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


“I’m not seeing anyone. It’s bimbo limbo until this thing cools off.” That statement was made by the cartoon character Donald Trump in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, in reference to the past spring’s tabloid folderol surrounding the real-estate magnate’s personal life.Bimbo, sometimes abbreviated to bim (“Studs Lonigan copped off [stole from] a bim whose old man is lousy with dough” — James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan, 1936), means a “woman of loose morals, floozy.” The origins of the term are not quite certain. In the nineteenth century a punch made with cognac or rum was called bimbo or bumbo, probably from the Italian bomba, a child’s word for “drink.” Like the progression that occurred with tart (a small fruit pie; a prostitute), the idea of “potent punch” may have come naturally to be applied to a saucy, loose woman. An alternative explanation holds that English borrowed the term from the Italian bimbo (little child, baby), which in turn came from bambo (silly), the diminutive of which, bambino, is another word for “baby.” English extended its sense from “child” to “fellow or chap,” usually with derisive connotations. The meaning “fellow” would then have undergone a gender shift—an evolution not without precedent. Brothel, for example, originally meant “worthless fellow or scoundrel,” then “prostitute,” both senses now being obsolete. Similarly, a harlot was originally a vagabond or knave.


When Egon Krenz, the former East German Communist Party chief, made a campaignstyle visit to Leipzig late last year, he announced to a group of workers and shoppers, “I don’t think socialism is kaput. I think the disfigurements of socialism are kaput.”Kaput (broken, ruined, destroyed), which English adopted from German in the 1890s, was itself borrowed by the Germans from the French during the Thirty Years’ War (1618— 1648). The French had an expression, faire capot (be defeated), which the Germans translated as caput (or capot) machen; later they abstracted caput or kaputt from the phrase, pronouncing the final t sound. The French faire capot is from the card game piquet and means “to make no tricks.” Piquet is a two-handed game played with a pack of 32 cards, the cards two through six having been dropped, and is scored on tricks and various combinations of cards. It has its own terminology, including capot, which English borrowed directly from French when the game came to England, and carte blanche, which referred to a hand with no face cards, avoir cartes blanches {to blank cards), Capot means “cover, hood, cape, bonnet.” By taking all tricks in the game, one defeats the opponent so thoroughly that he may be disconcerted, as though covered over pare bury one’s opponent) or though a hood had thrown over his head (compare hoodwinked).


When rioters this year protested in London about a new system of local taxes, Newsweek headlined an article “YOB POLITICS IN BRITAIN.” “Yobs,” the magazine argued, “have taken on a new image as the cutting edge of a growing underclass— the shock troops in new bid to end the formidable sway of Margaret Thatcher.” Yob is one of the few examples of Cockney slang that have become accepted in general British English. It is from “back slang,”the secret jargon that originated in the 19th century and was favored by costers, cos te rmo n ge rs — fro m costard (apple) and monger (dealer, seller)—the vendors or hawkers produce who worked the streets of London. In back slang a word is spelled backward (rum becomes mur, pot of beer becomes top o’ reeb). Because most wmrds when spelled backward contain impossible combinations of letters, vowels are often inserted, as in temp for pint, delo for old. yennep for penny (“I’ve been doing awful dab with my tol . . . haven’t made a yennep"—London Life, 1877). Sometimes the word is rearranged, as in nosper for person (a common word for “stranger”), not to be confused with nosrap, fox parson, and kabacgenals for back slang, used to signal to another speaker that this mode of conversation is agreeable. Yob is unusually straightforward, deriving, of course, from boy. In the 1850s it meant simply “boy, youth,” but was later extended to “lout, hooligan” (“‘Let’s go to the pictures.’ . . . ‘And have my enjoyment ruined by the Sunday night yobs in the front row?’”—John Osborne, Look Back in Anger, 1957). Its offspring, yobbery, yobbish, yobby, and yobbo or yobo are also in general British use.