mort "woman"--article deriving this word from mort "salmon" (was: Irish apples)

Jonathon Green slang at BLUEYONDER.CO.UK
Sat Jan 18 14:37:39 UTC 2003

I was, of course, aware of the Studies in Slang suggestion as to the etymology of mort. And  would not be so foolish as to dismiss it out of hand: that etymology is among those I offer in CDS. But I am no German scholar (nor indeed speaker) and while I happened upon the word backfisch many years ago, and know its etymology, I cannot get away from the question: can a 20C German term create a backwards analogy, as it were, as the basis for the etymology of a 16C English one. But the equation of women with fish is of course a venerable one (Shakespeare has it in 1595 and there are allusions in the early 15C) and it may indeed be Gerald Cohen who, not for the first time, has 'cracked' a problem in slang. 

A good deal seems to turn on exactly who made up the ranks of itinerant criminal beggars apostrophised as the 16C 'canting crew'. (For those who want a serious discussion thereupon, I recommend John L. McMullan The Canting Crew; Rutgers 1984). It would certainly appear that as well as a core of native Englishmen, there were Irishmen (and gypsies, another source, via Romani, of 16C cant). There were also  number of ex-soldiers, who would have served in Ireland. Indeed, in the hierarchy of 'knaves', as listed variously by Harman (1566), Awdelay (1657) and various successors, there is noted the 'Irish toyle', who was essentially a travelling villain who posed as a seller of haberdashery in order to commit robberies as he moved from town to town. One might assume that some, even if not all of such rogues were in fact Irish and that it had begun as an Irish 'speciality'. Harman also specifies 'above a hundred Irish men and women that wander about to beg for their living, that have come over within these two years (i.e. 1564-6). It is because I believe that there were sufficient Irishmen to influence the language of the canting crew that I am willing to credit Daniel Cassidy with making a realistic suggestion as to the etymology of mort. It is because I do not believe that the Irish villains of 19C New York City had invented the slang he discusses, but picked it up from a vocabulary imported from late 18C/early 19C London, that I part company with him on the other terms I mention. (Rabbit and rabbit sucker, being 'homegrown' may well, as I accept in my letter, have Irish origins: certainly it's a feasible as Asbury's picture of a dead rabbit brandished on a pole.)

Mor te may be wrong, but so may that juvenile salmon. One last suggestion, which I culled from my reading of C. J. Ribton-Turner A History of Vagrants and Vagrancy and Beggars and Begging (London 1887) suggests Welsh modryb, a matron, or morwyn, a virgin.

Jonathon Green

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