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white elephants

Under the auspices of white elephants?! The origins of phrases, punctuation marks, and Cockney rhyming slang

In the phrase ‘under the auspices of ’, what are auspices?

The root of auspices and the more familiar adjective auspicious are closely linked. If something is auspicious it bodes well, giving promise of a favourable outcome.

In Roman times, people tried to predict future events by watching the behaviour of birds and animals. An auspex (Latin) was a person who observed the flight of birds, and viewed their behaviour as an omen of what might pass and, crucially, about the best path to take in important matters. The birds whose flight patterns were thought especially significant were generally eagles and vultures, while the auspex would also listen to the calls of others, such as owls, ravens, crows, and chickens.

The historian Pliny wrote that the call of ravens was the worst cry of all, like a ‘whine, as though they were being strangled’. Owls, meanwhile, were considered funereal, because they inhabited the night and ‘inaccessible and awesome’ places.

The word auspex literally means ‘a watcher or observer of birds’, if not quite in the twitching sense we know today, and auspicium came to mean ‘a premonition or forecast, especially of a happy future’. If the ancient Roman auspex’s predictions were favourable, he was seen as the protector of the enterprise that was to be undertaken, and that is where we get the phrase under the auspices of, meaning ‘with the support of ’ or ‘under the patronage of’.

An auspex was also known as an augur, with the Latin avis, ‘bird’, once again at the probable root of the word, together with the Latin verb garrire meaning ‘to talk’. Today, if something augurs well, it promises to have a good outcome.

Finally, avis is also the root of ‘aviation’, alluding to the flight of birds, and ‘inauguration’ too: something was inaugurated—consecrated or installed—after the omens taken from the flights of birds deemed it favourable.

Where does the idea of a white elephant come from?

To accuse something of being a white elephant is to label it a burden to those who possess it. The story of its origin is a distant and colourful one.

Back in the days when Thailand was known as Siam, white elephants were highly prized animals. Whenever one was found it was automatically given to the king. Not only that, but it was considered a serious crime to neglect or mistreat a white elephant; in fact, even riding it was an offence. As a result, the maintenance of these rare animals was extremely expensive, especially as they couldn’t be put to work of any kind.

The wily king, whenever faced with an especially obnoxious courtier, would give the unsuspecting subject a white elephant as a special royal ‘gift’. Such a present could, naturally, not be refused, and the care for the animal would usually ruin its new owner financially. The phrase found its way onto English shores in the mid-eighteenth century after the Empire builders brought it home with them. It turned out to be particularly useful idiom for describing extravagant but highly impractical public buildings.

How did Cockney rhyming slang originate?

Linguists believe that rhyming slang began as a secret language in the criminal underworld of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, used to outwit the authorities and to identify those within the accepted group of those in the know.

By the end of the nineteenth century it had become firmly associated with the language of London street traders. It remained there as a micro-language for some time, and enjoyed little public profile until the greater mobility of the British population in the late 1900s took it further afield. By the beginning of the twentieth century it was centre stage, both for its colour and for its inherent comedy.

Much of the rhyming slang we use today is from its earliest days—‘trouble and strife’ (= wife), ‘apples and pears’ (= stairs), ‘Adam and Eve’ (= believe), and they are almost always used for humorous effect. But far from dying out or living in the past, this category of slang is thriving in parts of the world, and in particular Australia.

The latest British incarnations are mockney and popney; the first describing the language of those affecting a Cockney accent, and the second a whole new lexicon based on the names of celebrities. So we might have a ‘Steffi ’ (Steffi Graf = laugh) over a couple of ‘Britneys’ (Britney Spears = beers), regret everything ‘going Pete Tong’ (= wrong), put on some ‘Billy Ocean’ (= suntan lotion), or spot the ‘Jerry Springers’ (= mingers). Love it or hate it, rhyming slang is alive and well.

How did the exclamation mark and question mark signs come about?

Both these punctuation marks were originally manuscript abbreviations in Latin texts.

To take the exclamation mark first: it derives from a vertical version, written in the margins, of the Latin word Io, meaning ‘exclamation of joy’. The vertical stroke was the ‘I’ above the ‘o’, in which the ‘o’ eventually became a dot.

The question mark, meanwhile, goes back to the word Quaestio meaning ‘questioning, investigation’ and indicating a question. Quaestio was eventually abbreviated to a curly ‘q’ above the ‘o’, while the ‘o’ became a dot.

Why were these marks needed in the first place? Their prime function in Latin manuscripts was to show people the right intonation: a question, a surprise, a shout, etc. If you combine them you get a different effect: ?! delivers an immediate sense of incredulity: a little like smileys or emoticons in our text messages today.

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent.
In the book What Made the Crocodile Cry?, Susie Dent draws on her popular television segment on the curiosities of English to tackle fascinating puzzles.

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