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shameless pleading


Dear Word Detective: “Dock” is a place to park and obtain access to a boat, what was done to my Schipperke’s tail in order to meet the AKC breed standard, and what a deep dish pizza recipe told me to do to the crust before baking it (stab it gently and repeatedly with a fork). “Dock” might even be a plant, too. Is this coincidence or one of those wild word stories that make reading so much more fun than the stupid TV? – Sarah.

Hmm. Interesting. Am I the only one around here who, upon hearing the word “dock,” automatically thinks “Otis Redding”? Now I have an apparently endless loop of “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” playing in my head. Not that I’m complaining, of course. It certainly beats the theme from “Jeopardy.”

Onward. Hey, coincidences can be fun, too, and that’s what we have here, a five-layer historical coincidence. With cheese. There are actually five separate “docks” in English. The oldest is indeed a kind of plant called a “dock,” a term usually applied to members of the genus Rumex, although other species of plants are also called “docks.” This sort of “dock” takes its name from the Old English word for the plant,”docce,” which harks back to a Germanic root and has relatives in several other European languages.

The sort of “docking” done to your dog’s tail is the second oldest use of the word. As a verb meaning “to cut short,” “dock” first appeared in the late 14th century. It was derived from the noun “dock” meaning “fleshy part of an animal’s tail,” which had appeared earlier in the century, apparently derived from a Germanic root meaning “bundle or bunch.” This verb “to dock” is the same one encountered when the boss “docks” your pay.

The third kind of “dock” to appear in English, in the early 16th century, is the sort Otis was sitting on, a wharf or pier for loading or unloading ships and boats. Our modern “dock” had humble beginnings. Originally, borrowed from Germanic roots, the word simply meant the rut or hollow created by a boat lying on a beach at low tide. Some sources trace this “dock” back to the Latin “ducere,” meaning “to lead,” suggesting that the name comes from leading or pulling boats up onto the beach.

“Dock” number four is the little pen in the courtroom where the accused sits during trial in many countries, and comes from the Flemish word “dok,” meaning “rabbit cage.” This “dock” first appeared in English in the late 16th century.

The final “dock” is a cooking term, first used around 1840, meaning “to pierce with holes,” a practice apparently usually employed in baking biscuits to keep them from swelling up in the oven. The origin of this “dock” is a complete mystery, but I suspect it may be related in a roundabout way to “dock” in the “cut short” sense.

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