What is a “hocket”?

[Also posted on Some Small Problems.]

Thomas Schmidt has recently published an article, “Singing the hiccup – on texting the hocket” Early Music History 32 (2013):225-275 [link]. One of the principal aims is to show that text underlay in certain hockets should split words within syllables; this argument proceeds from  a construction of the etymology of “hocket” as meaning “hiccup.”

This is a brief discourse on the etymologies of three separate terms used to refer to hockets in the sources which Schmidt cites: hoquet/oketusupatura, singultus. I will show in turn that none of these must mean “hiccup,” and, particularly, that hoquet and upatura are very unlikely to have meant “hiccup” in the fourteenth century.

The principal OF meaning of hocton/hoqueton/hoquet/hoquerel (n.) is “snare, trap” (Ste-Maure, Chronique, 1150). This is still a possible (the primary?) meaning in the fourteenth cen. (as in Guiard, Royaulx lignages, 1306) but by this time it can also have the more general meaning of “jerk, jolt” (this too in Guiard). Hoqueter (v.i.) in standard francien dialect means “to cast, to shake,” but usage allies still it closely with traps (the context is fishing in Mont Cassin, Ystoire de li Normant, 1308). Thus it appears that the meaning of the nominal form is metynymic; that is, the name of the trap is taken from the action of springing it. Most interesting is that hoquerel is a glossed as piedge (MF piège, “snare”) < L pedica “fetter” (lit. “that which holds the foot” ) in the Roman de Brut (1155), which is corroborated by looking at the analogous passages in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia (1130s?). Hochier (v.t.), “to shake,” is a related term as Schmidt points out; it derives from picardien ho(c)t(t)is(s)ôn, “a jolt, a shake” as a horseman may feel on a rough ride. It seems reasonable to suppose that they both derive from some common root given the morphological and semantic overlap; the fact that their usage distributions (i.e. salient contexts) do not overlap is no cause for worry, since they represent separate dialect traditions. It seems therefore that the most natural understanding of the term hocket is that it refers to the jerking or casting back and forth between two voices; it could refer to a sudden jerking away from the normal texture of the surrounding music to the special texture of the hocket; perhaps the semantics of the snare refers to the enmeshing of the lines participating in the hocket. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the sixteenth-century connotation of “hiccup” (itself semantically related, to be sure, as a kind of jolting breath) is unattested in any of the sources from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. There is a significant difference between “jerking, casting” in general (which might only refer to the notes to the exclusion of text, as is argued in a forthcoming article by Anna Zayaruznaya in Journal of Musicology 30/4) and “hiccupping,” which implies a connection to the breath and perhaps therefore the text.

The other term in play is the enigmatic upatura from the fourteenth cen. Carmelite constitution. I’m sceptical whether this can be so neatly identified with hiccups or hockets. (Schmidt baldly translates it as “hiccup,” which assumes a fact not in evidence.) It’s worth noting that it is Ferrara from which this document originates (it’s even in Lockwood’s book, but he tacitly skips upatura in his translation); an Italian hiccup is a singotta/singhiozza < L singultus (~ MF sanglot). Ostensibly, then, upatura belongs to neither of these lexical families (that is, neither the “hocket” nor “hiccup” family). What might it mean instead? A quick scan through the corpus suggests that it might be related to *hip(p)ar “to pant, to sigh, to yearn.” Perhaps upatura refers to songs of an overtly vulgar or lewd character? The 1581 Carmelite constitution glosses upatura — this odd word was apparently a problem for them too — as “cantigas nefarias” which can only mean something like “vulgar songs” rather than “hocket” or “hiccup.” (Cards on the table, however, it must be mentioned that hipar, coincidentally means hiccup in modern Spanish. This is a red herring: it probably arises as an instance of semantic narrowing from the general sense of “to pant.” Thus it is completely unrelated to the meaning of hoquet in MF as “hiccup,” since the latter derives from a verb meaning “to jerk.”)

As Schmidt writes, it is true that singultus is glossed as oketus in Boen, Musica, 1355. But this is insufficient demonstration that they both mean “hiccup” in this context. To be sure, singultus is the normal Latin word for “hiccup”; but it does not always mean “hiccup.” Singultus < singula “unit”; thus singultus is that which is characterized as being “of units” or possibly “unitary.” This is the feature shared by all its meanings in Latin: sob, death rattle, hiccup, etc. all comprise many single gasps or breaths. The point here is that if this were the primary semantic domain that the writer is thinking, then there would have been a more obvious French translation of this word than oketus: this word is sangleut/sanglot. In other words, the fact that it is glossed as oketus rather than sangleut, taken together with the semantic context, seems to me to indicate that Boen is thinking of singultus in a rather more abstract sense: “that which is comprised of singularities/units”; and in this sense it is a quite apt Latinization of oketus “hocket.” An appeal to the semantics of “hiccup” is not at all necessary to rationalize this move.