By Anatoly Liberman
Even those who know little about the history of English realize what a debt (I don’t say what a debt of gratitude: just what a debt) English owes to French and Latin. On some pages of a comprehensive English dictionary, most words go back to Romance. More exposure to the subject makes people aware of the Scandinavian element in the vocabulary of English. We may have forgotten the Viking raids and the Norman Conquest, but the language remembers them very well. If we keep reading the dictionary, preferably an etymological dictionary, as though it were a novel (an excellent idea, for few books can offer a more absorbing plot), we will soon notice the ever-recurring phrase: “Perhaps from Low German or (Middle) Dutch.” The bulk of words featured in such entries appeared in English between the 14th and the 17th century; some are now domesticated, while others are obsolete or rare. There was no Dutch military invasion of England, but at the close of the Middle English period and the beginning of what we today call modern history contacts (friendly and hostile) between Great Britain and the continental north were so intense that hundreds of Dutch words flooded English.
A terminological remark is in order here. Northern Germany speaks dialects subsumed under the name Low German. They are sometimes close to and sometimes quite different from the dialects of Dutch, but the proximity between them makes it hard to tell whether the word that penetrated English is a tribute from the speakers of the Hanseatic League or the Dutch. Sometimes the generic term Low Dutch is used to cover Dutch, Low German, and Frisian. Although common in our books, this term has little to recommend it, for once we start from Netherlands, how can we go any lower? Be that as it may, a combined Low German-Dutch linguistic invasion of English is a fact.
Since later I will say something about plug-ugly, I will list a few widely known words beginning with the letter P that almost certainly came to English from Dutch or its nearest neighbors: pack “bundle,” pick (the verb), pad, paddle, peck, plump (the adjective), plunder, poke (the verb), poll (first “head,” then “counting by heads,” as in our interminable polls), prate, and pea-jacket (the name of a garment that has nothing to do with peas) However, before engaging plug-uglies, it may be worthwhile to look at words for truancy. In England, irresponsible schoolchildren used to play the wag, play the jolly, leg it, and play hookey (with the variant play hookey walker), but only play truant was dignified enough for official use: the others, the “vulgar” ones, could be repeated in a whisper. Children also miked and did a mickey. American students bagged school (and of course cut it); one of the New England phrases was Hook Jack. This school slang showed surprising tenacity. A common synonym for “miss school without permission” was mooch. From “play truant” it developed into “play truant in order to pick blackberries,” so that the berries themselves eventually got the name moochies. Considering how many variants and related forms mooch has (for example, mouch, modge, and miche, the latter as in Hamlet’s miching malicho “sneaking mischief”; Shakespeare also knew micher “truant”), I wonder whether mike ~ mickey belong with it. Mug (the verb) and -mudge- in curmudgeon most probably do.
Dictionaries hedge when it comes to the origin of play hookey. The verb hook “steal” and the idiom hook it “escape, make off” are cited. The value of other clues is questionable. For example, in Essex (and perhaps not only there) Hookey meant “devil”; hence the expression as black as Hookey. Then there is the card game blind hookey. Yet play hookey is pure Dutch, where its counterpart is hoekje spelen (spelen “play”), and this fact is not a secret. An informative article by John R. Sinnema (American Speech 45, 1969, 205-210) partly settles the question, and our dictionaries should have gone further than repeating the safe but uninspiring formula “of unknown origin.” The root of Dutch hoekje (a diminutive) is hoek “corner.” The original meaning of Engl. hook, a cognate of hoek, was “curve, bend,” which explains the idiom by hook or by crook.
There is only one hitch here: as Sinnema explained, hoekje spelen means “play hide-and-(go)-seek,” not “cut school.” The origin of the idiom is clear: someone hides round the corner, and It must find that person. But why “play truant” in American English (later, as we have seen, the phrase crossed the ocean and became popular in Britain)? Sinnema devoted some space to the possible reasons for the change of meaning, but a satisfactory explanation may perhaps hide round the corner. In Volume 3 of the Dutch Archief voor Nederlandsche Taalkunde (1851-53, pp. 339-400), A. de Jager, a distinguished scholar, wrote a few lines on schoolverzuim (“missing school”) and mentioned the dialectal expressions hooikes ketsen and hooikes kuiteren “play truant.” I assume that hooikes is a variant of hoekje. Ketsen means “to misfire,” and kuiteren is probably “to spawn.” In the speech of some speakers, hoekje spelen and hooikes ketsen (kuiteren) must have merged, unless all three could always mean both things. The hybrid reached the New World, and hoekje spleen, later Anglicized as play hook(e)y, triumphed with the sense “cut school.” However vague the picture may be, lexicographers would be justified in saying: “Play hook(e)y. From Dutch.” Jager also mentions Dutch dialectal plenken “play truant”; this word made its way to Scotland and stayed there in the form plunk with the same meaning. The editors of the OED knew the early Dutch verb plencken but not its modern dialectal reflex.
And now an addendum on plug-ugly, another Americanism and another word “of unknown origin.” According to the extant evidence, plug-uglies began their activities in Baltimore. The most interesting quotation from the OED (reproduced here in part) runs as follows: “…derived from a short spike fastened in the toes of their boots, with which they kicked their opponents in a dense crowd, or, as they elegantly expressed it, ‘plugged them ugly’.” We have no way of knowing whether this is a true derivation of plug-ugly or a folk etymology produced in retrospect, to justify the name. In any case, plug is a borrowing from Dutch. A word for “plug” can easily develop a figurative meaning (“something unimportant”), and plug “subordinate, servant” is indeed current in the dialect of Groningen. Plug-ugly surfaced in printed texts only in the middle of the 19th century. Yet slang is hard to date, and the earliest “ugly plugs” may have been wicked underlings in the eyes of their victims. Even if Groningen plug is not related to plug-ugly, here, in the capacity as its Dutch uncle, it will do no one any harm.
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.”