The fright in the forest?
Dear Word Detective: How is it that “moccasin” means both a comfortable kind of footwear and a venomous snake? — Terry Diggs.
Well there you go. If you’ve ever wondered why I keep writing this column after nearly twenty years, there’s your answer. I keep getting questions that pique my own curiosity. I know that there’s no hidden plan or order to English words, and that even mainstream words (such as “cleave”) can develop two opposite meanings (“split apart” and “stick together,” in that case). But there’s something about a word meaning both “soft comfortable shoe” and “deadly snake” that gets your attention and seems to demand an answer sooner rather than later. I think it’s the ominous incongruity of the two meanings that does it; it’s as if “teddy bear” also meant “assault rifle.”
Interestingly, there seems to be no real doubt that the “shoe” kind of moccasin and the “snake” kind are, in fact, the same word. Our English word “moccasin” is from the Algonquian Indian word “makasin” (or something similar) meaning “shoe,” describing a typical Indian shoe of what is now the Eastern US, made of a piece of soft leather or deerskin, usually having no separate sole. The first mention of the word in an English-language text was in 1612, where the word was spelled “mockasin.” The word was popularized after European trappers and backwoodsmen adopted “moccasins” as footwear, although the spelling of “moccasin” didn’t settle down until the 20th century (“Sometimes, they wear Indian Shooes, or Moggizons, which are made after the same manner, as the Mens are,” 1709; “His dress was a deer-skin jacket, … with morgissons, or deer-skin pumps, or sandals, which were laced,” 1760). Moccasins are still popular today, especially as slippers, and a true moccasin’s “unibody” construction (one piece of leather wrapped under and then over the foot) makes the shoes very comfortable.
The incongruous use of the term “moccasin” to also mean “deadly venomous snake” first appeared in print in 1765 (“We killed a Moccasin snake & toward noon it rained & thundred excedingly”), about 150 years after the word “moccasin” in the “shoe” sense, though it may have been in use far longer. There are actually two types of snakes, both pit vipers, called “moccasin”: the “water moccasin,” a semi-aquatic critter also known as the “cottonmouth” because the inside of its mouth is bright white, and its close relative, the landlubber “copperhead,” named for its reddish head.
Unfortunately, the answer to the central question here, how a word for a comfortable shoe came to mean a deadly snake, is considered a mystery. But I think there are two logical possibilities. The more likely, in my opinion, is that the connection is a reference to the nearly silent passage through the forest afforded to Indians by their soft moccasin shoes. In the 19th century, in fact, prison guards were known to wear similar shoes, also called “moccasins,” made of woolen yarn to muffle their footsteps and make surveillance of prisoners easier (“[Guards at Sing Sing] wear on their feet mocassins, as they are called, which are shoes made of woolen yarn, so that their steps are never heard,” 1834). It’s entirely possible that the power of the moccasin to make one’s footsteps silent made it a good folk term for a snake that could also glide silently through the forests and streams.
My other hunch has to do with the appearance of the snakes. The copperhead in particular has a dramatically ornate and colorful skin. The moccasins worn by Indians in the same general area of the Eastern forests were often decorated with colorful beads or sewn designs on the front “vamp” (above the toes), frequently signs of tribal affiliation, etc. It is possible that the skin of the “moccasin” snakes reminded European settlers of those “moccasin” decorations, a possibility which seems strengthened by the fact that early references to the snakes call them “moccasin snakes,” not simply “moccasins.”
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Oh look, it’s 2014. The future has arrived! Happy New Year. Yay. Last week it was 27 degrees below zero around here, and the past month has furnished a graphic demonstration of why they stopped insulating houses with horse hair. Unfortunately they didn’t stop until a few decades after our house was built in the 1860s. On the bright side, the refrigerator rarely comes on.
