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Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Rebecca:  UPDATED JANUARY 2006

I was told that the inventor of the toilet was named John Crapper and that's why we call it a john.  Is this so?  If it is, then surely some other words must be based on his name, too.

Yes, there was an Englishman name Crapper who made (but did not invent) flushing toilets.  One of his creations may be found in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, proudly emblazoned with the name Crapper.  We're afraid that the rest of the story just won't hold water.

For a start, Mr. Crapper was English but the use of john as a euphemism for "privy"  is almost exclusively American and it predates Mr. Crapper by at least a century.  As if that weren't enough, the man's name was Thomas Crapper, not John and he merely manufactured flushing toilets, he didn't invent them. 

This john is a variant on jack, jacks or jakes, all of which have meant "privy" since the early 1500s.  Their origin is uncertain but it is very likely that they originated in someone excusing themselves with "I must speak with my friend Jack" or some such.

So, did any other words derive from Crapper?  The word crap has been around since the 1400s but it meant the "residue left over when rendering fat", "grease" or, in some cases, generic "dirt" or "dust".  There is no record of it meaning "excrement" until the late 1800s, and that is thought to have arisen from a different source.  Michael Quinion notes that the term crapping ken turns up in writing in 1846, referring to a privy (he notes that ken is slang for "house").  However, prior to that it was croppin ken.  That was corrupted or folk-etymologized to crapping, and crap was back-formed, perhaps with influence from the older word crap "waste".

Croppin is listed in the OED as croupon, which derives from Old French croup "rump".  English also has the word croup with the same meaning, dating from around the year 1300.

From Mio:

I corrected someone who had spelled the word awhile without the "h." She had spelled the word awile. She claims her "professor" told her that it can be spelled either way. I have searched up and down, and can't find the word spelled without the "h." Is this true? Or did she pull this out from the place where "the sun doesn't shine?"

No, it is not true. One of the many wonderful features of the OED (the complete, 22 volume, of the Oxford English Dictionary - 2nd. edition) is that it  lists every variant spelling that has ever been used. A quick consultation with this invaluable resource reveals that the H was omitted once, and here it is:

Aftur they haue byn brought up in lernyng A-wyle.
[After they have been brought up in learning awhile.]

- Starkey, England (1538)

As you can see, this was written before the advent of standardized orthography so this example may not reasonably be cited as a precedent for unorthodox spelling. 

In any case, this one is A-wyle, not awile. The hyphen here reveals that awhile was once two separate words, a + whileWhile is our modern version of the Old English hwil which meant "a period of time" much as it does today.

We must admit to intense curiosity regarding the exact location of that place "where the sun doesn't shine" but we're afraid that discussion of this topic would identify us as a "porn site".  Again.  So, let us avoid all such indelicate inquiry into its precise provenance and simply agree that awile is wrong.

From Linda Echols:

In my first experience with espresso, I assumed that the word referred to the short time to make the coffee. Then I bought a hand-operated espresso machine and with that experience of making coffee, I began to think it referred to the use of the piston which you lowered with a strong arm to force the steam through the ground coffee. Am I right? Does anybody care?

Fear not, Linda, we care. And you are on the right track with the steam. The original Italian was caffé espresso, literally "pressed-out coffee", referring to the pressurized steam with which it is made.  The term caffé espresso appears in English in 1945, and espresso by itself picked up steam in the mid-1950s.

From Tony Hill:

Here is a bit of Aussie slang I picked up from one o' me mates the other day: Pom.  Used in a sentence thus: "We probably got it from the Poms."  I was given to understand, after staring unknowingly into my instant messaging screen, that Poms in the Aussie view are "...the ones we left behind (Prisoners of Mother England)".  Not likely to be true, given the acronimity of it and all, but I thought you would be amused.

Indeed!  One should usually suspect an acronymic etymology as spurious, though pom does turn up in Word War II Royal Navy slang for "Petty Officer Mechanician" [mechanician, mechanicist - what ever happened to good ol' mechanic? - M&M].  However, pom was around a few years before Word War II.  In fact, we first come across it in print during World War I, in 1914, as a derogatory term for an immigrant to Australia from England.  It is a quotation from D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo in 1923 that gives us the most popularly accepted etymology of this word: "Pommy is supposed to be short for pomegranate. Pomegranate, pronounced invariably 'pommygranate', is a near enough rhyme to immigrant, in a naturally rhyming country. Furthermore, immigrants are known in their first months, before their blood ‘thins down’, by their round and ruddy cheeks. So we are told."  Slang lexicographer Eric Partridge also favors the pomegranate derivation, and he gives a slightly more detailed explanation by quoting from H.J. Rumsey's The Pommies (1920): "Colonial boys and girls, ready to find a nickname, were fond of rhyming Immigrant, Jimmy-grant, Pommegrant, and called it to the new chum children.  The name stuck and became abbreviated to pommy later on."  Partridge also believes that the word was being used as far back as the end of the 19th century.  It is often the case with slang that it is spoken for several years before it is put into writing. Anyhow, the OED is careful to note that there is no good evidence supporting the pomegranate derivation.


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