Surprising etymologies

On the one hand, people are happy to invent (and believe) all sorts of stories about the history of words and phrases (acronymic etymologies, which are hardly ever correct, are enormously popular). On the other hand, some real histories are quite remarkable, and once you’ve seen the details of some well-documented histories — bedlam, nice, silly, O.K. — you might be willing to swallow anything.

Here’s a small-scale example of surprising but true history: the verbs don and doff, as in this cattioned photo (photo by Benno Thoma, caption by me, cat by B. Kliban), from AZBlogX (where several sets of these have been posted; many are not X-rated, but few have linguistic interest, so they end up on my other blog):

The history in brief: from the late Middle English V + Prt verbs do on and do off.

When you hear this idea for the first time, you might well be suspicious of it, because it sounds like an (sneering) appeal to “lazy, careless, uneducated” speech, and because we don’t use do on and do off in modern English (instead it’s put on and take off, as applied to items of clothing), and because don and doff are pretty elevated in style in modern English (so that casual-speech contraction seems unlikely), and because the vowels of don and doff are not the vowel of do. Despite all those impediments, the do on/off story is firmly nailed down.

People used to say and write things like She will do on/off her hat and He did on/off his hat, also She will do her hat on/off and He did his hat on/off (and this in everyday language), but now these forms of expression are obsolete. Put on and take off have won the day as the neutral verbs, and don and doff (despite their brevity) have become relatively fancy or elegant variants.

So: Don we now our gay apparel!

2 Responses to “Surprising etymologies”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    if I remember correctly, I deduced this etymology when reading The Lord of the Rings: Aragorn, not wanting to prematurely press his claim to the throne, “did off the star of Elendil” before entering the city of Minas Tirith. (This passage, like much of The Return of the King, is written in an archaic style that contrasts greatly with the parts of the book that center on the hobbits.)

  2. Robert G Says:

    Having just reread most of LOTR (albeit out of order), I noticed that in The Return of the King even Frodo’s dialog takes a distinctly florid turn. It was probably meant to set Frodo further apart, alienating/ennobling him -Tolkien of all people would have been aware of what he was doing – but the change from earlier chapters is so jarring that unconscious bleed-over from the narrative style also seems possible.

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