Word Histories: Etymologies Derived From the Files of the Dictionary' of American Regional English


“She made a chump out of me because I had emotions,” said Mike Tyson, the heavyweight champion of the world, last spring after what appeared to be a psychic TKO in a battle royal with his wife, Robin Givens, who is seeking a divorce. In other words, Tyson felt like a fool or a dupe. In the late seventeenth century chump, perhaps a blend of chunk and lump, referred to a short, thick piece of wood. By the midnineteenth century it, like block, had come to refer to the head (“Think how unpleasant it is to have your chump lopped off”—Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading, 1959). Further stretching gat e British English the phrase off one’s chump (to be crazy). From chump the block or head came chump the blockhead (a dolt), which soon developed the nuance “dupe.”Very recently in black English the noun chump, in a functional shift, has become the verb chump off, especially in the battle of words known as “the dozens,” a verbal game of ritualized insult. Last March, Tyson’s promoter, Don King, may have chumped off Joe Clark, the tough Paterson, New Jersey, principal whose experiences are dramatized in the movie Lean on Me. Clark, who received no money for helping to publicize the movie, was angry over the $150,000 fee that Tyson received. King dismissed the payment to Tyson as chump change, or an insignificant amount of money—the amount a chump would settle for.


Earlier this year President Bush telephoned “a fellow” in Lubbock, Texas, to see how his administration was regarded down there. “(It was] the best phone call I’ve made,” the President said. “He says all the people in Lubbock think things are going just great.” Bush’s invocation of Lubbock calls to mind the question Will it play in Peoria?, an expression that probably arose from traveling theater troupes, and suggesting that if a performance succeeds in Peoria, Illinois, it will succeed anywhere. Lubbock, like Peoria, is an archetypal middle-American town, proud of its traditional, down-to-earth values. USA Today offered this headline: “USA’S BELLWETHER? LUBBOCK COULDN’T AGREE MORE.” Lubbock might not be so flattered about its status as a bellwether, or an indicator of a trend, if the origin of the word were more widely known. A wether is a male sheep, usually one that has been castrated, and a bellwether is a wether that wears a bell and leads its flock. Wether is recorded in Old Elnglish in the ninth century and ultimately derives from the Indo-European root wet- (year), because the wether was castrated when it was a yearling. The metaphoric connotations of bellwether, which emerged in the fifteenth century, were at first pejorative: when a chief or leader was called a bellwether, it was with derision. As the original meaning faded, along with sheep, from the scene, the derogatory connotation faded too.


During the hearings last February on John Tower’s nomination to be Secretary of Defense, there was much talk about his alleged womanizing. Originally womanize had a meaning very different from philandering—it meant to become effeminate. This now archaic sense used the -ize suffix (as in colorize, finalize) in its oldest and most common sense (to make into, to cause to become). It is one of the most productive suffixes in English and has been around since at least the thirteenth century, when baptize was borrowed from French. The philandering sense of womanize (“The Bad Men went up to London and womanized ”—Com pton Mackenzie, Sinister Street, 1914) is relatively recent and uses the suffix in an anomalous way (to pursue or associate with). The word woman itself has a provocative hostory. Many feminists abhor the word because, they note, it is a variation on man., implying that man is primary and woman an afterthought; distaste for this derivation has been the impetus for such alternative spellings as womyn, wimmin, and woman. The feminists are absolutely correct on the main point, although many of the commonly cited folk etymologies for woman are wrong. Woman is not constructed, for example, from womb + man or from woe + man. Woman derives from Old English wif (woman, wife, perhaps from wifan, to weave) and man (adult male person, human being). In all the Germanic languages, including English, the concepts of maleness and humanity appear to be conflated. Female, however, has no connection with male—it comes from Latin famella, the diminutive of femina, woman.