The original “Mannequin” Challenge

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.

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Manikins. Or should that be menikin? The Dutch manneken is source of the English manikin (1530s) and the French mannequin, which English borrowed in the late 1890s. Image by Jean Scheijen, courtesy of freeimages.com.

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.

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If a lambkin means “little lamb,” does a “ramekin”mean a “little ram”? The OED hasn’t ruled that out. Image by Alice Carrier, courtesy of freeimages.com.

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.

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The etymological facts on “fake”

Fake news has been very much in the real news this week. Facebook in particular has been in the hot seat for the proliferation of false stories and misinformation over the 2016 presidential campaign. Many fear fake news on the internet and social media not only influenced the election but is also further dividing the American people and eroding the core principles of democracy.

As we get the facts on fake news, let’s have a look at what the word fake might be hiding in its etymology.

Fake

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the adjective fake, meaning “spurious” or “counterfeit,” in a 1775 letter from William Howe, who rose to Commander-in-Chief of the British Army during the American Revolution. He wrote: “So many artifices have been practiced upon Strangers under the appearance of Friendship, fake Pilots &c., that those coming out with Stores…cannot be put too much on their guard.”

By 1819, fake was a verb used by thieves as slang for “doing (something) for the purpose of deception.” The OED provides a passage from James Hardy Vaux, an English convict who served time in Australian penal colonies and authored A New Vocabulary of the Flash Language, with “flash language” referring to the secret cant criminals used to evade and confuse the authorities. It’s worth quoting Vaux’s entry for fake at length. Fake is:

a word so variously used, that I can only illustrate it by a few examples. To fake any person or place, may signify to rob them; to fake a person, may also imply to shoot, wound, or cut; to fake a man out and out, is to kill him; a man who inflicts wounds upon, or otherwise disfigures, himself, for any sinister purpose, is said to have faked himself; if a man’s shoe happens to pinch, or gall his foot, from its being overtight, he will complain that his shoe fakes his foot sadly; it also describes the doing of any act, or the fabricating any thing, as, to fake your slangs, is to cut your irons in order to escape from custody;to fake your pin, is to create a sore leg, or to cut it, as if accidentally, with an axe, etc., in hopes to obtain a discharge from the army or navy, to get into the doctor’s list, etc.; to fake a screeve, is to write a letter, or other paper; to fake a screw, is to shape out a skeleton or false key, for the purpose of screwing a particular place; to fake a cly, is to pick a pocket; etc., etc., etc.

To fake it emerges in the 1920s as jazz slang for “improvise.” To fake, or “pretend,” is by the 1940s. A fake, meanwhile, appears by the 1820s, a faker by the 1840s. Sports saw its feinting fake by the 1930-40s. And Charles Dickens’s pickpocketing Fagin in Oliver Twist (1838) indeed suggests feague and fake.

The origin of fake, in spite of these incredible citations, is obscure. Many etymologists look to the German fegen (or Dutch vegen), which meant “to sweep,” “clean,” or “polish,” a verb much evidenced as slang terms for “plundering” or “tormenting.” This fegen may have yielded the late 16th-century English word feague, “to beat” or “whip,” which evolved into fake, possibly by means of feak, “to twitch” or “jerk.” The connecting sense between German’s fegen and English’s fake is of sprucing something up to make it look more valuable than it actually is.

The fegen explanation is compelling but problematic, as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology observes. For the earliest evidence of fake, for “false,” comes from Howe, who was an upper-class man of the military and government, while Vaux was a lower-class, thrice-convicted thief (though impressive man of letters, as his dictionary is considered the first written Australia). Slang typically emerges from the streets, so to speak, and crosses over into mainstream, standard dialect, not the other way around. Barnhart suggests that Howe’s fake and Vaux’s fake may well be different words, both with unknown origins.

As any etymologist worth their salt will tell you, it’s better to leave the origin of a word truly unknown than to traffic in phonies, no matter how much you might want to share them on Facebook.

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A “nasty” little etymology

In the third and final presidential debate last night, Donald Trump – amid his yet more shocking refusal to say whether he’ll accept the election results – called Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman.” Nasty can be such a nasty word. Where does it come from?