Sorry about November. I foolishly accepted an invitation to be the Guest of Honor at some hinky Wodenfest up in the UP, and ended up fleeing from bio-engineered dire wolves chasing me across a frozen hellscape of burnt-out strip malls and abandoned Bitcoin mines. I finally took refuge under the old abandoned UMich campus in a cave occupied by a clan of elderly, un-tenured and very disgruntled adjunct profs who lent a new dimension to “bitter cold.”
Yeah, that’s all I’m gonna say about November. Dreadful month. Always. It’s pure twisted genius that they put Thanksgiving near the end of a month consisting entirely of endless bleak, gloomy days punctuated by icy rain. Me? I’m thankful for me boils, Sir. I’ve named ev’ry one, Sir. This one ‘ere is Nigel. Say ‘ello, Nigel.
December was a blur, probably because it seemed that every time I went outside I managed to fall down. I’m about ready to give up on this whole walking business. I was carrying some groceries in from the car last night when I tripped for no good reason and landed on our concrete walk, nearly bashing my brains out. I am now under strict orders not to go outside without first notifying Management, lest I turn up as a lawn ornament with the Spring thaw.
In any case, I am profoundly grateful for the wonderful folks who have so generously contributed to our upkeep here at Downscale Abbey, where every crisis is welcomed as an old friend and all the servants are played by cats.
By the way, I’m going to have to stop watching that show. We were perched on the settee with our microwave scones and marmite, cats in their little tiaras, all set for the season opener, when we heard Laura Linney say, “And now the two-hour season premiere…” and we both fainted dead away. Actually we just shuddered, but that was enough, and we clicked off. Two hours in that suffocating cultural coat closet? A few days later we watched the first hour of the thing, during which nothing even remotely un-totally-predictable happened, and I, personally, threw in the towel.
Downton really seems to be aimed at the sort of people who get all tingly when they see a Ralph Lauren commercial, a cohort from which I am gladly absent. I actually had occasion to proofread Ralphie’s rather baroque last will and testament many years ago, so I feel a sort of remote kinship for the guy (I surreptitiously wrote myself in as a nephew, in fact), but enough’s enough with the WASPstalgia.
But life, which is to say, of course, television, must go on, and here at Word Detective World Headquarters we’ve been catching up with Homeland. I must admit that the first season was better than I expected. The second season was a bit incoherent, and the shocking finale produced more consternation than shock. We’re just now getting started on season 3, and the whole shebang definitely seems to be coming apart at the seams. Hope I’m wrong.
There does seem to be a problem with cable series reaching a point where all the interesting characters are randomly expunged; I’ve always thought that the Sopranos killing off both Richie Aprile and Big Pussy early on was a huge mistake, and if I’d ever really liked Downton Abbey I’d say that not having the central actors nailed to long contracts was the show’s doom. Now there’s quite literally no one interesting left.
Onward. I’ve been hearing for years that HBO’s The Wire is the best TV show ever made, so I’ve been watching that in small bits here and there. I think they may be right; it is an amazingly well-made show. The second season in particular is a slam-dunk masterpiece. And there’s always Omar. Omar is awesome. I hadn’t realized that Richard Price, one of my favorite novelists (his excellent Clockers was made into a so-so film by Spike Lee), was an advisor/contributor to the show (he actually appears early on in a scene set in a prison library). At the rate I’m watching it, the five seasons may take me ten years, but that’s OK. It beats watching TV.
I imagine that it sounds as if we watch a lot of TV, but we actually log way less than the national average. Name your favorite show and I can practically guarantee I’ve never heard of it. And I like it that way, dagnabbit.
Bookly-speaking, I finished Pynchon’s latest, Bleeding Edge. and I would give it three Mehs on a scale of five. Some nice bits but it never reaches escape velocity. I’m starting to think that his future reputation will rest entirely on Gravity’s Rainbow, a definite outlier in his oeuvre. Hey, outlier and oeuvre in the same clause. Not bad for someone surrounded by frozen soybean fields as far as the eye can see. Anyway, at the moment I’m reading some John LeCarre. I don’t remember the title. Good books with forgettable titles.
