Bobby Charles – See You Later, Alligator (1955)
photograph: Rebound Records
a large semiaquatic reptile similar to a crocodile but with a broader and shorter head, native to the Americas and China
This noun is from Spanish el lagarto, el meaning the and lagarto lizard, from classical Latin lacerta, also lacertus, perhaps via an unattested post-classical Latin form lacarta.
The Spanish word was explained in The decades of the newe worlde or west India conteynyng the nauigations and conquestes of the Spanyardes (1555), a translation by Richard Eden (1521?–1576) of De orbe nouo, written in Latin by the Italian historian Pietro Martire d’Anghiera (1457-1526). The author wrote that in Beragua (Veraguas, in modern-day Panama), there was
a ryuer which Colonus named Lagartos, bycause it nooryshethe greate lysardes whiche in the Spanysshe toonge are cauled Lagartos. These lysertes are hurtfull bothe to man and beaste, and in shape muche lyke vnto the Crocodiles of the ryuer of Nilus in Egypte.
(In the original Latin text, “in the Spanysshe toonge [...] Lagartos” is “lagartos Hispana lingua latine lacertos”, that is, “lagartos in Spanish, Latin lacertos”.)
The English word appeared in forms such as aligarto, alagarto and aligarta. The remodelling of the ending of the word from -arto or -arta to -ator probably results from association with agent nouns in -ator such as creator and administrator.
From French alligator, a borrowing from English, Spanish has aligátor.
In An Excellent Conceited Tragedie, of Romeo and Iuliet (1597 edition), the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used the form aligarta. In Act V, scene 1, Romeo, believing Juliet to be dead, is about to buy poison from an apothecary:
Well Iuliet, I will lye with thee to night.
Lets see for meanes. As I doo remember
Here dwells a pothecarie whom oft I noted
As I past by, whose needie shop is stufft
With beggerly accounts of emptie boxes:
And in the same an Aligarta hangs,
Olde endes of packthred, and cakes of roses,
Are thinly strewed to make vp a show.
Him as I noted, thus with my selfe I thought:
And if a man should need a poyson now,
(Whose present sale is death in Mantua)
Here he might buy it. This thought of mine
Did but forerunne my need: and here about he dwels.
The catchphrase see you later, alligator, used on parting, appeared in the USA apparently in the 1950s. It was popularised by the 1955 song See You Later, Alligator, by the American singer-songwriter Bobby Charles (Robert Charles Guidry – 1938-2010). The word alligator was probably added to the older parting see you later because it rhymes with later. The expected response, in, or after, a while, crocodile, is similarly based on rhyme. As is what’s the word, hummingbird?, meaning what’s new, friend?.
From the classical Latin lacerta, lacertus, English had lacert, meaning lizard. It first appeared in the Early Version (around 1382) of the Wycliffe Bible; the Book of Leviticus, 11:30, about clean and unclean food, is:
a mygal, `that is a beeste born trecherows to bigile [= beguile], and moost gloterous [= gluttonous], a camelion, `that is a beeste varyed in to diuerse colours, after diuerse lokingis, and a stellioun, `that is a werme depeyntid as with sterris [= depainted as with stars], and a lacert, `that is a serpent that is clepid [= called] a liserd, and a moldwerp [= mouldwarp].