Word Nerd: Buckling Your Swash
5 years ago
Ever described a book as swashbuckling? Ever seen that kids’ TV show Swashbuckle, or advised someone to buckle your swash?
Well, I’m about to make you feel very slightly silly, because it isn’t a damn verb.
(Okay, I realise I usually attack pedantry, and to be honest I’m not particularly invested in the wrongness of swashbuckling; but this is a little bit of English history that tickles me. Buckle up. Er, as it were.)
So for this one we gots to refer back to a couple concepts I brought up in the Burgle or Burglarize column a ways back: backformation and agent nouns.
Agent nouns, you’ll recall, were nouns formed from verbs to create a noun meaning “someone who [verbs].” This is generally achieved by adding an -er or -or ending, the way writer is derived from write, and insurance claims assessor is derived from insurance claims assess. And it’s totes true that swashbuckler is an agent noun, but it wasn’t formed by adding a suffix.
To get to the root of the problem here, we need to visit a fairly obscure form of agent noun that was popular in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries and has gone out of favour since: specifically, a form of more narrowly-constructed agent nouns, to denote not just the verb, but the object of that verb as well. Today, we add the -er as usual, then prefix the agent noun with the object to make a compound word, as in firefighter (ie. someone who fights fires) or winetaster (someone who tastes wine, natch). But we used to create these compound agent nouns very differently, putting the verb in front of the object and leaving off the -er suffix altogether. A few terms have survived today, like cutpurse (so, someone who cuts purses, a type of thief) and turnkey (someone who turns keys, ie. a prison guard); if we coined these words right now, we’d probably call them pursecutter and keyturner, but we’ve held onto the archaic constructions because, basically, they sound way cooler.*
Which brings us back around to swashbuckler. The term comes from a fighting style popular at the time, “sword and buckler play,” in which fighters were armed with a kind of short, heavy Italian rapier and a small centre-grip shield called a buckler. The style involved a lot of feinting and bluff, and swashing (loudly striking) your buckler to startle or unbalance your opponent was a particularly well-known move. Hence, in the same vein as cutpurse and turnkey, sword-and-buckler men were known as swashbucklers. From there, the term kind of extended to stories about sword-fighting and adventure, and drifted away from its roots.
And then came the backformation. Now, like those early modern English speakers unravelling burglar hundreds of years ago, we tend to look at the -er ending of swashbuckler, which has never been a suffix (buckler comes, ultimately, from the Latin buccula, referring to the boss of the shield), and assume it’s a new-style agent noun, and that the term’s got something to do with “buckling swashes.”† Thus the verb swashbuckle was born.
Now, when you hear someone talking about “buckling your swash,” you can say, “Oh-ho! I think you mean ‘swashing your buckler.’ Mhm-hm,” and take a sip of self-congratulatory brandy.
Only don’t, because no-one really likes people who do that sort of thing.
Least of all me.
*This happens a lot more often in language than you might think.
†Maybe the “swash” is that really wide belt they all wear? Yeah, bet that’s it.