Nasty

Nasty starts “fouling” up the English language in the 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests it in Carleton Brown’s 1390 Religious Lyrics of the 14th Century: “Whon we be nasti, nouȝt at neode, Neore wimmen help, hou schulde we fare?”

Back then, as it still does for some speakers of Black English, nasty meant “filthy” and “dirty.” The word has since made quite a semantic mess, so to speak: “offensive, annoying” (1470s); “unpleasant” (1540s); “repellent (to the senses)” and “lewd” (1600s); and “ill-tempered, spiteful” (1820s). Slang has also widely taken up nasty, from a term for “excellent” to sex-related usages.

For as much use as English has made of nasty, we aren’t certain about its origins. Here are three leading theories:

  1. Nasty comes from the Dutch nestig, “dirty” like a bird’s nest. The source of this word, alas , is also unclear.
  2. Nasty (and nestig) could be related to a Scandinavian source, such as the Swedish naskug, “dirty,” with nask meaning “dirt.” Walter Skeat maintains, though, this dialectical word lost an initial s- and comes from snaska, “to eat like a pig,” that is, greedily and noisily. Snaska, Skeat continues, imitates the sound of such consumption. Middle English has nasky, a variant of nasty, which suggests some Scandinavian word at least reinforced nasty if they’re not immediately related. 
  3. Nasty derives from the Old French nastre, “strange, lowly, bad,” shortened from villenastre, “infamous, ignoble.” Villenastre joins villein (source of villain, a “rustic” that became associated with more nefarious qualities, perhaps not unlike clown) and -aster, a pejorative suffix seen in the likes of poetaster, an “inferior” poet. 

Nasty, it seems, is a nasty little word with a nasty little etymology.

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The downs and ups of “bounce”

Last post, I looked into the history of keynotea word getting a lot of airplay during the US party conventions. Another word basking in the lexical limelight right now is bounce, that post-convention boost in the polls each candidate historically enjoys. Where did this bounce etymologically spring from?

Bounce’s bouncy past 

Outside of its polling sense today, bounce suggests a liveliness and springiness: the bounce of a ball or the bounce in one’s step. But originally, bounce was the very opposite. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the verb bounce as early as 1225. Back then, bounce took the form bunsen and meant “to beat” or “thump.” 

Come the 16th century, bounce starting bouncing in all sorts of a semantic directions. We have bounce, “to make a loud explosive noise.” We have bounce “to talk big,” “to bluster,” and “to bully.” We have the more familiar bounce “to bound like a ball,” initially said of heavier objects. 

What’s the connecting sense here? Sound. With some possible connections in Dutch and German, bounce likely originates in imitation of loud, sudden noises or movements – like that original “beat” or “thump.” This is why we even see bounce historically used as an interjection to imitate the loud bang of a gun: Bounce!

Bouncing balls bound. Are the words related? Not directly, but they share similar sense developments and imitative roots. Bound “to leap upward” – is found in the late 16th century and probably influenced bounce’s form and sense during that time. This bound comes from the French bondir, which meant, like bounce, “to make a resounding noise.” The verb seems to derive from the Latin bombus, a “buzzing, booming, or humming noise.” Bombus also gives English another noisy word: bomb

From “thump” to “jump”

The sound of a bounce inspired the motion of a bounce: a ball makes a sudden thump as it smacks the ground before bouncing into the air. English made good use of all its metaphorical energy. A drunk could get bounced – tossed out – of a bar by the bouncer. The OED cites this bouncer, a “chucker-out,” as an Americanism dating back to at least 1865. A few decades earlier, a bouncer also named a “swaggering liar.” And this ejective usage seems to anticipate a later slang usage, Let’s bounce, or “Let’s get out of here.” 

Another Americanism (1920s) is a rubber check, which would bounce right back to the bank due to insufficient funds. Sixty years later, emails were bouncing back in a similar, figurative manner.  A bounce also refers to a sudden rise in a price – or, for our purposes here, a candidate’s standing. The OED first finds the financial sense in the 1970s. It documents the political bounce in 1980, referring to Jimmy Carter’s “post-convention bounce,” the precise context pollsters and pundits are using it now during this stretch of the presidential campaign. 

