For all its motionlessness, the Mannequin Challenge has really had some legs. Since early October, the viral trend, which films people frozen in various poses as if mannequins, has taken over our social media feeds – and workspaces and public places. But why are mannequins called mannequins? That’s a challenge for etymology.
Little men, and women
In the 1987 rom-com Mannequin, an odd-jobbing struggling artist falls in love with a department-store mannequin. Such a situation would not have been so unusual nearly a hundred years earlier, when mannequin entered the English language. The word comes from the French and originally named a “live model of clothes,” especially an attractive young woman. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests this usage in an 1893 edition of Illinois’ Decatur Review.
By the 1930s, mannequin donned its current sense: articulated models of humans that display clothes in various stores. For this development, the OED cites Mary Brooks Picken, Scranton-based fashion expert and prolific author, who defined mannequin in her 1939 Language of Fashion: Dictionary and Digest of Fabric, Sewing and Dress as the “model of human figure for display of garments, hats, furs, etc.” The French, ever fashion-forward, had already been using such models in the 19th century.
But the shift in mannequin, from person to dummy, is no innovation. Back in the 1530s, English borrowed a similar word: manikin. This manikin, from the Dutch mannekijn and manneken, named a small representation of a person, like those jointed, wooden figures that artists and clothing makers used. The word also doubled as an insult, used to taunt a man as puny or insignificant. Dutch’s manneken also provided French with its mannequin, later lifted by English, as we saw.
Next of -kin
In Dutch, manneken literally means “little man,” hence the small models of the human form. The first part, clearly, is cognate to English’s man, a Germanic word with a rich and complex etymology all its own. The second part is a diminutive suffix, also of Germanic origin, that crops up in a few other English words.
Names like Dickens, Jenkins, Perkins, Watkins, and Wilkins feature the suffix, likely as adoptions or imitations of Dutch and Flemish names, the OED observes. A napkin is a “little nape,” or “tablecloth.” A firkin is a “little cask,” technically a quarter of a barrel. A lambkin is a “young lamb.” A bumpkin may come from the Dutch for “little tree” or “little barrel,” which apparently suggests a humorous shortness and stumpiness that came to characterize yokels. (English speakers, cruelly enough, liked to apply bumpkin to the Dutch themselves, the very source of the word). Some etymologists think gherkin, the pickle, and jerkin, the sleeveless jacket, display the diminutive suffix. And -kin, though it has no etymological connection to the word, also influenced the shape and sound of pumpkin.
Speaking of food, a ramekin, from the French ramequin and Flemish rammeken before it, was originally a kind of dish made of toasted cheese and bread, often baked and served in individual portions in a small dish, which came to be called a ramekin. Etymologists aren’t sure about its origin; some connect the first component of the word, ram-, to a Germanic word for “cream,” “cheese,” or even, wildly, ram, the animal. The second part is, indeed, probably akin to -kin.
Mannequin may mean “little man,” but the Mannequin Challenge, defying its etymology, shows how one little idea can become a huge phenomenon.