The Universe of Discourse


Sun, 10 Oct 2021

Words change meanings

This Imgur gallery has a long text post about a kid who saw the movie Labyrinth) in London and met David Bowie after. The salient part was:

He seemed surprised I would want to know, and he told me the whole thing, all out of order, and I eked the details out of him.

This is a use of “eke” that I haven't seen before. Originally “eke” meant an increase, or a small addition, and it was also used in the sense of “also”. For example, from the prologue to the Wife of Bath's tale:

I hadde the bettre leyser for to pleye, And for to se, and eek for to be seye

(“I had more opportunity to play, and to see, and also to be seen.”)

Or also, “a nickname” started out as “an ekename”, an also-name.

From this we get the phrase “to eke out a living”, which means that you don't have quite enough resources, but by some sort of side hustle you are able to increase them to enough to live on.

But it seems to me that from there the meaning changed a little, so that while “eke out a living” continued to mean to increase one's income to make up a full living, it also began to connote increasing one's income bit by bit, in many small increments. This is the sense in which it appears to be used in the original quotation:

He seemed surprised I would want to know, and he told me the whole thing, all out of order, and I eked the details out of him.

Addenda

Searching for something in a corpus of Middle English can be very frustrating. I searched and searched the University of Michigan Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse looking for the Chaucer quotation, and couldn't find it, because it has “to se” and “to be seye”, but I searched for “to see” and “to seye”; it has “eek” and I had been searching for “eke”. Ouch.

In the Chaucer, “leyser” is “leisure”, but a nearly-dead sense that we now see only in “complete the task at your leisure”.


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