Leonardo"s Notebook by Mattheus Mei

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Irregardless of "Conversate" being a word, any philologists want to take a crack at another Southern Idiom?

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great piece up today on the validity of the word conversate. He had an opportunity to speak with an editor-at-large with the Oxford English Dictionary. And while yes, 'conversate' is a word, it's all about context. People say, "We don't need conversate, we have converse." Well then, we don't need hip because we have cool. We don't need illness because we have malady. It's all context which can be different for various Anglophone regions.

More interesting is the non-conversate portion of the conversation.

Let me give you an example, in terms of looking at things historically. At the beginning of this conversation you pronounced the word "ask" as "aks." This is something that people often object to. People say it's the wrong pronunciation, and it's stupid. But if you look at the history of the English language, you can't tell if the correct pronunciation is "aks" or "ask." The "aks" pronunciation goes back 1000 years. It's in Beowulf. It's in Chaucer.
What happened was both were in use. But at some point, the dialect in which the "ask" pronunciation was used became dominant. But both continued and have been in use since then. When you look at America, the "aks" pronunciation is widespread in Southern American English. African-Americans used this because they were in the South--it's not especially African-American, but its Southern.

This got me thinking about another Southern idiom that is a phonetic word though one rarely written, and when it is - there's a variety of spellings. But in all cases the meaning and the pronunciation is the same though no one can tell me the origin of the word.

Is the suspense killing you yet? Ok, I'm talking about the word sirsee. It's also spelled Sursee, Cercie, Surcie, Circi, Surcy, Searcy, etc etc...

So what is it -- it's a triffle, a small gift, something given for no reason but not anything extravagant, a simple gift out of affection or thanks generally. The Urban dictionary now has it spelled under sursy. The Dictionary of American Regional English (Dare) has it under it's various forms giving it's earliest inclusion to the 1968 edition of DARE. The DARE acknowledges that the etymology is unknown.

Perhaps the closest to figuring it out is the Word Detective who revisited sirsee and received a reply from the DARE folks who took a stab at it: "The etymology is uncertain, but one plausible source is the Scots verb "sussie," meaning "to take trouble, to care, to bother oneself." This probably came to Scotland from the French "souci," meaning "care, trouble."

This makes sense and who knows it could be a hybrid word between the two. Colonial South Carolina was a melting pot of language and cultures. In the low country and along the coast you had high concentrations of French Huguenot. In the Pee Dee, back country you had a lot of Scots Irish, in the Midlands German. And then over all this was English. So it makes sense that the language would meld and however you spell it, would appear.

This may be to complex of an origin, another possibility could be the easiest. It's a treat, a trifle. And if you were giving your boss something you would say "Sir, see" as you handed the item over. Lots of poor white laborers and african slaves - all with bosses and masters to answer to; all with obligations to give up to their benevolent overlords. But that is too simplistic...

Any philologists out there want to take a crack?

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Anonymous said...

Hey! You found something! Remember that one evening where we searched and searched for something on "sirsee?"

The "Sir, see" thing is a bit too simplistic, you're right. I wanna say something French but who knows.



Anonymous said...

Nice post :)

I've always believed it was from "souci", but perhaps I'm just showing my French roots.