Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Wednesday WOLF

I'm a nerd. No really, stop, BBC! You!?! Yes, I'm in fact such a big nerd that I tend to look up word origins in my spare time because I'm fascinated by our language. The odder the origin, the better. I've got a collection of random information in my brain that makes me an awesome Trivial Pursuit partner, but is completely useless when it comes to real world application. Like say, job applications.

In any case, I thought I'd share some of this random crap with you in the form of the new acronym-ific series. I give you - Word Origins from Left Field - that's right, the WOLF (oh, how clever is she? She made an acronym out of her agency's name!) Er... ignore the fact that the "from" doesn't fit.

So today I thought I'd tackle the origin of the word "cathouse" as a nickname for a house of prostitution, because, surely there's a great colorful story behind that, right? I found many and sundry an answer to my question, and am a bit unsure of where to attribute the real origin.

My favorite answer combines history and awesomeness because it attributes the term to a story involving the crazy little town of Deadwood, SD. According to the tale, the flourishing business involving ladies of the night also suffered from smaller, less sex-interested mammals who would overrun buildings and... er... distract people. And despite their constant flow of customers, it seems said ladies often felt lonely, so an enterprising businessman thought, "Hey, I'll round up some stray cats and sell them to hookers!" (I'm still waiting for my big money making idea.)

However, the 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary claims that the word "cat" was slang for "prostitute"as early as 1401, when it was used as such in the Middle English poem, Friar Daw's Reply. I'll add that the usage in this poem is somewhat debatable.

I found a more likely culprit in the pages of Folk-Etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted In Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy by Abram Smythe Palmer. It seems the word "cat-house" was the term for an old species of battering ram, originally pronounced "cattus" because of its "crafty approach to the walls."

So, er, with all the battering ram and crafty approaching of walls imagery, I'm a little more likely to go for that last explanation, though I love me a good Deadwood story!

What's your favorite word origin? Tell me, or ask one you've always been curious about - I'll do my best to find the answer and get back to you in a future WOLF!


5 comments:

Marin said...

Very interesting. The Dictionary of Slang & Euphemism (very useful when trying to come up with historically correct ways to describe the "naughty bits") says that "cat" was a British term not only for prostitutes, but for their naughty bits as well, starting in the 15th century. "Cat" is also a verb, to describe men seeking women for sex, and that "cathouse" is of 20th century US origin. Here's my challenge for you - it's more a SOLF than a WOLF - what is the origin of "safe as houses"? I've been wondering for years - you'd think I would have managed to look it up by now.

Anita Grace Howard said...

LOL! And EEK! The battering ram imagery makes me woozy. Great post, Mindy. I love learning about words, too. This is my fave series on your blog. :)

Mindy McGinnis said...

Marin - "safe as houses?" Hmmm.... I've never heard that one. But I will definitely look it up!

Anita - Thanks! I'm glad you like it. It's good to know I'm not the only big nerd around :)

Kathryn Elliott said...

Prostitute and batering ram...two words I never imagined in the same post. LOL! Thanks for the chuckle.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Kathryn - no problem, I aim to please. No pun intended :)