Dear Word Detective: How about the word “kidnap”? I’m guessing it has nothing to do with kids, or with naps! — Emmie.
That’s a good question. Another good question is why it’s taken so long for someone to ask about “kidnap.” You’d think, given that much of cable TV news in the US seems to be devoted to examining the latest kidnappings in exhaustive detail, hour after hour, that someone would have asked me about the term during a commercial or something. Then again, since these networks have perfected the art of instilling mind-numbing fear into their audiences, perhaps the folks on the couch actually need to watch those ads for ShamWows and gold bullion as a form of zen relaxation.
Your guess about “kidnap” is half right. The “kid” in “kidnap” did, when the word appeared in English in the 17th century, refer to “kids,” meaning children or young people. “Kid” first appeared in English around 1200 meaning “the young of a goat,” derived from the Old Norse word (“kidh”) for the same. “Kid” is also applied to the young of similar animals (such as antelope) and to the hide of young goats made into a very soft leather used for expensive boots and gloves. To “handle with kid gloves,” meaning since the 19th century “to treat delicately,” refers to the softness of gloves made from kidskin.
“Kid” meaning “child” is an extended use of the “young goat” sense and first appeared in the 16th century, but only became really popular in the 19th century. “Kid” as a verb meaning “to act playfully or to tease” appeared in the 19th century and probably comes from the sense “to treat as one would a child.” The original sense of “to kid” was “to attempt to convince someone of something that is not true,” and it was first used by criminals to mean “deceiving or hoaxing a victim into giving up his valuables.”
The “nap” in kidnap has, as you suspected, nothing to do with “nap” meaning “a short period of sleep,” which comes from the Old English word “hnappian.” The “kidnap” kind of “nap” is an obscure and now nearly obsolete English word meaning “to seize or steal,” possibly related to the verb “to nab” (as in “Police nab bank robbers napping in vault”).
Interestingly, when “kidnap” first appeared in England in the late 1600s, it not only meant “to steal and carry off children,” but very specifically to snatch children and other young people in order to ship them off to the colonies in North America or the Caribbean to serve as servants or laborers (“Mr. John Wilmore haveing kidnapped a boy of 13 years of age to Jamaica, a writt … was delivered to the sheriffs of London against him,” 1683). The word “kidnap” itself is thought to be a grisly souvenir of this practice, invented by the criminals who actually stole children from the slums of England to sell into servitude half a world away.