Bounce’s colorful – or better yet, noisy – etymological past is instructive for its political present. Polling bounces can lead candidates to “boast.” They can also make their opponents sting from the “thumping.” And so we should be careful not to make too much bounce about them. For these post-convention bounces – like so much of politics – are like balls: what goes up comes back down. And that’s just the way the ball bounces. 

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The home of the “brave”

This presidential cycle, America seems more polarized than ever. But on the July Fourth holiday, we can all put aside our divisions and stand together in this home of the brave. As it turns out, the origin of the very word brave tells its own story of conflict – and in the end, perhaps a kind unity after all.

Brave roots, some not-so brave meanings 

Among its earliest meanings in English, brave didn’t mean “valorous.” It meant “showy,” “handsome,” or “finely dressed.” The Oxford English Dictionary attests these meanings in the mid-16th century. But come the early 17th century, the word had shaded towards a general sense of “excellent,” then its modern “courageous” and “intrepid.”

Brave has long been a starred-and-striped word. English borrowed it from the French brave, where it meant both “splendid” and “valiant.” (Think chivalrous cavaliers.) The French, in turn, was influenced by the Italian bravo, where this spangled adjective also meant “bold,” as well as by Spanish, which conveyed “wild” and “savage” with its bravo.

The further ancestry of brave may not be so easy to see – or so gallantly streaming. Some suggest brave is a variation on the Latin barbarus, meaning “foreigner.” Others, on pravus, “crooked” or “depraved,” hence “savage,” likely characterizing the ferocity of outsiders and enemies. (Note that depraved itself features the root pravus.)

Meanwhile, Walter Skeat insisted brave derives from the same Celtic root he believed gave English brag, citing breagh, or “fine.” Skeat also notes some competing theories in his sources, including Old Dutch and Swedish words.

Whatever the source of the word, the sense of brave seems to have developed from “wild” to “bold” to “showy” to “courageous,” apparently on the basis of outward demonstrations and displays. (Sounds pretty American to me, huh?)

Cognates to brave include bravado, bravura, and bravo! And the reason some called Native Americans braves didn’t have to do as much with any valor white traders or settlers observed: its thank to the French brave, which we should remember also connoted “savage.”

Brave‘s new world

Words, like Americans, are immigrants, coming from countries and tongues afar. Words, like Americans, are contradictory, teeming with conflicted and conflicting ideas, values, and experiences. And words, like Americans, can forget their deeper roots and stories.

But on Independence Day, Americans commemorate the beginning of its nation, its experiment. And I, as one American citizen, think that it’s fitting that the etymology of brave is obscure. There is bloodshed in its past. There are foreigners and outsiders. Yet there is also change and progress in the word’s meaning, from “flashy” to “fearless.”

The exact origins of brave have been lost to that melting pot of time, history, and memory. Regardless of our divisions, we are Americans – in the home of the brave, stars, stripes, sins, successes, and all.

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Why are efforts described as “last-ditch”?

Recently, I’ve come across a number of articles describing the Republican establishment’s “last-ditch efforts” to stop their party’s nomination of Donald Trump for the U.S. presidency:

last-ditch effort google search.png
Screen capture by me, March 22, 2016

But why do we call these efforts “last-ditch”?

In the etymological trenches

In 1706, English writer Daniel Defoe published Jure Divino, a verse satire in which he extolled William I, the Prince of Orange, famed for leading Dutch rebels against a tyrannical Spain in the 16th century. In a footnote, Defoe shares an anecdote told of William:

Of this [the Prince of Orange] gave an unparallel’d Instance, when being reduc’d to great Difficulties, in the fame War, and press’d by the French, in the Bowels of his native Country, on one Hand, and the English, with their Navy, on the other; and the English Ambassadors offer’d him, in the Names of the Kings of England and France, to take the whole Country, and then restoring it to him, form it into a Monarchy, and make him King of it: He rejected it with the utmost Indignation; and when One of them ask’d him what Remedy he could think of for the Ruin of his Affairs, answer’d, He knew One effectual Remedy, viz. to lie in the last Ditch; intimating, that he would dispute every Inch of Ground with the Enemy, and at last would die defending the Liberties of his Country.

