A grotesque word

Tuesday’s Zippy:


Another chapter in word attraction: Zippy’s (and Griffy’s) enjoyment of “funny words”. Here, gargoyle, which Zippy, absurdly, analyzes as a compound of the nouns gar (referring to a kind of sharp-toothed fish) and goyle (a rare, mostly dialectal, term for a deep trench) — so, roughly ‘fish ravine’. Turns out the actual etymology of gargoyle is entertaining enough on its own.

First, the truth. From NOAD:

noun gargoyle: a grotesque carved human or animal face or figure projecting from the gutter of a building, typically acting as a spout to carry water clear of a wall. ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French gargouille‘throat’, also ‘gargoyle’ (because of the water passing through the throat and mouth of the figure); related to Greek gargarizein‘to gargle’ (imitating the sounds made in the throat).

From my 1/21/15 posting “Ruthie and the gargoyle”, this One Big Happy in which Ruthie captures the onomatopoeia in gargoyle:


On gargoyles. From Wikipedia:

The gargoyle is a fantasy and horror monster inspired by the gargoyle architectural element. While they were believed in mythology to frighten away evil spirits, the idea of such statues physically coming to life was a more recent notion. Like golems, they are usually made of magically animated or transformed stone, but have animal or chimera traits, and are often guardians of a place such as a cathedral or castle. They can also be depicted as vessels for demonic possession, or as a living species resembling statues.

The notion of gargoyles as supernatural constructs brought to life by evil was introduced in Maker of Gargoyles (1932) by Clark Ashton Smith, where Reynard, a medieval stonemason, unconsciously infuses his hate and lust into two gargoyles that attack the town of Vyones and later kill him when he attempts to destroy them. In the novelette Conjure Wife (1943) by Fritz Lieber, a dragon sculpture is animated by a witch and sent to kill an archaeology professor.

… The notion of gargoyles as demonic vessels was introduced in The Horn of Vapula (1932), where a demon familiar is bound into a horned and goatlike gargoyle.

… The movie Gargoyles (1972) was the first to present gargoyles as a fictional race as opposed to solitary creatures, depicting them as being created by Satan to harry mankind

(#3) Gargoyles (1972)

Gars and goyles. On to Zippetymology, fish in a ditch. First the fish. From NOAD:

noun gar: the freshwater garfish of North America. ORIGIN mid 18th century: abbreviation.

noun garfish: any of a number of long, slender fish with elongated beaklike jaws containing sharply pointed teeth. [in particular:] — a marine fish (family Belonidae, in particular the common European Belone belone; also called needlefish or garpike). — a freshwater fish (family Lepisosteidae and genus Lepisosteus; also called gar or garpike). ORIGIN Middle English: apparently from Old English gār ‘spear’ + fish1.

[Etymological digression. garfish is historically a compound, but the original meaning of gar seems to have been lost, leaving a combination garfish in which the crucial discriminating semantics is conveyed by the semantically opaque element gar — and opening the way for phonological clipping of garfish to gar, or (more likely) the truncation of the compound to its more sigificant first element, with beheading of fish. (gar for cigar is a straightforward clipping, as is Gar as a nickname for men with FN Garland, Garfield, etc.)

More Zippy-esque beheading in the 11/29 strip:


(Krispy for Krispy Kreme is a not unimaginable beheading, but Lady for Lady Gaga is preposterous, because Gaga is the semantically more substantial element in the combination (Gaga, though, is an attested truncation of the name).]

Two of the fish, in drawings from the Texas Parks and Wildife site:

(#5) Spotted Gar (Lepisosteus oculatus)

(#6) Alligator Gar (Atractosteus spatula), so called because of its impressive array of pointed teeth

Finally, the ditch. From OED2:

noun goyle [also spelled goile, goyal]: A deep trench, a ravine. [1st cite 1617 (goiles), 1st goyal cite 1869, 1st goyle cite 1873; then in 1963 Times 26 Apr. 16/6 On my left tumbles the brook at the bottom of a deep gully — what we call in Devon a goyal — deep enough to take a horse and cart.]

Not a word I recall having experienced (in any spelling) before the Zippy strip in #1. (Here I disregard dialect spellings like the one in I’m not that kind of goyle.)

2 Responses to “A grotesque word”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    gar for cigar is a straightforward clipping

    As it should be, given that (according to my understanding) it’s necessary to clip a cigar before smoking it.

    Here I disregard dialect spellings like the one in I’m not that kind of goyle.

    I can’t recall ever having seen this usage spelled otherwise than goil.

Leave a Reply