Home Sweet Hut
Dear Word Detective: In New Hampshire, Spring doesn’t officially arrive until “ice out” is declared — but we start getting our hopes up for warmer weather when the local news anchors remind us that’s it’s time to bring in the bobhouses for the year. While the local population generally knows what a “bobhouse” is (a portable fishing shanty, placed on a frozen body of water, to protect the fisherman while he/she fishes through a hole in its floor), no one seems to know the term’s origins. Some say it’s from the “bob” on the line that lets the fisherman know he’s hooked something. Some say it’s from the way the shanties themselves might bob a few times before going under, when their owners forget to bring them in off the ice before the Spring thaw. While I haven’t yet heard anyone claim that it’s for some legendary fisherman named “Bob,” I suppose I shouldn’t dismiss that possibility out of hand. I’m actually wondering, though, if it’s from a similar origin as “bobsleigh,” referring to the short runners sometimes mounted on the bottom to make it easier to shift the shanty out on the ice. Can you defrost the history on this one? — Katrina.
That’s an interesting question. I’ve never given much thought to ice fishing, possibly because I grew up next to the Atlantic Ocean, which only freezes every few million years.
I can find no indication that “bobhouse” has anything to do with anyone named “Bob,” although, knowing how people love colorful word origin stories, I’m sure that if anyone ever starts a “bobhouse museum,” an apocryphal “Bob” (perhaps even a “Bob House”) will appear in its brochures.
As for the verb “to bob,” meaning “to move up and down,” a 1954 article cited in the Dictionary of American Regional English confidently traces the term “bobhouse” to just such a motion: “Some fishermen have wire springs that bob up and down, whence the name ‘bob house’.” It’s unclear from that snippet whether the springs are mounted on the houses, the fishing lines, or the fishermen themselves, although I suppose it must refer to the lines. I’m actually very skeptical of this assertion, however. Even if some icefishers did attach springs to their lines, that hardly seems a sufficiently novel practice to determine the name of such an outlandish structure as a tiny hut sitting on a frozen lake. The springs, in other words, are not the story here.
I’d be willing to bet, on the other hand, that your hunch is correct and that the “bob” in “bobhouse” is the same “bob” as is found in “bobsleigh” (or “bobsled”), “bobtail” and a slew of other “bob”-words. This “bob” comes from the verb “to bob,” meaning “to cut short” (as a horse with cropped tail is called “bobtailed”). The verb “to bob” came from the noun “bob,” which originally meant “a bunch, lump or cluster,” possibly from the Irish word “baban,” meaning “cluster” (of grapes, etc.). In the case of “bobhouse,” the term simply means a “bobbed,” i.e., extremely small, house or hut.
Incidentally, the verb “to bob” meaning “to bounce up and down” is considered a separate word from “to bob” meaning “to cut short,” but the two may be related through the noun “bob” in its original sense of “lump.” In English “bob” took on several meanings in the sense of “hanging weight,” including the weight on a fishing line or pendulum. The “bouncing” verb kind of “bob” may well have been inspired by the motion of such “bobs.”