For the source of the anecdote, I should note, Defoe cites Sir William Temple’s Memoirs, referring to an important English diplomat of the day whose writings Jonathan Swift, it happens, published.

So, from the dry moats dug around castles to the trenches of the First World War, warfare was long fought in the trenches – or ditches . The last ditch, then, was quite literally the “last line of defence” against an enemy’s siege, as the Oxford English Dictionary glosses it.

(Perhaps the military origins of last ditch were obvious to you. I, for one, never made the made connection. )

And, if the Prince of Orange is indeed the originator of last ditch, he would have so uttered it in Early Modern Dutch, making the English expression, of course, a translation. I’m not quite sure how the Prince of Orange would have said it in Early Modern Dutch: Perhaps something, and do forgive me, my Dutch-speaking readers, along the lines of laatse greppel?

Some last-ditchery of last-ditch

The last ditch expression proved to be a useful one, frequently appearing in the phrase to die in the last ditch in its early, political history. Thomas Jefferson even employed it in his own autobiographical writings when he described a “government…driven to the last ditch by the universal call for liberty.”

Now, the Oxford English Dictionary cites the adjectival form, usually hyphenated, for a resistance “maintained to the end” by 1888. The more metaphorical last-minute attempts to “avert disaster,” which prevails in today’s parlance, appears by 1930, according to the dictionary. Last-ditch effort appears at least by 1944; the OED cites it in Billboard, as in the pop music charts, then published in Cincinnati, OH.

Ditch itself is an old word, rooted in the Old English díc, a “trench” or “moat,” which also yields dike and derives from a Germanic base.

The OED also records the the wonderful forms last-ditchery (“fighting to the last ditch”; 1889) and the earlier last-ditcher (“one who fights to the last ditch”; 1862) – which might lend a little and much-needed whimsy to the tense and heated political discourse these days.

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horse

A horse is a horse, of course, of course. Unless you’re American Pharoah, who coursed the Belmont Stakes last Saturday for the first Triple Crown in 37 years. This three-year-old colt clearly isn’t just any old horse. But etymologically, a horse is a course. Well, not of course, but maybe.

“Horse.” Ballpoint on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Horse

Horses may race young, but the word horse runs old: The Oxford English Dictionary records horse (as hors) all the way back to around 825. Etymologists take the word back to the Proto-Germanic root for the animal, *horso-, hitching it there. But some ride off into a further sunset: the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kers-, “to run.” This root equipped Latin with currere (“to run”), which, in turn, saddled English with all sorts of words: carchargecorridorcurrentcursordiscourseintercourse, and, of course, course, among others. A horse is a course, of course of course.

Yet Ernest Klein suggests that a different feature defined horse. He suggests that horse may come from the Proto-Germanic *hrossa-, from the pre-Germanic *qru-ta-s, formed on a “lost verb,” “to jump,” from a PIE root meaning the same. If this is the case, horse, then, is “the jumping animal.”

Wild Horses

Old English also had a horse of a different etymological color: eoha word cognate to equus, the Classical Latin for “horse” and source of equine and equestrian. At root is the PIE *ekwo-, “horse,” which also stables the Greek ἵππος (hippos, producing hippopotamus, “river horse” and Philip, “fond of horses.”) Like horse “the jumper” or horse “the runner,”  *ekwo may itself be named for something characteristically equine, as it perhaps derives from the PIE adjective *oku-, “swift.”

The hippopotamus is the “river horse.” Likenesses also give us the sea-horse. And the whale-horse, or walrus, if folk etymology has its way. Walrus comes from the Dutch walrus. The wal- component is indeed related to whale, but the rus– part (cf. German words for horse, like German’s own Ross, hence the name) is probably not etymologically (not to mention zoologically) sound. Etymologists cite confusion between some Scandinavian words naming certain types of whales and the walrus.

