or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


The word that popped into my head and demanded to be etymologized was, for no evident reason, "suffocate". Isn't that awful?

Trying to pick it apart without guidance is no use at all, believe me. You could guess that it is Latin, and that it starts with "sub-", which got mutated into "suf-" because that sound is easier to say before the letter "-f-": other than that, what could it possibly be? You'll never guess!

It comes, as we guessed, directly from Latin: "suffocare", "to suffocate". It originally meant "to narrow, to construct", and was formed from (again, as we guessed) "sub-", "(up from) under", and "fauces", "throat, narrow passage".

"Fauces", you say? "Narrow passage," you say? Well, doesn't that look just exactly like "faucet"?

Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn't. It's complicated.

To tap a keg of beer, you need a device consisting of a long thin tube which can pierce the cask and a plug of some sort, possibly a stopcock, which can control the flow. Way back when, a spigot-and-faucet was the name of this device: the spigot (related to "spike", for reasons we don't need to get into) was the stopper and the faucet was the narrow tube. The throat, if you like. Therefore, the word must logically come from "fauces".

But there's another proposed etymology: "faucet" comes from French "fausset", which is related to "fausse", "false", through an extended meaning of "fausser", "to break into". In this case, the spigot is the hollow spike that pierces the cask, and the faucet is the part--the bottleneck, the narrow passage--that controls the flow. This, in fact, was the original sense of spigot-and-faucet: only later, and only in some parts of England, was the whole contraption reversed, etymologically.

So which is it? Different sources have different opinions, and the OED refuses to speculate, saying only that "faucet" is "of unknown origin". I personally think that "fauces" is more likely, but, and you will have figured this out already, I am not a professional, so take that for what it's worth.

At any rate, nowadays, of course, the whole operation is called the faucet, at least in the U.S. In the UK, they call it the tap. In Canada, they call it both, or either; the words are interchangeable.


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