Hawk one’s wares

Or maybe they work there and can’t afford an apartment.

Dear Word Detective:   What is the meaning of the phrase “to hawk their wares”?– Lisa.

Is this about me selling my books in the Wal-Mart parking lot?  The guy who collects the carts said it was OK.  And my publisher isn’t exactly force-feeding them to Barnes & Noble, so I had to take the initiative.  Besides, it’s not as though I, let’s see, drove my humongous RV over there and set up camp for a month with lawn chairs and a barbecue.  What’s up with that?  You see these people in nearly every Wal-Mart lot.  Do they just really, really like Wal-Mart?  Are they waiting for the mothership?  Or were they on a cross-country trip and finally realize that every place in this country now looks like every other place and just give up?

OK, back to work.  To “hawk” originally meant “to offer for sale in a very vigorous, public fashion, especially by calling out loudly in the street,” in the classic fashion of newspaper vendors.  Modern “hawkers” tend to be found in TV infomercials, where a fast, aggressive and mind-numbingly repetitive sales pitch can hypnotize millions of otherwise sane people into buying musical doorstops and digital clothes hangers.

One might think, especially after watching a few infomercials, that “hawk” in this sense is a metaphor, likening a “hawking” huckster swooping down on hapless customers to a real hawk hunting field mice.  But while “hawking” can have definite predatory overtones, the bird we know as a “hawk” (whose name comes from a Germanic root meaning “to seize”) is not the source of this “hawking.”

The verb “to hawk” in the sense of “to sell” is actually what linguists call a “back-formation,” a word coined by removing parts of an existing word to form a new, more “basic” word that perhaps should have, but didn’t, exist before.  Classic examples of this process are the creation of the new verb “to sculpt” in the 19th century from the existing noun “sculptor” and, in the 18th century, the invention of “to edit” from the existing noun “editor.”  In the case of “hawk,” the existing form, back in the 16th century,  was the noun “hawker,” meaning a traveling street vendor, which was rooted in the old German “hocken,” meaning “to carry upon the back,” as a vendor lugs his goods from place to place.  In other words, it’s the traveling around that distinguished a true “hawker.”  All the shouting was just gravy.

“Wares,” in case you were also wondering about that, is a very old word meaning “article  manufactured for sale,” and comes from a root meaning “object guarded with care” (the same root that gave us “wary”).  “Hardware,” “silverware” and similar words all incorporate this “ware.”

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