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Yes, but this ball of twine belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

Dear Word Detective:  OK, first I did my own search, then I searched your online archives and then I did a search of your whole website. And I noticed (by coincidence) that just a couple of months ago you talked about enjoying the show Pawn Stars. But I don’t think you have ever talked about the history of “pawn.” The dictionary entries I found only intrigued me more. It talks about the chess piece “pawn” and how it traces back to “pown” and “peoun” (possibly related to foot soldiers and maybe “peon”) and even to “pes” and “pedo” in their relation to feet. Maybe my possessions have feet and are walking off to be pawned. But there is the interesting definition of something that is used to advance the interests of another, which no doubt is true in chess, and in the conversational sense of being a pawn in the grand scheme of things. But it also could be true of pawning things to advance my own or the pawn shop’s interest. There is also the transitive verb “to pawn” which is closer to what I am looking for, but I could find no etymology of the verb sense. I have come to the conclusion that “pawn” is a nautical term, and probably a nautical acronym (probably in use since the 1700s) at that. Sorry, I just had to say that. Anyway, could you please help? – Gary.

Whoa. For a moment I thought you were serious about the nautical acronym. I’m glad I was able to cancel the hit-man. It was actually a hit-dog, our Pokey, who was going to track you down and lick you. That probably doesn’t sound too bad, but you haven’t seen some of the other things Pokey licks. Furry little bio-hazard, she is.

You’ve done quite a bit of investigation on your own, which I encourage, in moderation. (If you folks start doing it to excess, I’ll have to find a real job.) And you’ve come up with some good leads to connect “pawn” in the chess sense to “pawn” in the “How much will you give me for this genuine Rilex watch?” sense. Unfortunately, such efforts are unlikely to bear useful fruit, because there is no connection between the two “pawns” — they are entirely separate words. English actually has five separate “pawn” nouns (one of which means “peacock”) plus one verb, but we’ll deal with just those two nouns.

“Pawn” in the chess piece sense is the older of the two words. Meaning “chess piece of smallest value and power,” this “pawn” does come from French and Latin roots meaning “foot soldier,” a good characterization of the pawn’s role on the chessboard, and first appeared in English in this literal sense around 1400. The figurative use of “pawn” to mean “servile agent” or “one who serves only another person’s interests” (“Stephen confesses … that in South America he became a pawn in the cocaine trade,” Guardian, 1995) dates to about 1450. Incidentally, the English word “pioneer” comes from the Old French word “paon,” also meaning “foot soldier” and based on the same roots.

The pawnshop sense of “pawn” came along a bit later, first appearing in English in the 15th century meaning “the state of being held as security for repayment of a loan,” usually in the form “at pawn” or “in pawn.” The source of this “pawn” was the Old French “pan,” meaning “pledge,” and the root of that was a Germanic word that may also have given us “penny.” That Old French “pan” (pledge) is, oddly, identical in form to the Old French “pan” meaning “cloth,” raising the possibility that the original sense may have been fabric used as a means of exchange.

In any case, “to pawn” as a verb showed up in the mid-16th century and “pawnbroker,” meaning a person who loans money on an item held as security, appeared in the mid-17th century. “Pawnshop” appeared in the mid-18th century, the earliest use in print found so far being in Henry Fielding’s 1749 comic novel Tom Jones (“My fine Clothes being often on my Back in the Evening, and at the Pawnshop the next Morning.”).


Well, there you go. Apparently he swallowed a bullet.

Dear Word Detective: I have always wondered about the word “autopsy,” which has a do-it-yourself air that makes no sense to me. Surely “mortopsy” would be more appropriate? — Tracey Martinsen.

Well, it is the age of DIY. I noticed recently that there is now a show, on one of the lesser cable channels, which follows couples renovating their own homes who, interestingly,  know absolutely nothing about construction. So these chuckleheads cheerfully knock down supporting walls (oops!), saw through live wires (zap!) and mess with active gas lines (yow!). They then scream bitter recriminations at each other until the deus ex machina pixies step in and fix everything, which I find terribly unfair. It’s also a real missed opportunity for the network. C’mon, gang. Let nature take its course and you’ve got a perfect lead-in for CSI Home Depot!

Speaking of the CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) franchise and similar TV shows focusing on high-tech crime investigation, prosecutors and defense attorneys in real-life criminal trials are apparently increasingly worried about what they call the “CSI effect” on juries. Jurors addicted to the shows either put too such trust in forensic evidence, investing it with almost magical powers, or they expect slam-dunk DNA “proof” in every case and discount more mundane evidence. I’ve never been tempted by a life of crime, but if I were, the prospect of trial by a jury of credulous couch potatoes would give me serious pause.

Autopsies play a large role in CSI and similar shows (which is one reason why I don’t watch them), and you’re right that “autopsy” is itself a strange little word. It first appeared in English in the mid-17th century, drawn from the Greek word “autopsia.” That “autopsia” was a combination of “auto,” meaning “self” and “opsis,” meaning “something seen,” giving the resulting meaning of “personal observation” or “something seen for oneself.” That Greek root “auto,” incidentally, is found in all sorts of English words, from “autonomy” (self-rule) to “automobile” (moves itself, no horse required) and others.

The initial meaning of “autopsy” in English was, as its roots suggest, “the act of seeing with one’s own eyes; personal inspection,” and it was applied to nearly any sort of inspection  (“Or by autopsie, when by our observation, wee get a certaine knowledge of things,” 1651). Within just about a quarter century (1678), however, “autopsy” was being used in its very specific modern sense of “postmortem examination of a cadaver by dissection, usually to determine the cause of death or other pathology.”

Once the “inspect a corpse” sense of “autopsy” gained currency, the more generic “take a good look at something” sense faded away, probably because it became impossible to use that  general sense without invoking unpleasant associations. By the early 19th century, however, “autopsy” had acquired a figurative use, safely distant from the forensic sense, meaning “detailed critical examination of a thing or event, usually after its first presentation or occurrence” (“This autopsy of a fine lady’s poem,” 1879). Interestingly, this use is not very common today in the mass media, and we tend to substitute the term “post-mortem” for “autopsy” in even clearly figurative uses (“Market Madness: A Post-Mortem,” headline, NY Times, 5/7/10).


The Dunderhead?

Dear Word Detective:  I found a reference in Wikipedia suggesting that the word “mooch” had its first appearance in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, related to the character of Wesley Mouch.  Webster’s says the word originated in 1851, but its explanation is “probably from French dialect ‘muchier,’ to hide, lurk”… and now I’m curious.  Do you have anything more certain than a “probably?” — Foxx.

Whoa, hold it right there.  Atlas Shrugged is a novel?  As in “made-up story”?  Holy cow.  This is serious.  Has anyone told Alan Greenspan?  Never mind; I guess it’s too late.  Incidentally, I haven’t read either of the recent biographies of Ayn Rand, but I have read the reviews, and while I knew that Alan Greenspan had been a big fan of Rand, I didn’t know that he had spent a protracted period actually sitting at her feet.  Seriously.  She apparently held little soirées in her apartment where she would read aloud from her works to her assembled acolytes.  I wonder if that works with cats.

I guess I should try harder to answer questions in the same decade you folks send them, because the suggested etymology of “mooch” that you mention seems to have disappeared from Wikipedia while your email was cooling its heels in my to-do file.  A quick Googling of “Wesley Mouch” and “mooch,” however, indicates that Wikipedia had it backwards.  Rand clearly intended the name of Wesley Mouch, a bumbling bureaucrat who cripples the US economy with a byzantine web of regulations, to remind readers of the word “mooch.”  That strikes me as a bit like naming your character Doofus McMeddler, but whatever.  I guess the free market didn’t mind.

I’m not sure why Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary told you that “mooch” first appeared in 1851.  That date is accurate for one of the modern meanings of “to mooch,” which is “to loaf or loiter around” or “to skulk or sneak.”  But the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates “mooch” in its original meaning of “to be miserly; to be a hoarder” all the way back to around 1400.  Around 1600, “mooch” apparently acquired the additional meaning of “to play truant from school,” especially, in a bit of oddly specific weirdness, “to play truant in order to pick blackberries.”   In 19th century western England, in fact, “mooch” was a popular dialect term for a blackberry.

By the mid-19th century, “mooch” had reached its primary modern meaning as a verb, “to scrounge or cadge money, food, etc., from someone; to beg or sponge from another person.”  The noun “mooch” appeared at roughly the same time, meaning a person who “mooches,” the act of “mooching,” or a person who is easily taken in or swindled (perhaps by a “moocher”).

It is true that the most likely origin of “mooch” (sorry, we’re fresh out of certainty on this one) is the Anglo-Norman word “muscher,” which harks back to the Old French “mucier” or “muchier,” meaning “to hide or conceal.”  There are, however, other theories.  One ties “moocher” to the Old High German “muharri,” meaning “robber.”  Another traces it to the Middle English “mucchen,” meaning “to be stingy,” derived from “mucche,” nightcap, and possibly originally meaning “to hide coins in one’s nightcap.”  Funny how that doesn’t seem as crazy today as it would have a few years ago, isn’t it?