A “shocking” etymology

There are a lot of words and yet there are no words to describe how so many are feeling after Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton for the presidency on Tuesday night. But one word, for so many reasons, recurs: shock.

The original “shocker”? Watch your step. “Lakebed with Tree Stumps,” courtesy of freeimages.com


The word shock originally referred to a military clash. The Oxford English Dictionary first attests the noun and verb forms of the word in the 1560s, used of the collision of two forces in a charge. Isn’t that apt, America?

Such a collision is sudden and violent, hence shock’s various metaphorical extensions. Scientists had taken up the word shock by 1614. Come the 1650s, shock was naming a general “damage blow,” whether to one’s personal beliefs or to a society’s foundational institutions. Fifty years later, shock was in use in its modern sense of “disturbed surprise.” Medical shock is recorded by 1805, a shocker 1824, shell shock 1915, and culture shock by 1940.

Etymologists generally trace shock to the French choc (“violent attack”) and choquer (“strike against”). Indeed, at the D-Day Beaches in Normandy, visitors can follow a route called Le Choc (“the onslaught, the impact”) to view sites of the American offensive starting on June 6, 1944.

But from here, the origin of shock is unclear. Some suppose the French choquer comes from a Germanic root for a “jolt” or “swing” and could be imitative of shaking, which word is possibly related. Others consider the Old French chope, a “tree stump,” which one might stumble over before crashing to the ground, apparently.

English has other shock words, etymologically unrelated but perhaps still instructive. Like a shock of hair, all too fitting for the president-elect . Or a shock of wheat, barley, or oats – sheaves of grain stacked upright, able to stand because they support each other so bundled. Together.

And maybe that’s a welcome bit of “shock” therapy.

m ∫ r ∫


One thought on “A “shocking” etymology

  1. Very interesting article, thanks. Really enjoy reading all of your blog posts, keep up the good work. I would consider ‘shock’ to be related to be related to Proto-Indo European ‘*sek-‘ (“to cut”); Proto-Afroasiatic ‘*sVḳ-‘ (“to cut, chop”); Proto-Afroasiatic ‘*saḳ-‘ (“to cut”); Proto-Afroasiatic ‘*ĉuk-‘ (“to cut, pierce”) – which itself encompasses “to pierce (with a spear)”, or: “to skewer” in Semitic, “to strike (with a knife)” in Western Chadic, and “to slaughter” in Central Cushitic (Agaw) and also in Omotic. The word root might also knocking about in Niger Congo – for example “to stab” is ‘chook’ in Nigerian Pidgin English and “to cut” is ‘-cheka’/’-ceka’/’seha’/’-sika’/ etc. in several Bantu languages.


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