Not All That is Paltry is Trivial
The adjective paltry gives little trouble to etymologists. It came to 16th-century English from the continent, most likely, from Low (that is, northern) German. There was also paltry “trash, rubbish,” but final -y made its passage from noun to adjective easy. A similar fate, from noun to adjective, befell its synonym trumpery “fraud, trickery,” a word of French descent: it soon acquired the meaning “trashy.” Low German paltrig “ragged, torn” is related to palter- in palterlumpen “rags.” This palterlumpen is a curious formation because its first element (palter-) also means “rag(s).” At one time, I became aware of the existence of compounds in which both parts have the same or nearly the same meaning, as in courtyard (“yard-yard” or “court-court”). Once detected, such words began crossing my path with surprising frequency. I had known them for years but never paid attention to their makeup. Compare downhill, literally “hill-hill” and Wealhtheow, the name of the queen in Beowulf, literally, as I think, “slave-slave.” A palterlumpen must have been a prodigiously ragged rag.
Despite its undignified background, palt- (as in palter) is an ancient word, though it occurs more often with its vowel a and consonant l in reverse order. Middle Dutch and Middle Low German had plet “rag,” from the assumed form platja. Danish pjalt, with cognates in Swedish and Norwegian, means the same. In Danish and Norwegian words, j is a typical insertion, used to express the speaker’s contempt of the object of discussion: pjalt turns out to be a despicable rag, a rag-rag indeed In the 4th century, plat “patch” was used in the text of the Gothic Bible (below, the word corresponding to it in the Authorized Version is italicized: “No one puts a piece of new garment upon an old,” L V: 36, Mk II: 21). Also in Russian, plat means “a piece of cloth,” but it remains unclear whether Gothic plat is its cognate or whether one language borrowed from another. Perhaps we are dealing with a so-called migratory, or culture, word (whatever its origin), current from north to south, like the names of tools that travel over half the world with the people who use them. Engl. plot “a piece of land” looks like plat ~ palt, but no consensus has been reached about possible ties between them (and even if all researchers had agreed on the etymology of plot, jubilation would have been premature, for consensus and truth are different things).
The most enigmatic noun in this series is paletot “loose outer garment; overcoat.” English dictionaries record it, but it is an obsolete or obsolescent loanword from Modern French, formerly often applied to a child’s coat. However, in French it is a living word. The initial form of paletot was palletoc. In England, from the 14th to the 16th century, paltock ~ paltok designated a kind of doublet or cloak with sleeves. Strangely, this word appeared in written English before it surfaced in French sources. This chronology does not necessarily mean that the word was coined in England, but it casts doubt on its French origin. Paletot produces the impression of a double diminutive: pal-et-ot (pal- means “pall; a cloak; mantle,” from Latin pallium “coverlet”), assuming that the word is Romance. However, paltok, with its final -k, needs an explanation, and here, too, a Germanic connection has been offered. When a transparent word like pal-et-ot coexists with an opaque one like paltok, the transparent form raises the suspicion of being the product of folk etymology, since it is more natural for people to change a word lacking associations in their language into something making sense than to do the opposite. We can understand how asparagus became sparrow grass, but who would “corrupt” (a favorite verb of older philologists) sparrow grass into the outwardly meaningless asparagus?
A 17th-century lexicographer defined our article of clothing so: “A long and thick pelt, or cassock, a garment like a short cloak with sleeves, or such a one as the most of our modern pages are attired in.” But in France it was first worn by peasants and therefore could not be a fancy cloak. If paltock is an English rather than a French word, perhaps it contains the by now familiar root palt-, followed by the diminutive suffix -ock, as in bullock, hillock, and so forth. A similar etymology turned up in the literature more than a hundred years ago but found no supporters, because the suggested suffix was Welsh, and indeed, why produce a hybrid when a purebred is a possibility? It would be better for my etymology if we knew exactly in which country paltock was coined and who made paltocks, but then its origin would have not baffled scholars so long. My only (weak) consolation is that the existing etymologies of paltock are hardly more convincing that mine.
When Marxism was at its peak among the German 19th-century social democrats, revisionists appeared (no religion without a heresy), whose slogan, with regard to workers’ struggle for their rights, was: “The goal is nothing, movement is everything.” Etymologists cannot occasionally help thinking of this slogan. Yet their goal exists, even if they seldom reach it. Our movement in the present essay has not been useless. The existence of the word palt ~ plat has been ascertained beyond reasonable doubt. It was probably a culture name for “a piece of cloth,” frequently degenerating into “rag.” Some such rags showed particularly strong traces of wear and tear (palterlumpen, for example); other pieces may have been solid enough to be made into cloaks. Ragged things were called paltry in northern Germany and the adjacent lands. Paltry made its way to England and is still with us, though we remember only its figurative sense.
The verb palter (“to talk in a confused manner, babble”) also exists It is anybody’s guess whether this verb has anything to do with palter- “rag” (did palter mean “to deal in rags; to trifle”? Skeat’s suggestion) or with its distant synonym falter (no one has compared them), or with neither.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”