1. Archive

More than a little bit country

I have always been amused by the word "bumpkin." Recently I began wondering where it came from. Can you help me?

The word "bumpkin," defined by us as "an awkward or unsophisticated rustic," first appeared in English in the mid 16th century. We believe it may be derived from the Flemish "bommekijn," meaning "a small cask," although others have identified Dutch "boomken," meaning "a little tree," as its source.

The idea behind both explanations is the same. The word conveys a sense of woodenness _ awkwardness or blockheadedness _ and the implication that the person insulted is thick or slow.

Originally the word "bumpkin" was applied by the English to the Dutch. Soon, however, it came to refer to any awkward, unsophisticated person, and eventually it became associated especially with urban stereotypes of rustic people, the familiar "country bumpkins."

No joshing, we're stuck

Our neighbor's name is Josh. He was asking recently how the term to "josh" someone (meaning to tease or kid) came to be. We could find nothing to help him with his question. Can you?

Sorry to disappoint you and Josh, but the verb "josh" is another one of those words of mysterious origin for which many unproven theories are bandied about.

The favorite theory of most commentators seems to be that "josh" is connected with the name "Josh Billings," which was the pseudonym of American humorist Henry W. Shaw. Shaw began writing in 1858, however, and we know that an early form of the verb "josh" existed several years before that. So we can't credit "Josh Billings" with the origin of the word, although his popularity may have helped it along.

Another theory is that "josh" comes from an English dialect term, "joskin," meaning "bumpkin." But "josh" began life in America, not England, so again the connection seems weak.

Some theorists suggest that "Josh" was once considered by certain people to be a homely or unrefined name, similar to "Rube," which is a nickname for "Reuben" and also (like "bumpkin") a term for an awkward and unsophisticated rustic. We have no evidence to support this theory either, however, so for now, at least, the mystery of "josh" remains unsolved.

The spelunking species

Why is someone who explores caves as a hobby called a "spelunker"?

We borrowed "spelunker" from the Latin "spellunca," which in turn derives from the Greek "spelynx." When you get to the bottom of things, you find that both the Latin and Greek roots mean "cave."

"Spelunker" started out in American English around the 1940s as an alternative to the more formal "speleologist." As the popularity of the noun grew, it spawned the verb "spelunk" and the gerund "spelunking" as back-formations.

Stumped by "scallywag'

I recently heard the word "scallywag" in a movie. Where does this word come from?

No one is entirely sure where "scallywag" and its early spelling variant "scalawag" came from. Our earliest piece of printed evidence for it is from a 19th century dictionary of Americanisms, where "scalawag" is listed as an Eastern term for "a mean fellow." A few years after the first sighting of "scalawag," it was used in the New York Tribune to describe scrawny, ill-nourished cattle. It's possible this is the original sense of the word, since this second piece of citational evidence for it wasn't glossed (that is, defined within the text), but without more evidence, we can't be sure.

We also can't be sure of the word's pedigree. The best guess etymologists have come up with is that it may be related to the Scots Gaelic word "sgalag," referring to a servant or farm-worker. Unfortunately, there's no way to know how this Gaelic word was transformed into "scalawag" and deposited on American soil, so its etymology remains unknown.

Back at the beach . . .

The other day, I was "stranded" as a result of car trouble. While waiting for the tow truck, I passed the time in contemplation of the origin of "stranded." Can you find the answer?

An old but still common word for the shore that you may have heard is "strand." It comes from the Old Norse word "strond," meaning "shore." In the early 17th century a verb emerged from this noun with the meaning "to run, drive, or cause to drift onto a strand," in other words, "to run aground."

It wasn't a long step for an extended sense to develop from this verb: "to leave in a strange or unfavorable place especially without funds or means to depart." This, of course, is the sense that you are familiar with.

We hope that your car troubles have passed and you are "stranded" no longer.

We're "over' that rule

I am sure that I remember being taught not to use the word "over" except to describe the actual physical location of something, but I see it used frequently to mean "more than" and my dictionary enters a definition of "more than." Have the rules changed?

There is a long tradition among newspaper editors that use of the preposition "over" to mean "more than" is incorrect. The tradition may have begun with William Cullen Bryant when he was editor of the New York Evening Post in the 1870s. No particular reason for disliking this sense of "over" was given in the early objections, but later commentators seemed to feel, as you remember being taught, that "over" should be restricted to senses involving physical location.

In fact, however, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, lists more than a dozen different uses of the preposition "over," and many of them do not relate to physical location (as in "a big lead over the other candidates" and "concern over high taxes"). Historical evidence shows that the "more than" sense of "over" has been in use by reputable writers for six and a half centuries. No doubt this sense still has a few critics, but it has been recorded as a standard sense in dictionaries for many years, and there is no good reason to avoid its use.

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition.