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shameless pleading

Damper

None dare call it “moist,” because “moist” is a creepy word.

Dear Word Detective: Now that heating season is here, at least in the northern half of the northern hemisphere, my husband and I were talking about that little device in the wood-stove called a “damper,” the one that throttles back the air supply to the fire to keep it going slower and longer so it lasts all night. It sounds like, but surely cannot be related to, the word “damp” which refers to a slight sogginess. I don’t think that the two words can be related, but I have been wrong before; after all, I am on my second marriage. Can you enlighten us? — Grandma Roses.

I wish we had a wood stove. Personally, I started worrying about the Polar Vortex back in August.

That’s a good question, and your skepticism concerning a possible connection between “damper” and the “soggy” sort of “damp” is entirely justified. But, in this case, wrong. Not only are “damper” and “damp” related, but the “damp” in “damper” is exactly the same word as “damp” meaning “moist.” What we have in “damp” is a word which has radically changed its meaning several times since it first appeared in English in the 14th century, so radically that “damp” today bears little apparent connection to its roots.

The root of “damp” was the Middle Low German word “damp,” based in turn on Germanic roots meaning “vapor,” which was, in fact, the initial meaning of “damp” as an English noun. A “damp” was specifically a noxious vapor, gas or smoke, whether smoke from a open fire, fumes from a cooking stove, or the dangerous gases found in coal mines (known as “black damp” or “choke damp” in the 17th century). It was in the 17th century that “damp” came to also mean fog or vapor of any kind (“I have lost all my bad Symptoms, and am ready to think I could even bear the damps of London.” 1739). But it wasn’t until the 18th century that “damp” was widely used in its modern general sense of “moisture” (initially referring to the wetness of fog or vapor condensed upon an object). Today, of course, this “slightly soggy” sense of “damp” is the only one most people use.

But meanwhile, back in the 16th century, a verb form of “damp” had appeared, derived from the noun. This “to damp” did not, however, mean “to moisten” as we might expect. It meant “to suffocate or choke,” as “damp” in the “smoke” sense would make breathing difficult. That “suffocate” sense quickly led to “damp” meaning “to deaden or dull” a sound or “to extinguish a fire,” and by the 19th century “to damp down” was being used to mean to reduce the intensity of a fire to a low level (without extinguishing it) when it wasn’t needed. “Damp” and “damp down” were also used to mean to mechanically quiet the strings of a piano and, figuratively, to reduce the energy or enthusiasm of a person (“Our hopes of a speedy departure were even now somewhat damped.” 1748).

“Damper” also appeared in the mid-18th century, meaning something that “damps” the spirits (e.g., bad news), takes the edge off one’s appetite, the mechanism that “damps” a piano, and that movable plate or mechanism in a chimney that “damps” a fire by restricting the flow of air (“The heat of the furnace under the boiler was rudely regulated in both machines by a damper.” 1829).

1 comment to Damper

  • Did you know that ‘damper’ is also used for the sort of bread-on-a-stick much beloved of those of the Scouting persuasion, cooked and eaten round a campfire? Mix a flour and water dough with a pinch of salt, take a handful, roll into a sausage shape, then wind in a spiral round a twig. Hold over a fire until cooked. Delicious, but invariably burnt, which puts a bit of a dampener on the proceedings. I also watched a TV programme with the British survival expert Ray Mears in the Australian outback where he cooked a whole loaf in the same way. Show-off!

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