Jewish World Review Feb. 2, 2004 / 10 Shevat, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
"Mutt"; "lobby" in its political sense; "procrustean bed"
I am curious as to the origin of the word "mutt," meaning "a dog of mixed breed."
C. T., Warren, Massachusetts
Dear C. T.:
Tracing "mutt" back to its origins involves many centuries and two additional species, one with four legs and the other with two. We begin with "moton," a word ultimately of Celtic origin (it is related to the Welsh "mollt," meaning "a ram") that was used in Old French to mean "a sheep" and "the flesh of a sheep used for food." Borrowed into Middle English as "motoun" with these senses at about the beginning of the 14th century, the word eventually came to be spelled "mutton." Its "sheep" sense had fallen into disuse in English by the end of the 19th century, but its "food" sense, of course, continues in use today.
The well-known 1970's TV character Archie Bunker of "All in the Family" was known for addressing his hapless son-in-law as "meathead." The Archie Bunkers of an earlier time in America expressed a similar sentiment with the word "muttonhead," which was first recorded as a slang term in 1803. It wasn't until about a hundred years later that the shortened form "mutt" first appeared, originally with the sense "a stupid or foolish person." Its use in referring to dogs followed soon afterward. It occurs not only as a synonym of "mongrel," of course, but also as a generalized term of abuse for any dog, in which use it can probably be best regarded as the canine equivalent of "meathead."
Is it true that the word "lobby" in its political sense comes from "lobby" meaning the entry room of a building?
J. L., Scott City, Kansas
Dear J. L.:
Yes, the political "lobby" does indeed derive from the architectural "lobby," and specifically from the sense meaning "an anteroom to a legislative chamber." In connection with politics and government, "lobby" means "a group of persons representing a special interest who attempt to influence public officials, especially legislators, about legislation." This sense of "lobby" developed from the custom of engaging in such activity in the lobby outside of a legislative assembly room.
As early as 1640 in England, "the Lobby" referred in particular to the entrance hall of the House of Commons. The hall was open to the public, and there, citizens could address members of Parliament free of formal procedures. Legislative antechambers have been a favorite site for politicking in this country as well, and the use of "lobby" to mean a group of persons representing a special interest is an Americanism dating back to a time at least as early as 1808. Present in the record of Congressional debates of that year is the statement, "If we move to Philadelphia we shall have a commanding lobby."
By 1837 the verb "to lobby" was in use, and by 1863 "lobbyist" was the standard term for a practitioner of this activity. During the 19th century, lobbyists were widely considered little better than political scoundrels. In the minds of some Americans, their reputation has not improved greatly in years since.
What is the origin of the term "procrustean bed?"
I. G., Huntington, West Virginia
Dear I. G.:
The term "procrustean bed" is used for a scheme or pattern into which someone or something is arbitrarily forced. The adjective "procrustean," which is often capitalized, means "marked by arbitrary and often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances." The bed is derived from the ancient Greek legend of the robber Procrustes. According to the story, he would take prisoners and place them on an iron bed. If they didn't fit, he would either stretch them or amputate parts until they did.
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