Between Dodge and Kitsch
By Anatoly Liberman
This essay is an exercise in artless dodging. It contains an attempt to shed light on the etymology of two slang words whose origin is lost and to connect them, even though they have nothing to do with each other. Dickens, with his Artful Dodger, and the auto industry popularized dodge beyond its merit. The verb seems to have greater frequency than the noun, but my observation is not supported by any statistics. In any case, the noun is also fine. Dr. Dolittle said to his young companion Tommy Stubbins when he saw a note written in blood: “It turns the color when it’s dry. Somebody pricked his finger to make these pictures. It’s an old dodge when you’re short of ink, but highly unsanitary.”
Dodge has been known from texts since the late fifteen-sixties. The verb was first recorded as meaning “palter, haggle, trifle.” Later the senses “shift one’s position” and “play fast and loose” came to light. The earliest known citation of dodge “to jog” (now dialectal) is dated 1803. The noun dodge appeared approximately at the same time. Our success to solve the word’s etymology partly depends on whether we penetrate the history of its final consonant. The sound designated in Modern English by j or -ge may go back to -gg, at one time followed by i or a so-called yod, that is, a sound like y- in yes, as in bridge, edge, wedge, and ridge, or to -ge in Old French, as in forge (whether meaning “smithy” or “fabricate”), gorge, and large. Unfortunately, no etymological rule ever covers all cases. Thus, ledge lacks an ancient English ancestor, and, while gorge clearly descends from an Old French noun meaning “throat,” the origin of gorgeous (apparently, also from French) is obscure. Sometimes final -ch was voiced for no obvious reason, so that today it is undistinguishable from -dge in bridge, even though spelling may have taken no notice of the change. Dictionaries list both hotchpotch and hodgepodge, but to pronounce Greenwich correctly, one must not be deceived by -ch. American Norwich is just Nor-wich, whereas British Norwich is usually Norridge. The pairs smutch ~ smudge and slush ~ sludge probably have the history of the hotchpotch ~ hodgepodge type. Still another circumstance has to be mentioned. Once upon a time gg yielded what has become -dge if i or a yod followed it, but in present day English, d- behaves in the same way, so that in informal speech (and not only!) did you becomes diju. We owe the only possible modern pronunciation of soldier to this habit.
Some modern words are spelled like bridge and edge; yet they derive from neither Old English nor Old French. To complicate matters, they do not seem to have ever had i or a yod after g- or d- and are united only by an expressive character we note in verbs like nudge, trudge, fudge, grudge, and budge. The earlier recorded variant of trudge is tredge, which must be related to tread, but the nature of the relationship is unclear, for where did -dge come from? The pair dreg/dredge resembles tread/tredge. The homophone of forge “fabricate” is forge (along), and it may be an alternation of force (along). The conclusion suggests itself that to sound more “emotional” or expressive, words may replace their final -d and -g with -dge. Language historians have a hearty dislike of such vague, irregular, and unverifiable rules.
These are the possibilities of tracing dodge to its putative etymon (source). It can go back to an unrecorded form with the root dog- or dod-, followed by i or y (then the development would have been as in bridge and soldier); it may be a continuation of a French word; finally, it can be a reshaping of a loanword from some other language (for example, ledge, mentioned above, and ledger are believed to have been borrowed from Dutch) or a “reinforced” form of an English word, even though the details of the change are bound to remain unclear, as happened to tread ~ tredge. Neither the etymologists who wrote about dodge before the middle of the 19th century nor amateurs who contributed their ideas to the popular press reasoned “scientifically,” but nearly all the variants listed above have been considered in some form or another. Thus, dodge has been compared with the verb dog, because to dodge is “to shift and play sly tricks like a dog.” It was also said that “a young or favorite dog will attempt to follow its master or mistress in their rambles after being beckoned or driven home,” that is, “dodge.” However, final -g turned into -dge only in words that have respectable Old English ancestry, like bridge and wedge, while dodge is an upstart. French douger “stumble slightly” and Middle Dutch docken “to duck” perhaps resemble some senses of dodge, but the phonetic match is unsatisfactory. Dodder, a doublet of totter, is another plausible semantic fit, but again we face the problem of -d to -dge. The derivation of dodge and its northern English look-alike dadge “saunter aimlessly” from dod and dad “jog” can be considered (especially if we remember that “jog” is one of the recorded meanings of dodge) only if we admit that -dge appeared as an expressive variant of -d.
