally, “Just fancy that!” became “What about that!”

    But “He never once said please!” remained altogether unchanged.

  6. @John,

    We had a copy of the book, too. I don’t actually remember it from my childhood, but my parents do, and I’ve seen it amongst the boxes of other books from that time.

    A few brief comments on your alterations:

    I had to look up “concomitantly”.

    The Australian solution to the crisps/chips/fries argument is to simply call them all “chips” and accept the harmless polysemy. Context always resolves which is meant. For example, “fish and chips” resolves one way because only one sense forms a traditional dish in conjunction with fish, and “packet of chips” resolves the other way because only one sense is sold in packets.

    Some of the vocabulary you changed would, of course, be considered quaint even in much of non-American English, but accepted as part of a “storybook register”, as it were. “Barrow” is the only item likely to obscure understanding around here, and even this matters little when you have pictures.

  7. Stan says:

    John, Adrian: The Elephant and the Bad Baby was a childhood favourite, and one I also loved reading to other children when I was older.

    Your translations are interesting, John. I never did this myself, though some of the book’s terms could be rendered easier for Irish children. The snack bar might become a newsagents, for example, though I could do with seeing the illustration again. It’s always been plain old butcher for me too.

    Adrian, I like your point about storybook register. As you say, barrow‘s meaning would be obvious when the book is in hand, though I might be inclined to mention the more familiar “wheelbarrow”, in passing.

  8. Jan says:

    I found your translations mostly apt. But even among all of the Spanish-speakers I know, “Bodega” is unknown outside of the NYC environs, Law & Order nothwithstanding, where they seem to be involved with them with untoward frequency (they must sell doughnuts to cops?). -Jan

  9. John Cowan says:

    Quite so: bodega in standard Spanish means ‘warehouse’, and I suspect its New York use is a calque of the AmE use of store for ‘shop’. There is very nearly one on every corner in some neighborhoods, including mine. The name has also been generalized from convenience stores run by and for Hispanics to those run by other ethnic groups: the one on my corner is run by Arabs, the one on the next corner by Indians.

    I note that Moses Dlugacz from Ulysses is called a pork butcher (with a Jewish name and a brochure about Zionism!) rather than merely a butcher, so a century ago in Ireland the distinction was still being routinely made. (The real Moses Dlugacz was a rabbi that Joyce taught English in Trieste.)

  10. Adrian Clark says:

    I’ve liked the word “tantivy” since first reading Gravity’s Rainbow. One of the English characters is Tantivy Mucker-Maffick, showing Pynchon’s usual knack for inventing names that are slightly ridiculous but tell the reader so much about the character.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for that, Adrian. Tantivy Mucker-Maffick is a marvellous name, like something Dickens and Dahl might have conjured between them.

  11. […] taught us about bagel and other tennis lingo; and on his own blog, Stan hunted for the origins of tantivy, and explored the difference between envy and jealousy […]

  12. pierre says:

    Hi! My “comment ” is in fact a question to all:
    Could it be possible at all to link the origin of “tantivy ” with the French expression “à toute vitesse?”

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