Daily Archives: October 11, 2010

brouhaha

You know trouble’s a-brewin’ when there’s a murmur, a rhubarb, a hubbub, a brutish babble… it all builds up to a big brouhaha. Oh, brouhaha, a word that in its triplet time and rough, smeary consonants has a bit of the sound of a hundred clog dancers in Doc Martens all stomping a threatening protest pattern.

But that’s because we know it’s another word for “hubbub”, “commotion”, “to-do”, et cetera. Taken in isolation, what words does it sound like? Think of bwa-ha-ha and mmuuu-ha-ha and similar: always the same gesture of the mouth opening in a moue and spreading like a shock wave from an airburst into a big, wide forest-burning face of laughter, and not laughter of joy but laughter of evil. Sort of like how the devil in a play, uncovering himself for the audience, might voice his anticipated triumph.

Which is, in fact, where we get this word. Brouhaha was, as it happens, a stereotypical laugh of the devil in medieval French religious plays. The sense shifted over the centuries, so that by 1890, when it was borrowed into English, it had the mob rumbling sense.

But where did French get it from? Well, in fact, there’s a minor brouhaha over that question. It has been suggested that it is imitative of Hebrew barukh habba, a phrase meaning “blessed be he who comes” or, more loosely, “welcome”, that would have been heard on some public occasions of Jewish observance. The existence of similar borrowings in other languages certainly makes this plausible (and we already know that Jews were often demonized in medieval and Renaissance times), but it is not a concluded fact; there is no concrete trail, just circumstance and resemblance, and there is also evidence of a French brou root relating to taunting. So, until further detail is unearthed, we are left with a big “maybe” – and, in any case, a usable word that has strayed somewhat from its origins… whatever they may ultimately have been. A bit of linguistic hocus-pocus, as it were (hocus-pocus, for its part, may have come from Latin hoc est corpus – from the Catholic mass).

posse

The sound of this word makes me think of Yosemite Sam. Can’t you just hear a hoarse voice with a southwestern American accent coughing it out through a bushy moustache? “Get mah hoss! Round up a posse! Someone stole mah hossenfeffa!” (Side note for the millions who have seen the “hossenfeffer” cartoon: it’s a German word spelled Hasenpfeffer and meaning “rabbit pepper”.)

Oh, this word has a mighty western flavour for me. But it also makes me think of the T-shirts I saw for sale in Tijuana when I was there in, um, 1980 (they probably still have them) that read “Tijuana Pussy Posse” – of course they were illustrated with cats. And then there’s the hip hop duo Insane Clown Posse, which reminds us that posse is now used commonly in hip hop circles – the posse has taken on a gangsta air, quite contrary to the spontaneous law-enforcement idea of the old west posse. But, then, Jamaican posses are actual criminal gangs, so that takes it even a step further.

No matter how you slice it, posse is a word that has a wild edge. The puff of air in the first syllable also brings a taste of fur and claws with its “paw” sound; the “see” in the second might suggest that you set down your coffee and have a look-see. But, now, we know where a posse comes from – it’s who of the local able-bodied men the sheriff can round up to pursue a miscreant – but do we know where posse comes from?

We could say it comes from England, because that’s where posses first came from (though they’re obsolete in English common law). But the word itself is Latin. And I don’t mean Spanish; I mean Latin. It’s short for posse comitatus, which means “force of the county”. Comitatus, meaning “county” (or “of the county”), comes from a word for “companion” because a count was a companion of the king (and, as it happens, posse comitatus could be said to mean “force of companions”). Posse is translated here as “force” but could also come through as “power” or “ability” or, infinitive, “be able”; it is also related to potent, potency, potential, and so on.

So… posse can be translated as “be able”. One could from that say that someone who is being pursed by a posse has a “can” on his tail… and they aim to have him end up in the can. They’ll do whatever they must to possess him; they’ll even lasso him if necessary.