linguistics and lexicography Love English

Bandying the word ‘bandy’ about

© Stockbyte Royalty Free PhotosGill Francis’s post on updating the linguistics entries in Macmillan Dictionary described a technical term as ‘not usually bandied about in public’. This got me wondering about the curious word bandy and the different ways we use it. We might say someone is bandy-legged, for example, meaning curved outwards at the knees (bow-legged is a synonym), but this doesn’t have any obvious connection to bandying something about.

If I had never seen the word bandy before and saw it out of context, I might guess that it’s an adjective meaning ‘resembling or relating to a band’, made by adding the suffix –y onto the noun: a group of arty young twenty-somethings might look ‘bandy’. Funnily enough, Charles Dickens used the word to mean ‘too many bands’ in a letter where he called Dover ‘Not quite a place to my taste, being too Bandy (I mean musical – no reference to its legs).’



The origins of bandy, unfortunately, remain elusive, with the American Heritage Dictionary saying it’s ‘unknown’ and the OED speculating on such possibilities as French bander. This latter history is endorsed with more certainty by the Online Etymology Dictionary, which says the word’s meaning ‘apparently evolved from “join together to oppose,” to opposition itself, to “exchanging blows,” then metaphorically, to volleying in tennis’.

Many of the early, interrelated senses of the word have to do with throwing something aside, or to and fro, or tossing it about. It may be something physical, such as a ball in sport, or more figurative, like words and ideas. If you picture a crowd watching a tennis game you can see why the physical reference was suitable for extension to arguments and other back-and-forth verbal exchanges.

As well as the rare musical sense, Dickens also used bandy idiomatically, as in Nicholas Nickleby: ‘So these are some of the stories they invent about us, and bandy from mouth to mouth!’ We can also bandy words directly – meaning argue pointlessly (and perhaps exchange insults). Shakespeare, in Titus Andronicus, has Saturninus refer to someone ‘fit to bandy with thy lawless sons’. It works with gestures too, as when King Lear asks Oswald, ‘Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal?’

The phrasal verb bandy about (or around), which appears in the title, means to mention or use something casually – words, for example – and again is analogous to the more concrete sense of bandying an object about, such as a ball in a game. The metaphor ties in nicely with our recent discussion of ludic language. And, to bring us full circle, the curved sticks used in one of those old games may have given rise to bandy-legged.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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