Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Apr 28, 2005 5:52 am

The verb BICKER came up in the posting dicker. After checking some standard dictionaries, I found that ‘bicker’ had some additional meanings, which I had been unaware of, and these meanings on the surface didn’t appear to bear much relationship to the standard meaning. I thought it would be interesting to check out the origin of the standard meaning and try to see how the others came about.

BICKER verb: 1) to engage in petulant or peevish argument, wrangle, quarrel. <“The two were always bickering.”> 2) applied to the making of any rapidly repeated noisy action, as that of a rapid stream over a stony channel, the pattering of rain, etc. <“a stream bickering down the valley”> 3) to flicker, quiver, glitter <“The sun bickered through the trees.”> <”A wistful smile bickered across her face”>


Before 1300 ‘bikeren’ (‘bickering’) meant to attack. Formed in English perhaps from Middle Dutch ‘bicken,’ to slash, stab, attack + ‘-er,’ again and again. The suggested Middle Dutch ‘bicken’ is supported by Middle English noun ‘biker,’ battle, attack and later quarrel (1350). However, the OED tells us that the noun ‘biker’ and the verb ‘bikeren’ are of uncertain origin and it is not known if the verb came from the noun or visa versa. But they say it is possible that the verb came first since the verb ‘bickeren’ has the form of a ‘frequentative’ (a verb expressing repetition) as in ‘sputter,’ ‘totter,’ ‘flutter,’ etc. and so perhaps that meaning preceded the battle/fighting one.

In any case, one of the earliest meanings of the verb ‘bicker’ was to exchange blows, to fight (1330). By 1352 it also meant to attack with repeated strokes, especially with missiles, and by (1400) it was applied to what archers and slingers did to soften up the enemy at the beginning of a battle. In 1450 the verb took one of its modern meanings, quarrel, although the word existed as the noun somewhat earlier.

But where did the idea of the poetical flickering/quivering/glittering (1667) and that of rapid repeated noisy action (1748) come from? It is thought that perhaps both derived from a transference of the idea of repeated rapid strokes, the showering of blows, associated with the earlier idea of an ‘attack.’
<1630 “I have BICKERED with the French at Brest and Deepe.”—‘Works’ by J. Taylor, I. page 100/1>

<1635 “After they had BICKERED together a little while. . . and neither of them hurt, they dranke a carowse and so parted friends.”—“Camden’s History of Elizabeth” translated by Robert Norton, III. page 231>

<1748 “Glittering streamlets play'd . . . as they BICKER’D thro' the sunny glade.”—‘The castle of Indolence’ by Thomson, iii. page 26>

<1753 “To keep on BICKERING on this irksome subject, till you have put her in a passion.”—‘The Art of Tormenting’ by J. Collier, page 157>

<1817 “Against the glass The rain did beat and BICKER.” ‘Sibylline Leaves’ (1862) by Coleridge, page 218>

<1848 “Slaughtered BICKERING for some petty town.”—‘The Saint’s Tragedy’ by Kingsley, II. xi. page 138>

<1859 “Tho' men may BICKER with the things they love.”— ‘Enid’ by Tennyson, page 1174>

<1876 “And BICKER like a flame.”—‘Pacchiarotto’ by Robert Browning, page 150>

<1957 “The [[Cuban]] rebels talk and BICKER incessantly. But they dig deep to support the cause, and they constantly risk their lives and fortunes for a single, basic political goal . . .”—‘Time Magazine,’ 9 December>

<2005 “Pressure mounts on Iraq's politicians: “Pressure has mounted on Iraq’s politicians to end months of post-election BICKERING. America’s top U.S. general urged them on Tuesday to form a new government quickly to combat an insurgency he said was as strong as it had been a year ago.”—‘Reuters,’ April 27>
(Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, Oxford English Dictionary, Random House and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionaries)

Ken G – April 27, 2005

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