Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera

Joe Mc Kay’s “Crazy About Words”
… toasting our language since 2003!


Who knew little old “etc.” came from such a long and noble lexical line? Not I. I’ve taken it for granted all my life, tossing it in at the end of lists in sentences, as though to say, “you know the rest,” or “you get the idea.”

My interest was piqued recently when I saw the 1946 film, “Anna and the King of Siam,” starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunn, on TCM. Harrison, as the King in the 1860s , is working hard to learn English, the better to lead his country into modernity, and he likes to show off his linguistic prowess. At the end of many spoken sentences, he enunciates each syllable of “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” with such a flourish of his hands and an almost beatific grin that I began to suspect there must be a good backstory.

So I did what any red-blooded, English-speaking logophile would do… I Googled “et cetera.” Sure enough, its use is legendary among monarchs who wanted to demonstrate their knowledge of many things along with their importance in not having to list them in detail.

Going back to Roman times, it was especially useful to a Caesar who did not have to repeatedly list all the accumulated territorial dynastic claims that followed his eminence’s name and title. Fast forward and hear a Tsar proclaiming, “We, Nicholas II of Russia, By the Grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”

Coins struck with the likeness of a monarch’s head had his title writ around the perimeter, and frequently concluded with the contracted form, &c.

Remarkably, linguistic scientists have traced the words ke-etero, “this remains,” back to the Indo-European, regarded as the origin of most languages now spoken across Europe and Asia. (One can only imagine hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago finding it a handy phrase as they tallied and apportioned their nuts, berries and animal skins!) And the need to express the idea of “and so forth,” “and the rest,” found recognizable words in all the languages that evolved from Indo-European. It resides in Latin languages using some variant of “et cetera;” in Dutch “enzovoort;” in German “und so weiter.” It is written in most all languages as an abbreviation: in the above cases, etc., enz. and usw.

Looking at Hebrew, Hindi and Marathi (a language of western India)… the notion finds expression in some variation of “ityadi” meaning “it is known/sensed.” I find nothing to support this, but I’ll bet that our own contemporary “yadda, yadda, yadda” is very much a part of the family of expressions that mean “and so on/you know what I’m saying” and derives from the same idea as “ke-etero.” (According to the dictionary, “Yadda, yadda, yadda” originated in the 1940s as onomatopoeia, imitating the sound of meaningless chatter.)

We know it was used by Lenny Bruce in the 50s and 60s, but it found its way into current pop culture thanks to the 1997 Seinfeld episode, “Yada, yada.”) Here’s Elaine, “We went out to dinner. I had the lobster bisque. Afterward, we went up to his place, and yada, yada, yada… I never heard from him again.” In 2009, the Paley Center awarded it #1 on TV’s 50 Funniest Phrases.

And so, the expression of an idea once reserved for important people to gloss over information, then used in literature to avoid repeating the obvious, is now employed freely, whimsically, or dismissively, (and often accompanied, when spoken, by the same dramatic gestures that jumped out at me in the Rex Harrison movie). In Tim O’Brien’s brilliant 1994 novel, In The Lake of The Woods, a former campaign manager says cynically of his candidate, “But John also had ideals. A good progressive Democrat, very dedicated, help the needy, et cetera, et cetera, ad weirdum.”

“Etceteras,” used as a collective noun, has never been admitted to any dictionary, although it has been used informally for at least two hundred years… e.g. “a long list of etceteras,” and “the cost of the locomotives and their etceteras…” It is employed in the same way as “thingamajigs” or “thingamabobs,” the latter a popular expression in the 19th century, used by Edgar Allan Poe, and later by Gilbert and Sullivan in The Mikado.

One thing is certain, “etcetera” in its various iterations will thrive in this complex world where we strain to know all the precise words that proliferate in so many fields, but gloss over them in our communications.

Joe Mc Kay
May 2013

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