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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Sloth

One does not need an excuse to talk about sloths. These slow-moving tree-dwellers wear a goofy smile that says, “Live in the moment.” That or they are silently – joyously – breaking wind.

But I do have a reason, this post. My wife and I are jaunting down to Costa Rica. Move aside, quetzal: It’s the sloth we’re eager to spot. (I imagine they’re not hard to miss.)

Like their cousin, the anteater, the sloth has an apt appellation, despite the sinful associations that tarnishes their otherwise good name.

I find it interesting,  though, that sloths are called so called. Very often, ecologically distinct animals like the sloth, now only found in Central and South America, bear their indigenous names. Like the quetzal, toucan, macaw – or, as I’ve discussed in another travel-inspired posts, the Quechuan condor, llama, and puma.

So, what’s up with sloth? Let’s have a quick look at its etymology.

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A brown-throated three-toed sloth. Image by Stefan Laube from Wikimedia Commons.

Sloth

For the name of the animal, the Oxford English Dictionary first spots sloth in Samuel Purchas’ 1613 Purchas his Pilgrimage.  (You might recall Purchas, whose travel writings are of great historical and lexical importance, from my posts on victim and tornado.) Concerning the sloth, Purchas notes: “The Spaniards call it…the light dog. The Portugals Sloth. The Indians, Hay.” Sloth appears to be a translation of the Portuguese preguiça, from the Latin pigritia, meaning “laziness.” Related is the Spanish perezoso.

Meaning “laziness,” sloth has been long been crawling up the tree of English. The OED cites it in the late 1100s. By the middle of the 1300s, sloth reached its personification as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This sloth translates the Latin acedia and Greek ἀκηδία. These classical words suggest a spiritual apathy, which I don’t think the smiling sloth is guilty of. A little later, sloth came upon “slowness.”

The word sloth pulls a fast one, etymologically speaking: It joins slow and the noun-forming suffix –th, seen in other, words like stealth and strength (one of which definitely applies to the sloth). Sloth, then, is really just slowth; spelling and vowel changes yield its modern form. This formation surfaces in early Middle English, replacing the Old English slǽwð. In the record, the latter, found as early as the late 800s, clings on as sleuth, no relation to detectives.

From the Germanic-rooted, Old English sláw, slow is also very old in the language, when it originally referred to dullness of wits, not motion. Slow in terms of speed was actually slower to the scene.

Sloth is an epithet not only hung on only our tardigrade edentate, though: the collective term for a group of bears is sloth.

Up to this point, I’ve been a bit lazy myself. Sloths are known by native names, especially down in Brazil, where sloths there are known by the Tupi as ai, which Purchas seems to have documented as hay. Ai imitates the animal’s high-pitched cry – which imitates, too, I hope, our squeal of joy when we get to see a sloth. Not to be confused, of course, with the cry of “Hey, you guys!” in The Goonies’ very own Sloth.

The Mashed Radish will be back in March. Forgive my idleness while I’m away.

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