So here’s January. Please consider subscribing or otherwise contributing to our survival. And now, on with the show….
Ducks in a row, in order of (a) height and (b) astrological sign.
Dear Word Detective: I told my boss something was “squared away” and suddenly wondered where that phrase comes from, and why it’s a good thing for a person, in this case, thing, or situation to be squared away. I fussed around the internet and came away with three options: it means old fashioned as in “square” music; it refers to boxing or wrestling where opponents “square off” against each other, or it’s the dreaded “nautical term” meaning the sails are at right angles to the deck of a ship in relationship to wind direction (or some such) and therefore in good order. Sadly, I want it to be the nautical definition because I just don’t see how getting ready to get pounded to a pulp or twisted into a knot is a good idea. For that matter I don’t know how one sail position is better than another unless it just satisfies a sense of order, but there you go. That’s those nautical phrases for you. — Victoria Ayers.
Indeed. As a matter of fact, since we’re on the subject, I’ve often thought life would be much simpler if nothing floated. Absolutely nothing at all. If even a feather sank like a stone in water. I imagine ducks would hate it and some fish would be inconvenienced, but I think it would be worth it just for me to never have to type the phrase “of nautical origin” again. Plus which, I imagine the folks on the Titanic would have been much happier staying home: “Ocean voyage? How would that work? Don’t be silly! Smithers, fetch us more nachos.”
Oh well, I’ve just been informed of the appalling amount of paperwork it takes to modify a basic law of physics, so I guess I’ll stick to answering your question.
Our English word “square” first appeared around 1300 as a noun meaning “an implement for determining right angles,” more or less what we would now call a “T-square.” We adapted our word “square” from the Old French “esquire,” which was based on the Latin “ex” (out) plus “quadrare,” make square (from “quadrus,” a square). The use of “square” to mean a geometric shape made of four right angles developed by the end of the 14th century, and a wide variety of other meanings (e.g., a number multiplied by itself) had developed by the 16th century. “Square” also came to mean “a standard or rule; a guiding principle,” in reference to those T-squares used to verify a proper right angle. A “square meal” is one that is nutritious and complete.
Incidentally, our modern English “esquire” is unrelated to that Old French “esquire.” Our “esquire” comes from the Old French “escuyer,” meaning “shield bearer,” an “esquire” originally being a knight’s assistant.
“Square” as a verb appeared in the late 14th century meaning simply “to make square,” but quickly acquired a wide range of figurative meanings. “Square” in the sense of “old fashioned” or “clueless” appeared as slang in the late 1940s, originally designating some geezer who didn’t “get” jazz. The term is said to have come from the rigid hand motions of an orchestra conductor keeping an un-cool traditional four-beat tempo. To “square off” comes from boxing and refers to a fighter adopting a wide stance with arms cocked in preparation for the start of a match.
Meanwhile back at the dreaded “nautical origin” possibility, as of the early 17th century “to square” meant to align the sails at right angles to the keel of a “square-rigged” sailing ship, the optimal arrangement (with the wind from aft, presumably). “Squaring” other parts of the ship’s rigging meant to put them in correct order and position. That would tend to suggest a nautical source of “squared away.” But “to square” had also come to be used to mean “to put in proper order, to reconcile, settle,” as we speak of “squaring” accounts by settling debts, balancing the books, etc. This usage clearly referred back to the use of the noun “square” to mean “guiding principle, proper order,” and had nothing to do with sailing ships.
In any case, the phrase “square away,” meaning “to put in proper order, to tidy up,” first appeared in print in 1909, in a notably non-nautical context (“She had a head on her, Barbie had, an’ when she got squared away, she made ‘em all get down an’ scratch”), and has been in wide use ever since. My sense is that while some people may think of sailing ships when they hear it, the phrase itself is more tied to the accounting use of “square” to mean “in proper order.”