Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Etymology Today from M-W: uncouth\un-KOOTH\
1 : strange or clumsy in shape or appearance : outlandish
2 : lacking in polish and grace : rugged
3 : awkward and uncultivated in appearance, manner, or behavior : rude

"Uncouth" comes from the Old English "unc?th," which joins the prefix "un-" with "c?th," meaning "familiar, known." How did a word that meant "unfamiliar" come to mean "outlandish," "rugged," or "rude"? Some examples from literature illustrate that the transition happened quite naturally. In Captain Singleton, Daniel Defoe refers to "a strange noise more uncouth than any they had ever heard." In William Shakespeare's As You Like It, Orlando tells Adam, "If this uncouth forest yield anything savage, I will either be food for it or bring it for food to thee." In Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane fears "to look over his shoulder, lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him!" So, that which is unfamiliar is often perceived as strange, wild, or unpleasant. Meanings such as "outlandish," "rugged," or "rude" naturally follow.

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