Married, wedded, knot tied, vows exchanged, “hereby” issued, hitched. Yes, I got hitched, and nothing says “newlywed bliss” quite like an etymology.

If we go back to Middle English, to hitch was “to move by jerks” (Skeat), “raise with a jerk,” (Weekley), or “move jerkily” (Partridge, ODEE). It was said especially of pants and trousers. Hike, as in hike up your pants,” is related. This hitch was adapted to nautical environments, describing fastening and referring more specifically to catching something with a loop or jerking a rope around an object, thereby causing an obstruction. Hence the expression to go off without a hitch. This notion of fastening was later applied to equine needs, as teams of horses were hitched together. To hitch horses together was, so it goes, a way of saying two people got along. In his Dictionary of Americanisms (1859), Bartlett spells out “to hitch horses” a little more compellingly, if in the negative:

It is a common expression, when persons do not agree, to say ‘they don’t hitch horses together.’ Men who do not agree will not stop at the same house or tavern, or will not hitch their horses at the same stake. It is also contracted into ‘do not hitch horses together,’ and still further into, ‘do not hitch.’

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, there is evidence that this metaphor of hitching was said of married couples as early as 1837, with the expression “to get hitched” attested in 1844. (I, for one, find it interesting the sense is preserved in a sort of middle voice.)

Whence the Middle English hitch? Some cite the Middle English icchen, “to move jerkily,” where the trail ends; others look to variants in hatch and hotch. Partridge focuses on the latter, positing the Middle High German hotzen, “to shake.” Weekley also focuses on hotch, but connects it first to the French hocher, “to shake,” as in hocher la tete, “to nod the head.” This hocher, he says, is also behind the first element in hodgepodge. With an earlier form of hotchpotch, a hodgepodge was once a kitchen-sink sort of stew but earlier said “of lumping property before division (? by shaking up names in a pot).” The original French was hochepot, “soup,” with the sense, I’m guessing, that one continues to stir certain soups so it doesn’t settle. Whatever the case, Weekly goes on, like Partridge, to link the French hocher to the Germanic hotzen, source also of hustle, a “shaking” of money in a cap.

Hustle? Hodgepodge? Hitch? I’ll stick with another h word: honeymoon. The Mashed Radish will be back in June.

m ∫ r ∫ 


9 thoughts on “hitch

  1. Congratulations, John.

    At my wedding, my best man said in his speech that he hoped a dictionary would fall on my head, due to my habit of carrying one around with me wherever I went, just in case I came across a word I didn’t know. He also tried to steal my dictionary so that I couldn’t take it on honeymoon with me.

    Start as you mean to go on, I say, and I’m still blissfully, verbosely married 12 years on.

    Congrats indeed : o )


  2. Thanks for these ever-so-kind words, and congrats to your 12 years! Let’s just say we made a special trip to an academic library in Copenhagen, where I was also to acquire a Danish etymological dictionary (it’s glorious). “Verbosely married”: I *do* keep hearing that I can be a better listener 😉


  3. Congratulations to the newly spliced Kelly family!
    Now I’ve set myself up for mentioning another ‘tie-the-knot’ nautical colloquialism also preserved in a sort of middle voice – ‘to get spliced’ (or is it the tattered remains of the English ‘passival’ which allegedly originated somewhere east of Bristol according to Wikipedia? I was wondering how colloquial ‘to get spliced’ was; whether is was a Britishism or obsolete but Wikitionary’s settled this with its sole quote for ‘splice’ from Moby Dick:

    1851, Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 3: “But come, it’s getting dreadful late, you had better be turning flukes–it’s a nice bed; Sal and me slept in that ere bed the night we were spliced.”

    I had to google “turn flukes” 1.Of a whale: to go under, dive. 2.(nautical slang) To turn in, go to bed.

    To me, the first thing I think of when hearing the word ‘fluke’ is a parasitic flatworm or a stroke of luck but apparently it’s also the lobe of a whale’s tail possibly from Middle Low German flügel (“wing”)?

    If we removed all of the modern English derived from nautical terms would there be anything left?!


    1. Thank you!

      Yes, a whale’s flukes are the two ends of its tail, but I, too, have never heard the expression “turn flukes.” Nor have I heard “to get spliced.” It is well documented in the mid 1800s, perhaps as early as the mid 1700s, a Britishism in origin, to be sure.

      “Splice” might have originally been a nautical term as well, referring to the joining of ropes. From the Dutch, “splice” is also related to its opposite, “to split,” as well as “flint.”

      If we removed nautical terms, we’d have some horse-racing and boxing terms leftover, but that’d be just about it.


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