Dear Word Detective: Is the word “dewlap” Shakespearean? I mean, did Shakespeare make it up? — Andy McCollough.
That’s a good question. And while we’re at it, what’s up with all the obscure terminology associated with farm animals? “Dewlap”? “Fetlock”? “Withers”? “Pastern”? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that all mammals shared the same basic bits — head, ears, hips, legs, feet and so on. Now, I have in-laws who seem to spend most of their time queuing up for major elective surgery, such as hip or knee replacements. Listening to these people is an anatomy lesson in itself. But not once have I heard one of them announce that Doctor Lamborghini thinks they need a “fetlock replacement” or a “pastern repair.” Someone has some explaining to do.
Speaking of “pasterns,” one of my favorite stories about Dr. Samuel Johnson, author of the first true dictionary of the English language, concerns Johnson’s response to a woman demanding to know how he could have erroneously defined “pastern” in his dictionary as “the knee of a horse” (which it isn’t). “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance,” Johnson replied.
Onward. A “dewlap” is, as you probably know, the fold of loose skin which hangs from the throat of cattle and similar animals, and, by extension (in humor or unkindness), from the throats of some people. Similar formations in some animals, particularly chickens and US Senators, are called “wattles.”
Shakespeare didn’t coin “dewlap,” but he was, apparently, fond of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary lists two citations for “dewlap,” in early spellings, both from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“When she drinkes, against her lips I bob, And on her wither’d dewlop poure the Ale” and “My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kinde … Crooke-kneed, and dew-lapt, like Thessalian Buls”).
When Shakespeare was writing at the end of the 16th century, however, “dewlap” had already been in use for at least two centuries. It first appeared, as far as we know, in 1398 applied to oxen. The “lap” of “dewlap” is from the Old English “laeppa,” meaning “pendulous piece or flap,” but the “dew” part is a bit of a mystery. You might assume that, as the animal grazes in a morning meadow, that flap of skin collects dew from the grass. But in the related and equivalent forms of “dewlap” in Scandinavian languages (e.g., the Danish “doglaeb” and the Swedish “droglapp”), the first element does not mean “dew.” That’s a problem.
Etymologists now believe that the first part of “dewlap” was originally a word that sounded a bit like “dew” but has now become obsolete and unfamiliar, and that over the years people replaced it with the more familiar “dew.” This process of substituting the familiar for the obscure is known as “folk etymology,” and it’s how, for instance, “catercornered” (“cater” being an old English word for “four”) became “kittycornered” after people forgot what “cater” meant. “Kittycornered” made no sense at all, of course, but it had the virtue of at least sounding a bit less alien.