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getting lost in the dictionary

Have you ever looked up an utterly baffling word in the dictionary only to find another utterly baffling word?  We just did.

We were researching dottle, the word for the charred remains of tobacco in the bottom of a pipe-bowl. It turned out to be a diminutive of dot but what's smaller than a dot? This wasn't one of the baffling words, by the way.  We were already familiar with dottle from Sherlock Holmes, whose "before-breakfast pipe... was composed of all the plugs and dottels [sic] left from his smokes of the day before".  No, the first baffling word came up by way of explanation.  The dictionary explained that, before tobacco, dottle meant "a plug" then cryptically added "= dossil".  Dossil?

Now we were off on a wild-word chase.  The entry on dossil tells us that it means "a plug" or "spigot" for a barrel.  Etymologically it comes from Latin ducillis (a diminutive of dux, "leader") and so is related to duke and educate.  As barrel plugs were often old rags, a dossil could also be "a plug of lint or rag for stopping a wound", "a pledget" or "a roll of cloth for wiping off the excessive ink from the surface of a copper-plate in printing".

Wait, a minute, did that say pledget? What's a pledget? Well, off we go again.  One dictionary says that it was "a cloth used as a bandage" while another adds that it was the same as a stupe.  Neither dictionary could agree on the etymology - whether it is related to plug, plague or pleach?  But we can't stop to investigate, we have to look up stupe!

OK, now it seems we're getting somewhere.  A stupe was "a bandage wrung out of hot liquor for fomenting a wound".  The "hot liquor" part suggests that it's related to steep but, no, it is from stuppa, the Latin for "tow".  One dictionary says "see stupa".  Well this was exciting as the only stupa we knew was an oriental monument.  But under stupa we found the same definition as stupe with the additional comment "found only in dictionaries".  Is this some kind of cruel lexicographer humor?

By the way, that's not the tow you get from a tow-truck but the one which means "unbleached linen". 

We were pretty confident that the dictionary had no surprises for us but we looked up tow anyway.  Apparently, while it originally meant "the unworked stem or fiber of flax, before it is heckled" it is now "the fibre of flax, hemp, or jute prepared for spinning by some process of scutching".  Heckling? Scutching? Aaargh!

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