Several times a year I speak on Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), a guest of Kerri Miller’s program “Midmorning News.” We usually advertise some general topic in advance, but, while I am in the studio, listeners are requested to ask any questions they like about word origins, regardless of the overarching theme. Sometimes I know the answer, sometimes I don’t. Once there was a query about the etymology of galoot. I had no idea where that word came from but promised to look it up in my database and respond in the blog. To my dismay, the database informed me that it contained no citations of galoot. This means that among the approximately 21,000 articles and reviews I have read and marked for English words and their congeners not a single one mentions galoot even in a perfunctory way. I lost all my advantages over other word columnists and “radio personalities” (who do not have a database like mine) and could therefore consult only dictionaries. This is something anyone can do. The OED features galoot (however, no example predates 1812), marks it as nautical, registers the spelling variants galloot and geeloot, and quotes several sentences from which it follows that the earlier references were to an awkward soldier and an inexperienced marine. In American English, galoot vacillates between a term of abuse and a fairly inoffensive synonym of nincompoop.
Sometimes the great OED says strange things. Thus, in ragamuffin the part following rag- is called a fanciful ending. For an ending, even a fanciful one, -amuffin is a bit too long. Numerous words are dismissed with the verdict of cant origin, of slang origin, and of dialectal origin, as though they are so impenetrable by definition as not to merit the faintest attempt at etymologizing. (Am I the only one still saying not to merit, not to do, and the like? In the media and in my students’ papers I hear and see only to not merit, to not do, etc. Split, split, split… What is next? To be or to not be?) All we find in the etymological section in the entry on galoot is slang. The dictionaries derivative of the OED, naturally, write “origin unknown.” The few lexicographers who dared a hypothesis say nonsense: possibly from Dutch gelubt “castrated,” or Dutch genoot “companion,” or Gaelic gille “servant.” One is reminded of the precept that no etymology is better that a silly one. We are faced with a problem. Galoot lacks obvious cognates; it is indeed slang, presumably, sailors’ slang (which means that it may be a borrowing from one of a dozen languages), and it has never been discussed in any detail. Discussion in the popular and “semipopular” press (such as, for example, the old journals Notes and Queries, The Athenaeum, and the Fortnightly Review) is important, for a clash of ideas, both informed and uninformed, often results in showing the way to an acceptable etymology. This is especially true of slang. The string gelubt, genoot, gille leads nowhere, for none of them begins with ga- or ends with -loot and none has anything to do with the sea.
I have recently written about the role of good luck and serendipity in etymological work. At one time, our best “thick” dictionaries, while preparing new editions, used to invite experts in Germanic, Romance, Slavic, and so forth, and ask them to rewrite etymologies wherever necessary. With the exception of what is being done by the present OED team, this work produced few valuable changes. The best specialists in the world, regardless of the honorarium and the deadline, will not be able to do anything about words like galoot unless they have a mass of new facts and new conjectures at their disposal, something they never have. Look at it as hard as you wish, the origin of galoot will not become clearer. I think I now know how galoot arose, but my knowledge is not the result of a goal-oriented effort: I stumbled across the solution by chance.
Although everything is grist that comes to my etymological mill, I try to read only such articles as hold out some promise of containing the material useful to me, for life is short. But a reference to a 1940 publication on the influence of Italian on German caught my fancy (mainly because of my respect for the author), and I decided to look it through. This is what I found there. As early as the 13th century, the Italian word galeot(t)o “sailor; steersman on a galley” became current in French, German, and Dutch and acquired an additional meaning “pirate.” Galeotto continued into Modern Italian, and has, among others, a derogatory sense, though not coinciding with that of Engl. galoot. It is glossed as “galley slave; convict” and “pimp.” The sense “galley slave” may have been old; the path from it to a term of abuse would be short. The form closest to Engl. galoot is Middle Dutch galioot, and this is, most probably, the immediate source of the English word. The phonetic match is not absolute but good. The main hitch is the chronology. As noted, we have no evidence of galoot before the beginning of the 19th century, and, if my reconstruction is right, it follows that the word existed in oral form for hundreds of years but managed to escape notice. Such gaps in attestation, especially in the history of “low words,” are not uncommon. Yet there is no gainsaying the fact that a fly spoils the etymological ointment I have produced. Unfortunately, few etymologies are perfect.
An unexpected parallel may reinforce my conjecture. There is a German word Moses “ship’s boy,” and it has been suggested that Moses, far from going back to the Biblical name, is a folk etymological alternation of Italian mozzo (the same meaning as in German). This is a good suggestion. The role of Italian vocabulary in the development of European seafaring terminology needs no proof, but German Moses (assuming that it traces to mozzo) is slang, like Engl. galoot, so that a certain parallelism between them can be detected. The conclusion is clear. Answers to etymological puzzles sometimes are up for grabs, but the dust heap one has to go through is so huge that finding them becomes a matter of luck. Also, as mentioned in my essay on serendipity, no linguist knows all the words of all languages. My example was Engl. pimp versus German Pimpf. Older German scholars never saw pimp in books or heard it from native speakers, whereas their English colleagues were unaware of the existence of Pimpf. Consequently, they did not compare them. Emil Oehmann, the author of the article about the influence of Italian on German, would, of course, have pointed out that Engl. galoot belonged with the words he listed if he had known it, but he (as I think) did not. On the other hand, if I had not been asked about the origin of galoot, I would have relegated it to my long list of hopeless slang formations and missed the revealing passage. The question aroused my curiosity and I was on the lookout for anything that could shed light on the history of galoot, so when I came across Old French galiot and the rest of them, I was overjoyed. By the way, galiot ~ galliot “a small galley” is also an English word, and I have to recall the episode told in the preface to the second (1929) edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary. After the dictionary appeared in 1911, a man bought it to find out whether galliot should be spelled with one l or two. The word was not there, and he returned the book. What a perfect example of a boor and a galoot!
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 email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”