Monday, 12 December 2011
Posted by M.H. Forsyth
The other day somebody asked me where the phrase oops-a-daisy comes from. Of course, I didn't know, but I never feel that Ignorance should stand in the way of Opinion, so I muttered something about lackadaisical and tried to look wise. By extraordinary coincidence, it turns out that I might have been right. Oops-a-daisy has a strange and meandering history that goes like this.
First, oops-a-daisy predates oops and whoops. Oops only appeared in 1925 and whoops is even younger having stumbled into the language in the 1930s. They're both variants of the original upsidaisy which was something you said to a child as you lifted it up back in the nineteenth century.
Upsidaisy is a variant of up-a-daisy which dates back to 1711, also addressed to a child to make him rise. So where does the daisy come from? Well, the OED says compare lackadaisy. You see, words influence each other. When the word bunkum already exists, it encourages people to change hocus pocus to hokum. In the same way, lackadaisy (and lackadaisical) appear to have influenced the formation of up-a-daisy from up.
Lackadaisy is formed from lackaday, which is a shortening of alack the day! which means something along the line of curse the day on which something happened, which comes from lack meaning failure, fault, reproach or shame.
And thus did a tour through the dictionary pretty much confirm my nebulous and face-saving guesswork. Who needs scholarship when you have bluff?
P.S. For anybody who particular wants to hear my brief appearance on Friday morning's Today Programme, the relevant segment can be found here.