Etymology of the Day: Hassle

My cable bills are a bit high, but switching providers? That’s too much of a hassle. Quit hassling me to get on Snapchat! I’m barely keeping up with Instagram. Hassle, as it turns out, is a perfectly modern word for all the “fuss” of our modern lives.

hazel.jpg
Some think hassle could come from a variant of hazel, whose branches were used for whippings. (Pixabay)

Hassle

Hassle is a surprisingly young word as far as the written record is concerned. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites hassle, an American English colloquialism, in a 1945 edition of the jazz magazine Down Beat: “Building bands is getting to be a habit with Freddie Slack. He broke up his last few after booking hassels.” Early on, the word wasn’t just popular with musicians. In 1946, The Saturday Evening Post noted: “‘Hassle’ is a gorgeously descriptive word which lately has won wide usage in show business.”

What makes hassle so “gorgeously descriptive”? Perhaps because it may have originated as a blend. Etymologists have suggested a number of pairs: haggle and tussle, haggle and wrestle, harass and hustle. And most of these blend words – haggle, hustle, tussle, and wrestle – are in an especially colorful class of verbs known as frequentatives.

Usually marked by the suffix –le in English, these verbs show small, intense repeated actions. English has loads of them: bobble, dazzle, fizzle, jostle, straddle, sparkle, twinkle. Haggle originally involved lots of little hagging, an old form of hack, as if bargaining “chops away” the price. Hustle comes from a Dutch frequentative of hotsen, “to shake.” A variant of tousle, tussle is likely the frequentative of tease, first meaning “to pull apart wool” or the like. And wrestle is the frequentative of wrest, “to twist” or “wrench.”

We don’t really know for sure, though, if hassle is a blend. Other etymologists have proposed hassle comes from the Southern English hassle, “to breathe or pant noisily,” attested in the 1920s. This term, while of obscure origin, also has the look and feel of frequentative. And how would hassle go from hyperventilation to vexation? We get short of breath when we were all hot and bothered.

A third theory traces hassle back to hatchel. A hatchel is a tool with sharp teeth that combed out flax, hemp, and other fibers. By 1800, hatchel inspired the metaphorical verb “to worry” or “bother.” It’s likely related to heckle, which joins hatchel and tease in evolving from “forceful combing” to mild forms of “harassment.”

But hatchel could still have a different origin: a variant of hazel, whose thin, firm branches were well-suited for whippings. If this is true, avoiding the hassle, then, was evading a beating. Maybe those long lines at Starbucks aren’t so much of a hassle after all.

m ∫ r ∫

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