Gender-neutral ‘henchpersons’

January 2, 2014

Discussions about gender-neutral language generally centre on usage issues that recur frequently: singular they, generic he and man, generic guys, Ms/Mrs and other forms of address, suffixes such as –ess, –ette and –trix, and common terms like chairman/chair(person), spokesman/woman/person, and fireman/firefighter.

Other items crop up less often: one such is henchman. That it’s relatively rare even in the niche of sexism in language is evidenced by its omission from Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, which includes a fairly thorough thesaurus (the Hs include handyman, heiress, heroine, horseman/woman, hostess, housewife/husband, huntress, and husbandman).

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Hunting the origins of “tantivy”

June 18, 2013

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.