Hensleigh Wedgwood, to whose nearly forgotten dictionary I refer with great regularity, noted northern English dodge “a small lump of something moist and thick” and compared it with German (Bavarian) datsch/dotsch “a mass of something soft; a fat person.” The German (also dialectal) verb datschen means “to press down something soft.” Wedgwood attempted to trace as many words as possible to sound imitation (onomatopoeia) and in pursuing this line, partly ruined his dictionary. He remained true to himself in explaining datsch ~ dodge. The OED also included Engl. dialectal dodge, but gave it a special entry and offered no etymology. This dodge surfaced roughly at the same time as the verb that interests us. German dotsch and Engl. dodge “lump” are probably connected in some way. The parallelism datsch/dotsch ~ dadge/dodge is also telling. Whether those words are onomatopoeic is immaterial (they may be).
Verbs meaning “press” often develop the sense “press on.” If we assume such a starting point, the path may have been from “press” to “press on,” “press through a soft substance without a well-defined direction” (because in dealing with such a body the knife or the hand will go every possible way), and hence “shift.” “Palter” (= “act nervously”) and “haggle” would have been later figurative senses. “Jog” aligns itself with “pressing on” quite naturally. Wedgwood’s etymology has several advantages: it connects dodge “shift” with its German near homonym and with dodge “lump”; it encounters no phonetic difficulties (the final voiced sound is of the same origin as in sludge and hodgepodge), and the development of senses, though not obvious, is not fanciful. Cautious reference to this etymology is perhaps preferable to the now standard verdict “of unknown origin.” The first editor of the OED had the same opinion but could not overcome the -d/-dge barrier.
Wedgwood compared dodge with both German datsch and northern Engl. dod/dodder ~ Scots dad “a slam.” Skeat cited Engl. dialectal dade “walk unsteadily,” dod “to jog, along with dadge and dodder, and remarked: “Very doubtful.” Earlier he also mentioned dither “act nervously” in connection with dodge but later gave up this comparison. The reconstructed Middle English form dodien, developing phonetically like soldier (so still The Century Dictionary), is fiction. More likely, English had a nest of synonymous expressive dialectal words, whether native or partly borrowed (dade, dad, dod, dodder, dadge, dodge, dither, and others), a most typical case, but there is no need to derive dodge from dod. If a metaphor can help, we have a vase with a bunch of flowers sticking together but having no common roots. In etymology, weeds are the dearest flowers.
And now for dessert a piece of kitsch. Kitsch, the German word for “art in poor taste,” originated in Munich around 1870, that is, in the full light of history, but, as usual with slang, the origin of Kitsch was not known even to those who used it then. The derivation from Engl. sketch or from a Hungarian word with a similar meaning carries little conviction. Only a third etymology seems to make sense. German Kitsche designates a kind of rake used for removing mud, from which kitschen “to rake together street mud” has been derived. Kitsch was probably coined with the sense “smoothed out mud.” German language historians did not pay attention to Engl. keech, first recorded in Shakespeare and meaning “fat of a slaughtered animal rolled into a lump” (applied to a butcher’s wife and a butcher’s son). It will be remembered that German dialectal datsch ~ dotsch also mean “a mass of something soft; a fat person.” I believe that datsch and kitsch (it is allowed to spell German dialectal nouns with lowercase letters) are words of the same type. They may, as noted, be sound imitative (like bump, splash, and plop) or sound symbolic formations, and they tend to develop all kinds of figurative meanings. Perhaps dadge and dodge came to English from German, like Kitsch, whatever the homeland of keech may be. If so and if dodge “evasive trick” and “small lump of something thick” belong together, it shows how far linguistic lumps can go: a poor dessert but better than nothing.
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.”