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Two hard L-words, second word: Lunker

(The first word was larrup.)

By Anatoly Liberman


Lunker seems to be well-known in the United States and very little in British English.  Mark Twain used lunkhead “blockhead.” Lunker surfaced in books later, but lunkhead must have been preceded by lunk, whatever it meant.  In today’s American English, lunker has several unappetizing and gross connotations, and we will let them be: one cannot constantly deal with turd and genitals.  Only two senses bear upon etymological discussion: “a very big object” and “big game fish.”  From the meager facts at my disposal I am apt to conclude that “big fish” is secondary, so that the word hardly arose in the lingo of fishermen.  Also, lunkhead probably alluded to someone with a big head “typical of an idiot,” as they used to say.

In dictionaries I was able to find only one conjecture on the origin of lunker.  The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (RHD) suggested that it might be a blend of lump and hunk.  Unless we know for certain that a word is a blend (cf. smog, brunch, motel, blog, gliberal, Eurasia, Tolstoevsky, and the like), it is impossible to prove that some lexical unit is the product of merger: for instance, squirm is perhaps a blend of squirt and worm but perhaps not.  I suspect that RHD’s idea was suggested by The Century Dictionary, which, although it offers no derivation of lunkhead and does not list lunker, refers under lummox “an unwieldy, clumsy, stupid fellow” (“probably ultimately connected with lump”) to British dialectal lummakin “heavy; awkward.”  Lump turned up first only in Middle English.  It has numerous cognates in Dutch, German, and the Scandinavian languages and seems to have developed from the basic meaning “a shapeless mass.” No impassable barrier separates lunk- from lump-, for n and m constantly alternate in roots, and final -p and -k are also good partners (see the previous post).  German Lumpen means “rag,” and a rag may be understood as a shapeless mass or something hanging loose.  It is the semantics that complicates our search for the etymology of lunker: we need cognates that mean “a big thing,” and they refuse to appear.  Lump does provide a clue to the history of lunker; by contrast, hump may be left out of the picture: we have enough trouble without it.

Joseph Wright included lunkered (not lunker!) in The English Dialect Dictionary, but without specifying his sources or saying, as he often did: “Not known to our informants.”  His definition is curt: “(of hair) tangled; Lincolnshire.”  He also cited several other similar northern (English and Scots) words, of which especially instructive are lunk “heave up and down (as a ship); walk with a quick uneven, rolling motion; limp” and lunkie “a hole left for the admission of animals.”  Unlike larrup, discussed in the previous post, lunker did find its way into my database.  A single citation occurs in The Essex Review for 1936.  The Reverend W. J. Pressey quotes a 1622 entry in a diary: “Absent from Church, and for ‘lunkering’ a poor woman’s house in great Sampford, to the great fear and terror of the said poor woman.”  He comments:

“This word is derived from the Scandinavian.  ‘Lunkered’ is a term applied to hair that has become ‘tangled’.  Hence the meaning here is, that in his efforts, probably to discover money hidden in her house, the miscreant ‘lunkered’ (i.e., upset, and messed up everything) and left the woman’s house in a state of disorder”

(I did not meddle with the punctuation of the original.) The Essex word is perhaps a borrowing from Scandinavian, but similar or identical sound complexes lunk- and lump- occur everywhere in Germanic, one should not jump to conclusions.  And once again meanings do not match: compare Norwegian lunke “walk slowly,” Norwegian dialectal lunka “walk with a quick, short trot,” and a few others believed to be akin to Latin languere “to be weak, faint, listless,” from whose root English, via French, has languor, languid, and languish.  Pressey, a native of Essex, hardly knew the verb lunker.  It must have died before his birth, for I do not find it in either Richard S. Charnock’s 1880 or Edward Gepp’s 1923 dictionaries of the dialect or any of his earlier works.  I assume that Pressey copied his definition from Wright.

Not only Scandinavian but also German provides a cognate for Engl. lunker.  There lunker means “blowhole, shrinkhole, air bubble accidentally trapped inside a cast piece of metal” (compare Scots lunkie “hole,” above); it is related to dialectal (Rhenish) lunken “to develop a cavity, to become empty.”  I suspect that the 17th-century Essex thief emptied the old lady’s house rather than left it at sixes and sevens.  A small detail should not be overlooked in the history of the English noun: even though we have the verb lunk, lunker is not someone who lunks, though a lunkhead can be imagined as an individual with an empty head.  Lunker seems to be, even if in a small way, independent of both lunk and lunkhead.  Scots lunkie and German lunker match rather closely, so that perhaps all the words listed above are cognates.  However, as already noted, a Scandinavian source of Engl. lunker is possible.  My misgivings are based on the existence of apparently related words that are not of northern provenance: Engl. lank (and lanky), Engl. dialectal lank, either a doublet of lunk or a noun meaning “dingle which is not very steep, a hollow” (so again a cavity), German lenken “direct, guide,” and so forth (all of them seem to have once begun with hl-).

A hole and a cavity conjure up an image of something big and useless.  As for the verbs of motion, I remember that I once dealt with the Scandinavian root dras-. It can have about any of the existing vowels between dr- and -s (a familiar situation) and displays a motley picture of senses: “trash, rubbish,” “very big and heavy thing,” “pull with an effort,” “lazy, “blunt,” “fall down,” “amble; loaf,” and “idle talk.”  Among its derivatives we encounter the indispensable “slovenly person,” along with “drunkard, toper,” and “swindler.”  Their cognates mean “strong or ill-mannered woman,”  “fall heavily or with a thud,” “move ahead violently,” noise,” “to be slow,” drag along,” “indolent person,” and (!) “person who does good work.”

I have not reached a stage at which I can offer a persuasive reconstruction of this baffling variety of senses, but it looks as though, given a sound combination meaning “a heavy object” (or simply “heavy”), we may expect that it will generate such senses as “big,” “laborious movement” (either violent, to overcome resistance, or slow, associated with treading and trudging),  “fall” (whence “noise; thud”) and “offal” (whence “slattern,” “worthless person,” and perhaps “rag”).  As in the previous post (about larrup), in which I isolated the root l-r but could not say why it acquired the ostensibly incompatible meanings “fall, flutter, fall down in small drops” and “do something with force,” we may perhaps be allowed to state that “once upon a time” there was the root l-nk, varying with l-mp.  The “first words” with this root referred to things big and empty (holes, cavities).  All the other senses are later and metaphorical.  Opposites meet easily on this slippery terrain.  As with all other roots (unless they are sound imitative or unabashedly sound symbolic), we have no way of finding out why l-r, dr-s, or l-nk acquired their initial meanings.  Etymology has no means of explaining how sound and sense meet outside onomatopoeia.

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 him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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