In olden days women were supposed to be sweet, docile, and, if possible, incorporeal. On the other hand, men, subject to the universal law of contrasts, threw their weight about, and, once they “arrived,” demonstrated corpulence. They invented countless offensive words referring to women’s way of walking. One of them is trot “old hag,” known from the middle of the 14th century. The verb trot surfaced at the same time. German folklore has preserved memories of dangerous female divinities, including Frau Trude. The noun Drude “sorceress, incubus” exists too; its medieval German counterpart was trut (or trute) “monster.” The origin of Trude ~ Drude ~ trut is uncertain, but perhaps they are allied to Gothic trudan, German treten, and Engl. tread, whose original meaning seems to have been “walk heavily” (Gothic is a Germanic language; its main extant monument is a 4th-century translation of the New Testament.) The difficulties posed by the variation t- ~ d- are not insurmountable.
The verb trot may have influenced the meaning of the noun, but the tie between them is weak, for trotting and treading are different things. Even less clear is the derivation of trot “toddler” and trot “young animal,” first recorded in 1854 and 1895 respectively. Neither human nor animal babies trot; nor are they necessarily monsters. Language often likens children to feeble women and animals. However, Frau Trude was anything but feeble. Both late slang words mean nearly the same (“a young child” ~ “a young animal”); it is their link to the verb and the old noun that proved hard to reconstruct. I have nothing to say on this point, yet would like to note that perhaps trot “child” supplies a clue to why Miss Betsey’s maiden name was Trotwood. When David became her charge, she began to call him Trotwood Copperfield and shortened the newly acquired middle name into Trot. Trotwood would then emerge as a grove in which the waif grew up and flourished. Dickens, whose sensitivity to recent slang is famous, began publishing David Copperfield in 1849. Trot appears in Chapter 15.
If trot “old hag” is akin to trudan ~ treten ~ tread, the history of the obscure English word dratchel or drotchel “an untidy woman; slut” may appear in a new light. At present, this word is remembered only in the midland dialects of Great Britain (rather, it was current there a hundred or so years ago; I have no way of ascertaining its longevity and would be grateful for more information from someone who lives in that part of the world). The last letters of dratchel are a diminutive suffix, a variant of -l, as in girl. This suffix betrays the word’s German (probably northern, that is, Low German) origin. In all probability, girl is also a borrowing from Low German; its earliest meaning was “a young creature of either sex; a creature considered worthless.” Dratchel has an amazing number of relatives in German dialects, both northern and southern. Here are three of them: trutscherl “a sturdy girl or child,” drutschl “a fat peasant woman,” and even trutsch “idiot.” These words were confused with the derivatives of Middle High German trut “dear,” so that their near homonyms often mean “sweetheart.” But Engl. dratchel is a term of disparagement, an apparent congener (related form) of Trude ~ Drude, not of the northern verb dretch “to afflict, torment,” as has been suggested, unless “afflict” has developed from the activity of some incubus of the Trude family. There is also dretch “to delay, linger,” perhaps the same word. Regardless of whether names like Gertrude are part of the picture, we must be dealing with a dangerous female creature that trod heavily, sat on the sleeper’s breast, and became famous in folk belief. Later the name of a monster turned into a mild swear word. (Someone may wonder why people waste their time investigating the origin of a word that hardly anyone knows. We will explain to this benighted person that our perception of the universe is shaped by the language we use. Therefore, the more we learn bout etymology, the better we understand ourselves. It matters little whether the word is alive or dead, for as human beings we are the same as we were millennia ago. Words, we will add, rule the world, and etymologists, by having some control over words, are the most powerful people in creation. Isn’t this reason enough to think deeply about the history of dratchel?)
Walking too much is another demerit, for women were expected to be not only angelic (it is not for nothing that David Copperfield’s wife, the one destined for him, was called Agnes) but also hard working, and she who walked too much (regardless of the gait) and thus avoided or evaded the pleasures and duties of family life could expect only censure. Jogging as a way of life had not yet been invented. In this spirit we will approach the English words: traipse “a dangling slattern; slut” (OED) and drab “slut.” The verb traipse means “to walk in a trailing or untidy way; tramp, tread.” If it were spelled trapes, its similarity to German traben ~ draben “to wander” would be obvious at once. Their German synonym trapsen also exists. In order not to be lost in a thicket of phonetic detail, I will only say that traipse is not a regular cognate of traben. Variants of this verb were common slang in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. “Traipsing” mercenaries, along with prostitutes who followed the troops, must have contributed to its spread. Nearly the same verb has some currency in Russian and Hungarian; it is, in all likelihood, of German origin. A traipse was a woman given to traipsing. In Alabama, the alliterative phrase traipsing and trolloping about has been picked up.
The earliest citation of drab in the OED goes back to 1515. Although the word has been tentatively derived from Celtic, Irish drabag “a dirty woman” is almost certainly a borrowing from English. The same holds for its Welsh counterpart. Dutch dribbe “a cantankerous woman” appears to be unrelated. In dictionaries, reference to German Treben and Dutch drab “dregs, refuse, lees” often turns up in the entry drab, but drab does not signify “a fallen woman from the ‘dregs’ of society”; it rather belongs with demeaning words like draggletail. Even more fanciful is the attempt to connect drab “slut” and drab (from French drap; compare Engl. drape) “a kind of cloth.” Drap is a heavy fabric, good for coats, not for lingerie, and if the evil allusion were to clothing, it would have been to a disreputable woman’s underwear, not to her outer garment. I believe that drab is an etymological doublet of traipse resembling German traben ~ draben. Here is one more female character that walked too much. Let me repeat: nothing but a sedate way of life if a woman wants to keep her virtue and have the reputation of a worthy housewife. The barbaric times that produced the awful words discussed above will never return. We are so fortunate. We can swear in public and on the screen, curse tarts and chippies, complain in the presence of our children of the f—ing door that won’t shut, but trot, dratchel, traipse, drab—no. At best, they may be allowed to linger (“dretch”) in an etymological dictionary, which they do.
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 protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”