Even though etymology rests on the solid foundation of the comparative method, its conclusions are tentative, like those of all sciences dealing with reconstruction. Knowledge of sound correspondences and historical facts may prevent researchers from making silly mistakes, but it often fails to point the way to the best solution. In tracing the prehistory of words, serendipity and inspiration still play (and will always play) a role. The next two essays on this blog owe their existence to a happy coincidence. In some British dialects, pimp means “small bundle of firewood.” This fact (recorded in the OED) has been celebrated, to use a trendy word, in several books on language, though I am not aware of anyone’s attempt to explain the second meaning. Nor did I intend to delve into this problem, but, when I read about pimp “bundle,” I decided, out of curiosity, to look it up in several dictionaries. One definition struck me as nearly incredible: pimp “faggot.” Faggot, it will be recalled, besides being an insult, means “bundle of sticks.” How could one opprobrious word become the definition of another? This is what made me study both of them. My conclusions have a few holes, but perhaps they will partly dispel the obscurity enveloping the etymology of pimp and faggot. At the moment, all dictionaries say: “Pimp. Origin unknown.”
In addition to “provider of prostitutes,” pimp has been attested with the meanings “boy who does menial jobs at a logging camp; boy who carries water, washes dishes, and performs other menial jobs.” The paper collar stiff’s cigarette was known among loggers as pimp stick, and a helper in northern Idaho mines was likewise called a pimp. A rather obvious cognate of pimp is German Pimpf “little inexperienced boy.” I say “rather” because if pimp and Pimpf are related, the German word can be expected not only to begin but also end with pf. The irregularity is easy to explain away; however, special pleading never strengthens an etymology. In this case, the coincidence of sound and meaning is so striking that I will assume the affinity between the English and the German word and disregard the hitch.
Under the Nazis, Pimpf meant “member of a patriotic youth organization, wolf cub.” Before the Nazi era, it was current mainly in Austria and appeared in dictionaries late. At the end of the 19th century, Pimpf was known so little that English etymologists could not have come across it even by chance. Even Eduard Mueller, a native German and the author of an English etymological dictionary (1865-1867; 2nd ed., 1878), either never heard the word or did not associate it with pimp. By contrast, English dictionaries always included pimp. However, German scholars explained convincingly the derivation of Pimpf without recourse to cognates in other languages (see below). As a result, they did not connect Pimpf with pimp, while their English colleagues missed Pimpf and had no clue to the origin of pimp. References to pimpernel (allegedly, a flower lacking the power of resistance) and British English dialectal pimpersheen “one who is not good at endurance” do not deserve discussion, for who has seen a languid or lackadaisical pimp? Attempts to find a word like pimp with the sense “penis” (they were partly successful) also failed to solve the problem. Equally fruitless is the comparison of pimp with Middle French pimper “dress up smartly,” as well as with French pimpant “chic and attractive” (pimps are not necessarily dandies) and pimpreneau ~ pimperneau “kind of eel; knave” (a slippery or shifty creature). Other conjectures are, if possible, even less interesting.
The less-known meanings of Engl. pimp “servant at the lowest level of a social hierarchy” indicates that pimp “provider of sex” is not the only and, most probably, not the original meaning of this word. The development must have been from “worthless person” to “the least respected servant” and from those to a general term of abuse, later transferred to the sexual sphere. Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, once used pimp as meaning “ninny, raw novice,” but this fact was discovered only in 1977 and has not been noticed by the authors of later English etymological dictionaries. Those who derived pimp from some word for “scoundrel” or “fop” wandered in the dark, for the original pimp was neither, but the association with underlings and weaklings existed (only not in pimps as providers of sex), and the editors of the OED were within reach of the sought for etymology, but did not guess the right answer. Although at pimping “small, mean, sickly,” they referred to German pimpelig “effeminate, sickly, puling” and Dutch pimpel “weak little man,” they missed Engl. pimp “ninny, raw novice; servant” and German Pimpf.
Since in German the initial meaning of Pimpf (“inexperienced boy”) has not been overshadowed by others, the word’s etymology poses no difficulties. A Pimpf is someone who cannot give a big Pumpf “fart” (compare Pumpernickel, a kind of coarse bread that swells the stomach with predictable consequences; in dialectal German, pumper is “old geezer”). Engl. pimp is part of the same family. All its members have something to do with swelling, for example, pimple. Pamper first meant “overfeed,” whereas obsolete Engl. pimper, a synonym of pamper, also meant “coddle.” As usual, words with i denote small swellings, whereas words with open vowels designates big ones. It is no wonder that German pampig means “arrogant.” Not to go too far afield, I’ll skip the history of pump and pomp, the more so as I touched on both in my book on word origins. The pimp, judging by its vowel, was puny when he came into this world. The full definition of the other pimp, as given in the OED is “small bundle of wood used for lighting fires.” The key word here is small. That bundle is also “a swollen object.” A good parallel is Italian dialectal bafra “full belly” versus Old French baffe “bundle of wood.” The latter is believed to be the etymon (source) of Engl. bavin, which also means “bundle of wood.” We have no means of ascertaining how old pimp “a bundle of wood” is and whether both meanings of pimp are independent developments of the same basic concept (being inflated in a small way) or a product of interaction (from “wood” to “child, that is, from “offshoot” to “offspring”—a process attested widely in many languages), but filling in the details can be left for a later date. Much more intriguing is the question how pimp came to be glossed as “faggot.” Indeed, where does faggot come in? Wait until next week. It is always good to keep the audience in suspense, as Scheherazade knew, for otherwise, would she have survived one thousand and one nights and become the shah’s beloved wife?
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. 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.”