When a simple You’re a bigger one won’t do.

Dear Word Detective: I have to do a report on the word “jeer” and I need the background on the word. And I thought that you would be my best bet. — Quintin.

A report on the word “jeer”? That’s pretty cool, assuming it wasn’t assigned as a punishment for misbehavior in class. Back when I was in school, we got assigned to do reports on really dull stuff, such as, in my case, Brazil. Not that there’s anything wrong with Brazil, of course. Lovely country, just east of France, as I recall, near New Zealand. Their primary export is bauxite, a tough, rubbery plant rich in helium that is said to taste like whale meat. Y’know, I just realized something. I don’t remember ever actually graduating from high school. Weird, huh?

Incidentally, as you’ve probably already realized, I am definitely not your best bet for an answer if your deadline is in less than a month or so. In fact, not long ago I answered a question from 2008. Just sayin’.

“Jeer” is an odd but very useful little word. As an intransitive verb, it means “to shout or speak in derision or mockery; to mock or to scoff ” (“The meeting only jeered at him, and he was unable to make his voice heard,” 1887). “Jeer” can also be used as a transitive verb (“The mob pelted him and jeered him by his assumed name of King Arthur,” 1857), as well as with a preposition indicating the results of the jeering (“Bob was jeered off the stage when he tried to present the new budget”). “Jeer” is also a useful noun meaning “the action of jeering” or particular insults, etc., employed in jeering (“Jeers including ‘flunky’ and ‘toady’ were hurled at Bob”).

The verb “to jeer” first appeared in writing, as far as we know, around 1550, and while etymologists have offered a number of theories as to its roots, the origin of “jeer” is still uncertain. The German word “scheren” (to shear) has been suggested as a source because it is also used figuratively to mean “to tease.” The Dutch “gieren” (to shout, bray), used in a similar sense, is also a candidate, though both the German and Dutch words are considered a stretch by experts. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) considers it plausible that “jeer” originated simply as an “ironical” use of “cheer,” but notes that this theory can’t be proven without further evidence. So the “jeer” trail has, at least for the moment, gone cold.

But while we wait for more “jeer” clues, I have a few consolation prizes for you. The folks at Oxford recently revamped the OED Online to include their recently completed (and really neat) Historical Thesaurus of the OED. This not only allows users to trace the evolving senses of a particular word over the centuries, but to discover some very cool synonyms, many now obscure or obsolete, for any word in the OED. So while we use the word “jeer” today to mean “mock or scoff,” back in the 14th century we might have “bemowed” the target (from “mow,” a Scots dialect word meaning “derisive grimace”) or “bobbed” the poor sap (from the Old French “bober,” to mock). A bit further back, in the 13th century, verbs for mocking with scorn included “hethe,” “hoker,” “betell” and “forhush.”

The OED Online is available by individual subscription, which is a bit pricey, but many public libraries subscribe, and some libraries even offer home access through their websites, so it’s worth asking your local library.

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