This post is part of a series on the vocabulary of the sixteenth-century Essex Wills. For an introductory overview, see The Words of Sixteenth Century Essex Woman and Man.
I don’t want any readers of this blog to think that its entire purpose is to criticize the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is my livelihood and my aim is to make it even better than it already is. And the fact is that some lexical items from the past are so scantily recorded that scholarship has been hard put to it to get a grip on them. And this is where non-literary documents like the Essex Wills are so helpful.
The OED has an entry for a word ebbing n., the main sense of which is defined as ‘the action of flowing back or retiring’; no problem with this: several quotations pair the word with ‘flowing’ and we are clearly dealing with the verbal noun from the verb to ebb, describing what the receding tide does.
But I want to focus on the two compounds listed at the bottom of the entry, ebbing-lock and ebbing-weir, defined as ‘a lock for detaining fish at the ebb-tide’ and ‘a weir for detaining fish at the ebb-tide’. I want to argue that like Dansk in my earlier post, the entry is a fusion of two unconnected words.
Despite the apparently obvious connection with the word ebb, there are good reasons to think that these compounds are not related to it at all. I think that it is very significant that, unlike any examples of the uncompounded ebbing, all examples of these words begin with h-:
1539 Will of Thomas Samson (P.R.O.: PROB. 11/27) f. 253, My Tyde bote..my Hebbing cocke [prob. read locke].
1590 Cal. State Papers, Domest. Ser. 692 Regulations for hooks, lamperne rods, and hebbing nets.
1472 Act 12 Edw. IV vii, Ascuns..tielx..milledammez estankez de molyns lokkez hebbyngwerez, etc.
1475 Rolls Parl. VI. 159/1 Fishgarthes..Lokkes, Hebbyng weeres..and dyvers other ympedyments dayly been made.
1531–2 Act 23 Hen. VIII v. §2 Myldammes lokkes hebbynge weres heckes and fludgates.
a1642 R. Callis Reading of Statute of Sewers (1647) iv. 211 Locks and Hebbing weres.
1715 J. Kersey Dict. Anglo-Britannicum (ed. 2) Hebbing-wears, nets or devices laid for fish at ebbing water.
1721–90 in N. Bailey Universal Etymol. Eng. Dict. [the text, not given in OED, is: Hebbing-Wears, Devices or Nets laid for Fish at ebbing Water.]
Now, it is true that OED gives the verb ebb a sense (3a) ‘to hem in (fish) with stakes so that they cannot go back to the sea with the ebb-tide’; but it provides no examples, simply referring the reader to the entry EBBING n. which we are considering. It looks very likely that the editors inferred this sense of the verb from the verbal noun.
The Middle English Dictionary gives an entry for ebbinge (ger.); like OED, it places under it the compound ebbing wer, ‘a weir for trapping fish at ebb tide’, where the headword has no h but the two examples have it (one of which is almost identical with one of OED’s):
(1472) Statutes Realm 2.441: Fishgarthez, molyns, milledammez..lokkez, hebbyngwerez.
(1472-5) RParl. 6.159a: Dyvers and many Weeres, Fisshgarthes..Lokkes, Hebbyng weeres.
The OED also has an entry for ebberman n. Again, the quotations all show h- in the headword:
1689 in J. Stow Survey of London (1720) II. v. xxviii. 383/2 No..Hebberman, shall..fish for Smelts between Good Friday and, [etc.].
1715 J. Kersey Dict. Anglo-Britannicum (ed. 2) Hebberman, one that fishes below Bridge, commonly at ebbing Water, etc.
1720 J. Strype Stow's Survey of London (rev. ed.) I. i. vii. 33/2 A Number of Fishermen belonging to the..Thames, some stiled..Hebbermen.
1721–90 in N. Bailey Universal Etymol. Eng. Dict. [the text, not given in OED, is: Hebberman, a Fisherman below London-Bridge, who fishes at ebbing Water. L.T.]
The etymology is given as from the distinctly fishy h-less agent-noun ebber, for which no evidence is forthcoming: it is said to be a derivative of ebb v. sense 3, which, as we have already seen, is probably artificial.
The OED also gives an entry hebberman n. ‘Variant of EBBERMAN n.’ with four examples:
1630 Order in R. Griffiths Ess. Jurisdict. Thames (1746) 75 No Hebberman shall fish for Smelts before the twenty-fourth Day of August.
1630 Order in R. Griffiths Ess. Jurisdict. Thames (1746) 76 No Hebberman shall work any higher for Whitings than Dartford Creek.
1670 T. Blount Νομο-λεξικον: Law-dict. Hebber-man, a Fisherman below London-bridge, who fishes for Whitings, Smelts, &c. commonly at Ebbing-water, and therefore so called.
1839–40 Thackeray Catherine xiv, The ferries across the river, and..the pirates who infest the same—namely tinklermen, petermen, hebbermen, trawlermen.
From the dictionary evidence, the word seems to belong especially to the Thames estuary. In complete accord with this, all four examples in the Essex Wills are either from Barking or Leigh-on-Sea, which lie on that waterway.
Also in conformity with the OED evidence, the Essex Wills examples all begin with h-. They too chiefly include compounds, some new:
hebbing cock 1558, 1589 (which two uses make OED’s emendation of its 1539 quotation from cocke to locke unnecessary)
hebbing boat 1587
hebbing net 1588.
But what is especially striking is that one example also contains the verb:
‘my part of the boat that is to heb in’ (1588, XI. 213)
Here ‘to heb’ must be an activity that a person does from within a boat. This seems conclusively to disconnect the activity of hebbing from the action of the tide in ebbing.
The idea that the two words were connected probably starts in Blount’s Law Dictionary (the 1670 quotation at HEBBERMAN), from which all the other sources which talk about fishermen fishing at ebbing water may well derive their information.
Early English Books Online provides two examples of the compound hebber-boat:
1577 J. Dee General and rare memorials pertayning to the perfect arte of nauigation [STC 6459] Wherin, the Hebber-Boats, only, might sufficiently…
1698 Jovis duodecimo die Maii 1698, annoque regni Regis Willielmi ... this day an order and report made by the Committee for Letting the Cities Lands, touching several duties taken by several officers and others at Billingsgate [Wing L2865F] Every Hebber-Boat or Smack 00 00 01.
This is very likely a boat from which hebbing is done, which makes it less likely to be the hemming in of fish with stakes.
So what is heb-? What is its etymology? My suggestion is that it represents a regional preservation of the former alternative present stem of the verb ‘to heave’, Old English hebban. MED shows heb- forms from Layamon, the Nero MS of Ancrene Wisse in the thirteenth century, and the Pepys MS of the South English Legendary (Gloucestershire), Sir Firumbras (Devon), and William of Shoreham (Kent) in the fourteenth century: the form receded to small areas of the south in later Middle English. The verb has ME senses to do with lifting things up, though nothing as specific as fishing.
Some support for this suggestion may be found in OED’s entry for heaving n. Here there is an item heaving-net cited from a 1584 quotation relating to Thames fishery:
‘No Fishermen, Garthmen, Petermen..shall avaunce or set up any Wears, Engines..Heaving Nets, except they be 2 Inches in the Meish’
In order to elucidate this, OED cross-refers to quot. 1805 at sense a, which explains that
‘A..mode of fishing, called heaving or hauling, is standing in the stream..with a bag or net fixed to a kind of frame... Whenever a fish strikes against the net, they..instantly haul up the mouth of the net above water’
It’s true that this is taken from a source dealing with Scotland, and that it doesn’t envisage the use of a boat, but it explains how the operation combines static nets or weir-like apparatus with immediately ensuing action on the part of the fisherman.