Monday, February 27, 2017

Gaby Talk

I have been rereading Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, which originally appeared in 1885, and which I first read a little while after that, when I was about five. I came across one line from a poem called “Good and Bad Children” that puzzled me then and puzzled me once more seventy-five years later.
            Cruel children, crying babies,
            All grow up as geese and gabies,
            Hated, as their age increases,
            By their nephews and their nieces.
What, I wondered at five, and again at nearly eighty, is a gaby?

It turns out it’s a British dialect word, from the Midlands and the North Country, which means “simpleteon.” Its first appearance in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796.

Its etymology mystifies the etymologists—so what are we poor mortals to make of it?  It’s possible it is related to the Old Norse gapa, which came down to us through Old English, and means “an openmouthed stare of wonder or awe.”  Some experts want to connect it to the Iceland gapi, which means a “rash or reckless person.” But no one has come up with a completely convincing rationale, so we’ll have to leave it hanging.

Many readers would like to leave the Bard of Buffalo Bayou hanging, as retribution for atrocities like this:

            I want no ifs, or buts, or maybes—
            Cruel children, crying babies,
            And folks who tweet in rampant rages
            Should be locked in padded cages,
            Lest their vehemence increases
            And they abruptly go to pieces.

No comments:

Post a Comment