For reasons I won't trouble you with, I was recently compiling
a list of synonyms for 'testicle.' After exhausting the biological
(gonad, testis) and the edible (mountain oyster, prairie oyster),
I started recruiting help on the slang. (Any ideas welcome at
the address below. But please make clear whether you mean them
as suggestions for my list or as literary criticism of my article.)
One friend offered a story she had heard recently from a Mohawk
When white explorers came off their boats looking for sex, they
overcame the language barrier by gesturing to their testicles.
The Mohawk men, helpfully, replied, "Squaw," the word
for men's genitalia. If dirty language was what it took to get
these thugs interested in learning, then so be it. Hence, whenever
the word was later used derogatorily, the white men were insulting
their own balls.
Sadly, as good a reclamation story as this may be, it doesn't
convince the linguists, who trace the word back to the Algonquin
and Assiniboine for 'woman.' It sounds more like a twist on another
folk derivation of the word, which has it as a bastardized version
of the Mohawk word for female genitalia, thus making the term
Folk etymologies float all around us, and investigating them
tends to be a balloon-puncturing exercise. The stories are usually
not true. Two other friends just told me earnestly that golf originates
in clubhouses that hung signs inscribed with the phrase, "Gentlemen
Only, Ladies Forbidden." A while ago, at a sombre pot-luck,
a group of us mourned the death of the word 'picnic,' now unusable
due to its history of racial-hatred-and-lunch jaunts in the southern
states (details easily available online, but don't bear repeating
here). Gorp (and I was so fond of this one, and believed it) is
a mixture of Good Ol' Raisins and Peanuts. All of these explanations
are, for want of a better word, bollocks.
Golf may either come from the Dutch word for a stick or club
(introduced to Scotland by Dutch traders. Naturally, you would
name your favourite game after a foreign word used by people who
sell things to you.) or from the Scottish exclamation 'gauf' meaning
something like 'oof' or 'thwack.' Picnics, or rather written evidence
of them, began in the 18th century, cropping up in the letters
of Lord Chesterfield in 1748. The French, always first at the
table with any decent trend, started having 'pique-nique's as
early as 1694, so-called because 'piquer' means to peck and 'nique'
is something of little value. French aristocrats would haul out
people they didn't consider very important and feed them to the
chickens. No, they wouldn't. The pique-nique was just a potluck,
until some bright spark thought of doing it outside on a sunny
day. And gorp began as a verb meaning 'to eat greedily' before
being booted upstairs to the House of Nouns.
One response to spurious etymologies is to tut-tut at people's
laziness in believing them, when it really isn't difficult to
check these things in a dictionary. Another is to enjoy the game
of it, and invent more. (On a hike once, Anicka
Quin and I followed the logic of the words 'penultimate' (almost-but-not-quite
ultimate) and 'peninsula' (almost-but-not-quite an island) to
come up with a good explanation of 'penis.' But enough of the
genitalia topic.) A third way (and there is one! there is one!)
is to see the practice sympathetically as something like the writing
of creation stories. Language is unruly and flummoxing as nature,
and like nature it is also a kind of home. No wonder that people
try to make a pet of it, or let's say a nest, by picking favourite
words like twigs and binding them together tenuously.
Perhaps the smart way is the scientific, face-the-evidence methodology
of linguists and lexicographers. Certainly these are the right
people to put together dictionaries. But a person's vocabulary
is not simply a concise edition of a dictionary; it's a bearing
wall of personality. We should be allowed to choose and keep some
stories that satisfy us because to have an illusion of control
over one part of our environment allows to face the rest more
Even it is just a load of family jewels, I'm keeping my good
ol' raisins and peanuts. It's a very good reason to call trail
mix 'gorp.' The circularity and goofiness of it comforts me on
my hikes through the wilderness. And for similar reasons, I wish
the squaw story some luck in its journey through Canadian conversations.
It deserves live in our culture alongside the scientific derivation
by virtue of being a good tale amid so many bad ones.
Tom Howell deserves to
live as a good fellow. Amid so many.