June 25, 2004

How fakirs became fakers

In connection with a post on Thomas Jefferson's attempt to learn Gaelic, I read an interesting paper by Jack Lynch entitled "Authorizing Ossian", in which he calls James MacPherson "history's most perfidious literary fakir". Lynch is being unfair to fakirs -- though in a characteristically American way. Fakirs were not fakers, before a series of 19th-century American shifts of meaning.

The OED tells us that fakir was borrowed from Arabic faqīr "poor, poor man", and has variously been spelled fokers, fuckeires, facquiers, faquirs andfakeers. Its meaning is

1. a. ‘Properly an indigent person, but specially applied to a Mahommedan religious mendicant, and then loosely, and inaccurately, to Hindu devotees and naked ascetics’ (Yule).

1609 RO. C. Hist. Disc. Muley Hamet vii. Ciij/2 Fokers, are men of good life, which are onely given to peace.
1638 W. BRUTON Newes from E. Indies 27 They are called Fuckeires.
1704 Collect. Voy. (Church.) III. 568/1 You shall take care to embark all the Facquiers.
1763 SCRAFTON Indostan (1770) 27 Bestowing a part of their plunder on..Faquirs.
1813 BYRON Giaour xi, Nor there the Fakir's self will wait.
1861 DICKENS Tom Tiddler's Gr. i, A Hindoo fakeer's ground.
1874 MORLEY Compromise (1886) 178 A fakir would hardly be an estimable figure in our society.

b. erron. for FAKER, pronounced (ˈfeɪkə(r)). U.S.

1882 in S. Poe Buckboard Days (1936) 99 Thieves, Thugs, Fakirs and Bunkco-Steerers.
1902 A. D. MCFAUL Ike Glidden xvii. 127 Each day brought its new characters, fakirs, peddlers, schemers and promoters.
1903 N.Y. Even. Post 31 Oct. 5 One may see at almost any of the downtown corners a street fakir selling shoestrings.
1932 E. WILSON Devil take Hindmost ix. 87 Some listen to a patent-medicine fakir.

If the 1932 citation is to Edmund Wilson, then Lynch is in good company. But is it?

The OED 2nd edition has 37 citations from "1932 E. WILSON Devil take Hindmost", and the new edition adds a few more. Like the fakir quote, many involve content or word uses that are specifically American, e.g. one of the citations for bellboy:

1932 E. WILSON Devil take Hindmost xxiii. 245 Glimpses as a bellboy of the luxurious life of the hotel.

The date, the prominence given to the work, and the range of topics covered make it seem likely that E. Wilson is indeed Edmund Wilson, the "American writer, critic and social commentator" who died in 1972. And I have a dim memory of having once seen a book entitled "Devil take the Hindmost", perhaps by Wilson. But it's not listed in Wilson's works, and the chronology of his life shows only "American Jitters" as a publication for 1932. Checking the RLG Union Catalog doesn't turn it up either, nor any other "Devil Take (the) Hindmost" by any other E. Wilson.

The printed copy of the OED bibliography in the "Compact Edition" is not helpful, as the only thing by an "E. Wilson" is a 1675 publication by one Edward Wilson entitled Spadalcrene Dunelmensis.

Ah, but the online OED bibliography lists Wilson, Edmund, Devil take the hindmost: a year of the slump (US ed. with title The American jitters) 1932.

OK, this settles it: Edmund Wilson used fakir in the sense of "dishonest sidewalk salesman" or something like that.

Wilson was reflecting a common usage that arose out of the American spiritualism craze of the 19th century, whose context can be glimpsed in this 1890 article on fakirs by Helena P. ("Madame") Blavatsky. Blavatsky complains about the generalization of fakir, from Muslim religious ascetic to Hindu "Yogi" to a sort of streetcorner or marketplace "producer of illusions":

First of all, we ask them why they call the "juggler" a "fakir"? If he is the one he cannot be the other; for a fakir is simply a Mussulman Devotee whose whole time is taken up by acts of holiness, such as standing for days on one leg, or on the top of his head, and who pays no attention to any other phenomena. Nor could their "juggler" be a Yogi, the latter title being incompatible with "taking up collections" after the exhibition of his psychic powers. The man they saw then at Gaya was simply--as they very correctly state--a public juggler, or as he is generally called in India, a jadoowalla (sorcerer) and a "producer of illusions," whether Hindu or Mohammedan. As a genuine juggler, i.e., one who makes us professions of showing the supernatural phenomena or Siddhis of a Yogi, he would be quite as entitled to the use of conjuring tricks as a Hoffman or Maskelyne and Cook.

It's easy to see how the idea of "street magician" was further generalized to "street salesman depending on trickery". Lynch's usage is a further generalization, removed from the context of untrustworthy American sidewalk peddlers in the late 19th and early 20th century, and applied to an 18th-century literary hoax.

There's a whiff of the eggcorn about all of this; at least, the similarity in spelling and sound is likely to have played a role in encouraging what is otherwise an ordinary process of historical meaning shift.

As a closing digression in this divergent post, I'll point out that the White Dog Restaurant, whose menu I discussed earlier, is located in what was once Helena Blavatsky's house, at 3420 Sansom St. in West Philadelphia. The White Dog's name commemorates a important event in her life:

While living on Sansom Street, Madame Blavatsky became ill with an infected leg. During her illness, she underwent a transformation which inspired her to found the Theosophical Society. In a letter dated June 12, 1875, Madame Blavatsky described her recovery, explaining that she dismissed the doctors and surgeons who threatened amputation, ("Fancy my leg going to the spirit land before me!") and had a white dog sleep across her leg by night, curing all in no time.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 25, 2004 09:38 AM