or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Under the Influence

Sometimes an etymology is staring you right in the face, and you just don't see it. And sometimes it is wonderful.

The word "draw" has a great many meanings in English: there are certainly forty of them, maybe more. And what is wonderful is that they all come from the same source, Indo-European "dhragh-", "to draw, to pull, to drag", which came into Old English as "dragan" from Germanic "draganen" and became "drauen" in Middle English. Every sense of "draw" in English has that same notion of pulling or dragging. To draw a picture is to drag your pencil across paper. To draw breath is to pull it into your lungs. When a game is a draw, it's because both participants (as in a tug-of-war) were pulling equally hard to win. You draw your weapon, draw a crowd, draw out a leisurely lunch, draw interest, draw back, and in every case the meaning is "to pull".

Now, "dhragh-" looks like "drag", and every sense of "drag" in English also has that notion of pulling, with one likely exception (which you will probably guess). A horse drags a wagon behind it; later, "drag" came to be used for the wagon itself, and the slangy sense of a car as a wagon (you can still buy a station wagon) led to "drag racing", which could take place on the main drag. ("Drag" even came to mean the car itself, although this, the Oxford English Dictionary notes, perhaps rather sniffily, is "criminals' slang".) You take a drag on your cigarette, you drag your feet when you're tired, a bore drags out his tedious story: again, pulling, every time. The only exception is the drag which people wear, whether in the most literal sense of "the clothing of the opposite sex" or the metaphorical "clothing for a specific purpose" ("business drag"). This may come from the sense of a woman's long skirts dragging on the floor, but that stinks of folk etymology: a better guess is German "tragen", "to wear", via Yiddish "trogn", which would have been heard in theatrical circles. (The OED declines to speculate on the matter.)

Another offshoot of "dhragh-" is "draft", and damned if every single sense of "draft" in English doesn't also have that sense of pulling or drawing. Draft beer is pulled from a tap; the draft pulls conscripts into the army; a rough draft is drawn up quickly, a draft of air is drawn through an opening into a room, a draftsman draws for a living.

Discovering things like this makes me just absurdly happy.


Post a Comment

<< Home