Strapping

“Fuhgeddaboudit” is my middle name.

Dear Word Detective: Here’s something I’ve always wondered, but forgot to ask: Why do we describe a tall, well-built person as “strapping”? What do straps have to do with being big and healthy? — Judith, NYC.

You and me both. I’m frequently asked about words and phrases I’ve wondered about myself in the past, but either never quite worked up the energy to research or, more often, simply forgot about a few minutes later. I used to carry a little notebook with me in which I intended to jot down such fleeting inspirations, but apparently I lack the self-discipline to actually jot things. Besides, I figure that sooner or later a reader will raise the question. And now you have.

“Strapping” in the sense of “large, robust, vigorously sturdy and muscular” first appeared in English in the mid-17th century, and, interestingly, was initially applied to young women considered both “vigorous” and “lusty” (“And, now and then, one of the bolder strapping girles would catch him in her arms, and kisse him,” 1657). Today, of course, persons of either sex can be “strapping,” although the term is still largely reserved for the young. “Strapping young woman,” yes. “Strapping old geezer,” not so much.

There’s definitely a connection between “strapping” and “strap” in the usual sense of “a narrow, flat strip used for securing something,” the ultimate root of which was the Latin “stroppus,” meaning “band.” “Strapping” is drawn from the verb “to strap,” which has a variety of meanings ranging from the banal (“to fasten with straps”) to the unpleasant (“to beat with a leather strap”). The exact connection between “strapping” and “to strap” is a bit unclear, but “strapping” seems to combine the sense of strength in the noun “strap” with the verb “to strap” in the now antiquated sense of “to work tirelessly and energetically” (similar in meaning to the phrase “buckle down,” which originally meant to strap on one’s armor).

Speaking of “straps,” the current “economic downturn” (more of a “plunge,” I would say) has caused many of us to find ourselves “strapped,” i.e., short of money. The Oxford English Dictionary traces this slang term, which dates to 1857, to the verb “to strap” in the sense of “bound with straps.” But I beg to differ, and I suspect the real source is an entirely separate English dialectical verb “to strap,” a mutation of “to strip,” describing a particular technique for draining the last drops of milk from the udder of a cow. An 1881 glossary of English dialect terms notes that this verb “to strap” is “often metaphorically used for draining anything dry.” Considering that the public is, at the moment, playing the role of a cash cow being milked dry, this explanation of “strapped” rings true to me.

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