The Grammarphobia Blog

Why shavers are little

Q: In respect to your article about “little shaver,” the phrase actually comes from bitti chavo (“little boy”) in Romanichal, the Romany language spoken in England. It’s ultimately derived from chavo, Romany for “youth.”

A: Yes, the English word “shaver” resembles the Romany (and Romanichal) word chavo, but resemblance alone is not sufficient evidence to prove that the two terms are related.

In serious etymology, one has to do more than show that words in one language sound or look like those in another.

We haven’t found any authoritative reference that accepts chavo as the source of “shaver,” though one questionable 19th-century book does suggest as much.

Charles G. Leland, writing in The English Gypsies and Their Language (1874), says the use of “shaver” for a child “is possibly inexplicable, unless we resort to Gipsy, where we find it used as directly as possible.”

However, the Oxford English Dictionary, the most authoritative guide to English etymology, says “shaver” is simply derived from the verb “shave” and the suffix “-er.”

When the verb “shave” first showed up around 725 in a glossary of Latin and Old English terms, it meant to scrape or pare away the surface of something by removing thin layers.

If you think of those layers, or shavings, as little pieces of the original, the figurative use of “shaver” to mean a boy makes perfect sense, much like the 17th-century expression “chip off the old block.”

The word “shaver” referred literally to someone who shaves when it showed up around 1425, according to the OED.

In the late 1500s, the term came to mean a fellow or chap or joker, but that sense is now dialectal. Today, according to Oxford, this usage generally refers to “a youth, with the epithet young, little.”

The OED’s first citation for “shaver” to mean a fellow or joker is from a conversation between Barabas and a slave in The Jew of Malta, a 1592 play by Christopher Marlowe:

Slave: “I can cut and shaue.”
Barabas: “Let me see, sirra, are you not an old shauer?”
Slave: “Alas, Sir, I am a very youth.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase “young shaver” is from Love and a Bottle, a 1699 comedy by the Irish dramatist George Farquhar: “Who wou’d imagin now that this young shaver cou’d dream of a Woman so soon?”

And the OED’s first example of “little shaver” is from The World Went Very Well Then, an 1887 novel by Walter Besant: “Forty-five years ago I was just such a little shaver as this.”

We’re sorry if this answer disappoints you, but we try to be as exacting as we can about language.

For example, a reader of the blog once wrote to suggest that hundreds of American slang words come from Irish. This isn’t so, as we wrote in a post last year.

While a phonetic similarity might provide a starting point, it shouldn’t be the conclusion.

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