A John with a lot of bottlePosted by Stephen Bullon on April 19, 2011
‘… he had no knowledge of that character which is vulgarly called a demirep.’
But it must have been relatively new at the time, because he added a definition of his own in the text:
that is to say, a woman who intrigues with every man she likes, under the name and appearance of virtue; and who, though some over-nice ladies will not be seen with her, is visited (as they term it) by the whole town, in short, whom everybody knows to be what nobody calls her.
The word is made up of a prefix, demi-, followed by rep, which is simply the beginning of the word reputation. In this instance, the prefix carries the meaning of ‘half’, so a demirep is a woman who has only half a reputation.
The use of demi with the meaning ‘half’ or ‘small’ is well established in English, going back to at least the 15th century, and appears in a famous speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II when John of Gaunt refers to England as ‘This other Eden, demi-paradise’.
Macmillan English Dictionary has several words starting with demi: demi-monde, demigod, demijohn, and there are plenty of others out there, such as demitasse (a small coffee cup, or its contents, which OED dates back to 1842). In the case of demi-monde (another rather old-fashioned term), the prefix serves a similar purpose to that in demirep, and the demi-monde is that part of society that is slightly louche, while a demigod is a minor deity, with not all the attributes of a full-on god. Musicians will be familiar with the ‘demisemiquaver’, which denotes ‘half a semiquaver‘, or what American speakers call a ‘thirty-second note’. (There is an even shorter musical note known as a ‘hemidemisemiquaver’ – so here we get three prefixes in a row, all meaning ‘half’.)
Etymologically-minded readers will have spotted that demijohn does not fit this category. A demijohn is a large bottle, and is certainly not ‘half a john’.
Although the true etymology remains uncertain, there is a case for the word being a corruption of the French Dame Jeanne (literally, Lady Jane in English). Legend has it that one stormy night in 1347, Queen Jeanne of Naples took refuge in the home of a glass blower in Provence. The following day, she asked to be shown how he made his glassware, and, because he was so nervous in the presence of royalty, the glass blower rather overdid the blowing, and created an enormous bottle with a capacity of ten litres. It caused so much admiration among those present that he decided to start manufacturing more of them and wanted to call them Queen Jeanne, but the queen very modestly suggested Dame Jeanne instead.Email this Post
I’d not heard that legend before. It’s a funny one. There is a note shorter again than the hemidemisemiquaver: the quasihemidemisemiquaver, also known as a hundred twenty-eighth note.