Jewish World Review August 17, 2004 / 30 Menachem-Av, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
'Nosey parker'; where the question mark came from?; why 'wash' doesn't rhyme with 'cash'
Where did the expression "nosey parker'' come from?
L. W., Milford, Conn.
Dear L. W.:
Nobody is quite sure how a busybody came to be known as a "nosey parker.'' There are a couple of theories, though.
Since this chiefly British term is often capitalized, it's often thought that its origins lie with an excessively inquisitive person having the surname "Parker.'' One candidate that has been suggested is Matthew Parker, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 to 1575, and who was well-known for keeping a close eye on the private lives of those living in his diocese. However, the first recorded use of "Nosey Parker'' dates from 1907, and it's unlikely that memories of the curious clergyman simmered for almost 400 years before surfacing in the 20th century. Until the 1880s, in fact, the word "nosey'' (or "nosy'') simply described a person with a large nose and had no connection to an overly inquisitive nature.
An even less plausible theory suggests that "nosey parkers'' were people who frequented London's Hyde Park and spied on amorous couples. The original "parkers'' from which the surname derived were officials in charge of a park, and the term may have been informally applied much later to the royal park keepers who supervised Hyde Park at the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851. Their duties probably included watching out for and curtailing any behavior that might have offended Victorian sensibilities, and so they were "nosey parkers.'' There is absolutely no evidence to support this theory, however, and it very much has the quality of an overly elaborate explanation concocted in a deliberate attempt to supply an unknown etymology for an already established term. It appears very doubtful, in fact, that we will ever "nose'' out a completely satisfactory solution to the "nosey parker'' mystery.
I tried to find out at the library where the question mark came from, but none of the books on punctuation I consulted had anything on the history of that odd-looking thing. Can you help me?
G. C., Oakland, Calif.
Dear G. C.:
The question mark was unknown in the ancient world and in the early Middle Ages. By the 11th century it had made its appearance, and by the 12th it was well established under its Latin name "punctus interrogativus. " The early question mark looked like ours, but it slanted to the right.
A number of theories have been proposed to explain its beginnings, most of them more colorful than likely. One of these is that it comes from an inverted semicolon. Another is that it is formed from the first and last letters of Latin "quaestio,'' meaning "question,'' one placed above the other as an abbreviation. An alternative version is that it is a small "q'' placed over a period to stand for Latin "quaerere,'' meaning "to ask.''
The most likely view, however, is that the question mark developed out of a system of musical notation used for Gregorian chant. As adopted for use in writing, it signaled to the reader not only that there was a pause between sentences but also that a special tone of voice - the intonation of a question - was needed.
Why doesn't the word "wash'' follow the pronunciation of other words ending in "-ash'' such as "cash,'' "dash,'' and "trash''?
T. D., Lincoln, Neb.
Dear T. D.:
"W'' is pronounced with the bulk of the tongue in the back of the mouth, and this position affects the pronunciation of a following "a'' in many cases. The result is a vowel that is pronounced farther back in the mouth than is the "a'' of "cat.'' It is the vowel of "wasp'' rather than that of "clasp,'' "watch'' rather than "batch,'' "wand'' rather than "sand.'' Even when "r'' follows the vowel, the difference is noticeable; contrast "wart'' with "cart'' and "part'' or "warm'' with "harm'' or "charm.''
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