While the Greeks may have likened the hippopotamus to a river horse, the ancient Egyptians thought of it as a water-ox, or the p-ehe-mau, which Hebrew probably shaped into behemoth. Fittingly enough, for hippos do have a pretty mean reputation in the wild.

Ancient Egyptian also had pr-ʿo, “great house,” a title given to those kings also of great reputation, pharaohs, partial namesake of American Pharoah. American Pharoah has little in common with walrus–other than being mammals and have a name shaped in error. It all runs full circle. You know, like a racecourse.

Speaking of horses, look out soon for another review of a new title from Skyhorse Publishing, Holy Cow! by Boze Hadleigh, a book about expressions of animal origin, which includes a whole section on horses.

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measles

The recent outbreak of measles in the United States is incredible for a lot of reasons, especially since the country declared the disease officially eliminated here in 2000. But the word measles–and the disease, to be sure–has been around for a long time.

"Measles." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Measles.” Doodle by @andrescalo. Sorry, Canada.

Measles

The first ‘case’ of measles in the English language was documented as early as 1325, where, in the form of maseles, it glosses a French term for the same, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The disease, of course, is associated with its rash of red spots. These spots lent measles as a term for execresences on trees in the 1600s and blemishes on photographs or paper in the late 1800s. And it’s these very spots which may be symptoms, if you will, of its origin.

The word measles is Germanic in origin, with etymologists citing immediate origins in either Middle Dutch (masel) or Middle Low German (maselen) words for blood-blisters and sickly skin spots or scars. But etymologically, measles is not all bad. The word and its Germanic sources are also associated with some rather lovely things: a mazer, a drinking vessel typically made of out maple or out of the knot of a maple tree. The maple tree may be named for its own spotted wood, making the very word maple possibly related to measles. The evidence for these sorts of matters can be quite spotty, but some kind of “spot” or “blemish” seems to be ultimately behind measles.

The pronunciation and spelling of measles appears to have been influenced by mesel, an etymologically unrelated word used of leprosy. All things considered, the measles are quite rare in many places today compared to past epidemics, which can conceal the fact that measles is responsible for the word measly. The OED dates this adjective for “inferior,” “paltry,” or “stingy” back to 1847, and its usage may be in part due to associations with the word miserly or miserable, as well as a pig disease also named measles and the leprous mesel we just encountered.

Curiously, a great many of the documented epidemics of measles affected the original Thirteen Colonies that broke free from Great Britain. Now, the measles outbreak has spread a rather feverish controversy over, among other matters, the right not to vaccinate, which really puts the red in the red, white, and blue.

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loophole

As part of his State of the Union Address last Tuesday, President Obama pitched middle-class tax breaks offset, in part, by closing certain tax loopholes that can benefit America’s wealthiest. I’m not fit to weigh in on tax policy (though you may want to learn the curious origin of the word tax), but I do want to weigh in on this word loophole.

If you’re like me, this metaphorical loophole brings to mind a literal hole formed out of a loop of string or some such material. You would indeed think the word is exactly that: a simple compound of loop and hole. It might be, but its etymology still proves to be pretty knotted.

"Loophole." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Loophole.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

Loophole

It’s the loop in loophole that throws us for a loop. For this loop, we actually need to consider two loops

The first loop is the one we are most familiar with, the one formed in needlework or a noose. Some thread this loop back to a Germanic root that gives English the word leap. Others–famously, Walter Skeat–have proposed a Celtic borrowing, citing the Gaelic lub, a “bend,” “loop,” and “winding,” as well as “to meander.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates this meaning of loop back to at least 1475. Given Celtic languages’ surprisingly limited impact on the English language, this would be an interesting borrowing indeed.

But English has a second and older loop, an “opening in a wall to look through, or to allow the passage of a missile.” This is attested in 1393, and by 1591, the OED cites loophole as such and naming the kind of narrow arrow slits we see in castles. Some suggest that this loop is from same word as we see in a loop of string. Others, however, go Dutch, aiming at the Middle Dutch lupen, variously glossed as “to lurk,” “to lie in wait,” “peer,” “watch,” or “look slyly.” Oxonian scholars also mention an Anglo-Latin loupa in the late 14th century, referring to a medieval loophole and of unknown origin.

