Monday, July 12, 2010

Welch, as in Squelch

A major airline currently involved in merger negotiations was accused in an article in a major newspaper of being allowed to “welch” on its pension obligations.  Supercilious readers, like me, read that and sniffed, “Tut-tut—whoever said that should have known it’s not welch, but welsh.” But wait a minute, smarty-pants, not so fast! 

The verb, which means “to swindle by refusing to pay a debt,” stems from the adjective describing a native of Wales.  The pejorative verb originated in the 1850s in British horse-racing circles, in which presumably one or more Welsh bookies refused to pay winning bettors and absconded with the money. English mockery of the Welsh, however, goes back even further, as the nursery rhyme “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief” has indicated since the late 1700s.

Welsh has a long, long etymological history from the time the ancient Romans referred to residents of southern Gaul as Volcæ. The word made its way into Anglo-Saxon as wealas, meaning a non-Germanic foreigner. Among the dozens of permutations listed in the Oxford English Dictionary are Wiliac, Wilsc, Wylsc, Welsc, Welisc, Welsse, Welshe, Walish, Walische, Walyach, Walch, Walsh, and, yes—Welch. In fact, the first printed use of the word to mean “swindle” was in London’s Morning Chronicle of June 8, 1857, which observed of a scurrilous individual: “He got his living by ‘welching'…” Welch is regarded by both Oxford and Webster as a perfectly acceptable alternative to welsh.

So if the major airline (no, you’re not going to catch me naming it; I bet there are hordes of idle libel lawyers just sitting around waiting to pounce on some poor chump like me) wishes to “welch” on its commitments it may do so with linguistic, if not ethical, impunity.

Impunity is the watchword of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who likes to argue in circles because then he can’t be cornered. 

            My friend Bert’s in the habit
            Of craving Welsh rabbit
            And Caerphilly eating the cheese.
            After that, he will beg
            For a luscious Scotch egg
            To eat with some fresh English peas.
            Then to wash it all down,
            At the old Rose & Crown,
            He’s picky in choosing his quaff—he
            Won’t touch any Scotch whisky
            And finds English ale risky—
            Just give him a strong Irish coffee.

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