Pencil me in.
Dear Word Detective: I was reading nothing in particular about television scheduling the other day when I had one of my word moments, that is, when a word leaps out of the page and begins to play odd tricks in my mind. The word was “slot” and, within moments, it became a description of some kind of Eastern European, perhaps an obscure currency or perhaps even a breed of dog. It certainly looked most peculiar and reeked of Old Norse or something. However, my dictionary could only come up with a feeble stab at something to do with a breastbone, but labeled it “origin obscure.” Any ideas about a word that is probably used a thousand times a day in Las Vegas alone? — David, Ripon, England.
Obscure currency? I assume you’re thinking of the “zloty,” the currency of modern Poland. “Zloty” is actually pronounced something close to “zwah-teh,” and comes from “zloto,” the Polish word for “gold,” which is related to our English word “gold,” both being derived from the Indo-European root “ghel,” meaning “yellow.” As for “breed of dog,” beats me.
There are actually five, count ‘em, five kinds of “slot” in English, each considered a separate word. The oldest, from the 14th century, means “a bolt or bar that secures a door.” Another “slot” means “the track of a animal,” from the same Old Norse root that gave us “sleuth.” Yet another “slot,” now obsolete, meant “a muddy place.” A fourth “slot” means “castle,” but it’s also obsolete and was just a development of the “door bolt” kind of “slot” anyway.
Finally, we have the sort of “slot” you mention, and here things get a little weird. The original meaning of this “slot” when it first appeared in English in the 14th century, adapted from the Old French, was (as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it) “the slight depression or hollow running down the middle of the breast,” especially the hollow at the base of the throat. Interestingly, the Old French word that gave us “slot” was “esclot,” which meant literally “hoofprint of a horse,” which seems a singularly unromantic, if technically plausible, way to describe the hollow at the base of your sweetie’s throat. Incidentally, that same “esclot” root underlies the other sort of “slot,” mentioned above, that means “track of an animal.”
In any case, by the 15th century “slot” had begun to develop its more familiar modern senses, beginning with “an elongated depression or hole in a piece of lumber, etc., where another piece is inserted.” The use of “slot” for the opening in a vending machine where you put coins dates from the late 1800s, and meaning “parking space” from the 1940s.
Perhaps the most dramatic development of “slot” also came in the 1940s, when it was first used to mean (again quoting the OED) “a position in a list, hierarchy, system, or scheme; a position to be filled; a category; a place or division in a timetable, especially in broadcasting” (“Suitable slots are normally of 90 to 120 minutes, with time for commercials to be taken out of this,” 1976). This figurative use of “slot” was almost certainly an outgrowth of the modern mania for organizational and scheduling charts in which predefined categories or spaces (“slots”) remain fairly constant while the data that fills them varies.