By 1664, according to the OEDloophole takes on the figurative sense that ultimately yields today’s tax loophole:

An outlet or means of escape. Often applied to an ambiguity or omission in a statue, etc., which affords opportunity for evading its intention.

The OED adds that the usage may be influenced by the Dutch loopgat, joining loopen (“to run”) and gat (“way”). This loopen, however much it resembles the Middle Dutch lupen, doubles us back to that Germanic base giving us leap–and, possibly, loop. Now that’s an etymological loop-the-loop.

Loop-y

The origin of loophole may well live up to its name. Loop figures into a number of useful expressions. Loopy, as in crazy or drunk, is probably from loopy’s original sense of “full of loops.” Thrown for a loop, and its earlier variant, knock for a loop, may originate in the boxing ring near the turn of the 20th century, thanks to some sleuthing from Ben Zimmer and Jonathon Green. In the loop and out of the loop appears some 70 years later in aviation circles.  Aviators maneuver loop-the-loopsConey Island thrilled with its famous Loop-the-Loop. In late 1950s and early 60s, Hanna-Barbera produced the onetime, pun-loving “do-good wolf”:

Maybe we should put the well-meaning but much maligned canine in charge of the US tax policy–and, hell, gun control.

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poll

Running up to the election, it’s all about the political polls. On election day, it’s about who shows up to the polls. Leaving the polls, we take exit polls. The following morning, we analyze the polls. All these polls are enough to make us lose our…polls?

"Tadpole." Doodle by me.
“Tadpole.” Doodle by me.

Poll

In Old English, a poll referred to the head, especially the top of the head of persons or animals where hair grows. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites this usage as early as 1300, although it does note, with a terrifying ambiguity, a reference to an obscure “kind of penal instrument of restraint.”

Over the ensuing decades, the sense of poll was transferred from the “top of the head” to the whole person, particularly as would be tallied in, say, a headcount–a count “by poll.” In 1625, the OED attests poll as the “counting of voters” for voice votes or by show of hands. We witness further transference to the “result of voting” with a citation in the New York Weekly Journal in October, 1736:

The Polls were so near, that a Scrutiny was demanded and had.

Later in the century, polls began to signify where votes were cast. It’s not until 1902 that polls named opinion surveys.

Surveying the “Poll”

So, poll-sick or poll-mad by election day? Blame the Dutch.

Our best guest as the origin of poll is evidenced by the Middle Dutch pol, meaning “top” or “summit,” with other Germanic cognates like Middle Low German’s pollfor the “top” of plants. English may have borrowed the word or it may have developed in line, perhaps like the Swedish pull or Danish puld for “crown of the head,” as Skeat provides.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology adds that poll in Old English lives on in place names, possibly meaning “hill,” and thus the original may have been “hill.”

Ernest Klein and Eric Partridge hold out for a connection to the Latin bulla, “bubble,” connected to the rather prolific (and likely imitative) Proto-Indo-European roots for “to swell,” like *bhel-, which we saw before in Super Bowl and fool.

Headcount

We count some “heads” in a few other surprising places. The poleax is a weapon with an ax on its poll, or head, though the unrelated pole is certainly an influence. Heads roll in a pollard, a tree whose tops have been pruned. Earlier, the word referred to deers that have cast their antlers, the OED notes.

Poll was also a verb, as pollard may have suggested, in case you recognize polled. Originally, it referred to cutting off hair; later, heads.

But what really turns my head is tadpole. This word is hatched from toad and poll, a “toad-head,” due to its top-heavy development. In some regions, it is known, delightfully enough, as a pollywog, joining that same poll with wiggle.

The connection couldn’t be better: The 2016 campaign for US President kicks off today, for all intents and purposes, and we will all soon squirm with polls like so many tadpoles in yet another political life cycle.

m ∫ r ∫