“Why is it called that?” Caterpickles consults the OED

Hedgehog (Image by Olaf1541)

Lately, The Four-Year-Old has become extremely interested in the origins of words. Questions like “why are grouches called grouches?” and “how did goosebumps get their name?” abound.

Naturally, these questions are coming at a time when Wikipedia’s English-language site has temporarily gone dark in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), which Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, describes as a “poorly designed mess.” So we at Caterpickles Central are going old school this morning and hauling out the OED.*

“Why are grouches called grouches?”

Grouch began its life as a noun in the late 1800s as a variant of the Scottish term grutch, which first emerged in the Late Middle Ages. Like its older and now obsolete cousin, grouch was first used to describe a fit of the sulks. Grouch wasn’t used as shorthand for cranky people until the early 20th century, when English speakers finally got tired of using words like curmudgeon and crab to describe their sulky acquaintances.

“How did goosebumps get their name?”

It is with deep regret that I was forced to inform The Four-Year-Old at breakfast this morning that the word goosebump does not appear in the official record of the English language. Its place is taken by its early 19th century cousin, gooseflesh, a far less pleasant term. The Four-Year-Old and I both agree that this is a shocking oversight on the part of a document which bills itself as the “greatest dictionary in any language.”

Fortunately, we at Caterpickles Central are only a generation or two removed from farm life, so I was able to inform The Four-Year-Old that goosebumps are called that because for the short time they appear, they make your skin look like that of a plucked goose.

“Why are hedgehogs called hedgehogs?”

Ah the noble hedgehog, named in the Late Middle Ages after its domicile of choice and pig-like snout. (The lines of closely clumped bushes where hedgehogs prefer to live were commonly called hedgerows in Old English.)

“How was the word grump made?”

Behold the power of phonics, The Four-Year-Old. Or is it better to say onomatopoeia, that literary device which predated phonics by some 400 years?

Whichever term you prefer to use with your Four-Year-Old, grump originated in the early 1700s as a written approximation of a contemptuous snort.

Grump first appeared in the thankfully short-lived phrase humps and grumps, which was used in the first half of the 1700s to describe a slight or a snub. By the mid-1800s, grump had gained enough traction to be used on its own to describe–you guessed it–a fit of the sulks. Like the word grouch, with which it was no doubt in fierce competition, grump evolved to refer to chronically irritable people in the early 20th century.

The Four-Year-Old has lots more questions along this line, but the OED is getting heavy, and my cat has issued a formal protest at its presence on my lap. So I’ll save the rest for later, and succumb to the power of the warm sleepies. I got up far too early this morning anyway.

*Investigation based on content from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Fifth Edition, published 2002 by the Oxford University Press.

Update:

Huffington Post has more on the rationale for the blackouts and other protests against SOPA/PIPA. If you’re interested.

About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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4 Responses to “Why is it called that?” Caterpickles consults the OED

  1. Paul says:

    Oh fine, you all are getting tired of using more formal language to describe us sulky types. I understand. I’ll be over hear when you want to apologize.

    Harrumph!

    Like

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