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shameless pleading

Pawn

Yes, but this ball of twine belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

Dear Word Detective:  OK, first I did my own search, then I searched your online archives and then I did a search of your whole website. And I noticed (by coincidence) that just a couple of months ago you talked about enjoying the show Pawn Stars. But I don’t think you have ever talked about the history of “pawn.” The dictionary entries I found only intrigued me more. It talks about the chess piece “pawn” and how it traces back to “pown” and “peoun” (possibly related to foot soldiers and maybe “peon”) and even to “pes” and “pedo” in their relation to feet. Maybe my possessions have feet and are walking off to be pawned. But there is the interesting definition of something that is used to advance the interests of another, which no doubt is true in chess, and in the conversational sense of being a pawn in the grand scheme of things. But it also could be true of pawning things to advance my own or the pawn shop’s interest. There is also the transitive verb “to pawn” which is closer to what I am looking for, but I could find no etymology of the verb sense. I have come to the conclusion that “pawn” is a nautical term, and probably a nautical acronym (probably in use since the 1700s) at that. Sorry, I just had to say that. Anyway, could you please help? – Gary.

Whoa. For a moment I thought you were serious about the nautical acronym. I’m glad I was able to cancel the hit-man. It was actually a hit-dog, our Pokey, who was going to track you down and lick you. That probably doesn’t sound too bad, but you haven’t seen some of the other things Pokey licks. Furry little bio-hazard, she is.

You’ve done quite a bit of investigation on your own, which I encourage, in moderation. (If you folks start doing it to excess, I’ll have to find a real job.) And you’ve come up with some good leads to connect “pawn” in the chess sense to “pawn” in the “How much will you give me for this genuine Rilex watch?” sense. Unfortunately, such efforts are unlikely to bear useful fruit, because there is no connection between the two “pawns” — they are entirely separate words. English actually has five separate “pawn” nouns (one of which means “peacock”) plus one verb, but we’ll deal with just those two nouns.

“Pawn” in the chess piece sense is the older of the two words. Meaning “chess piece of smallest value and power,” this “pawn” does come from French and Latin roots meaning “foot soldier,” a good characterization of the pawn’s role on the chessboard, and first appeared in English in this literal sense around 1400. The figurative use of “pawn” to mean “servile agent” or “one who serves only another person’s interests” (“Stephen confesses … that in South America he became a pawn in the cocaine trade,” Guardian, 1995) dates to about 1450. Incidentally, the English word “pioneer” comes from the Old French word “paon,” also meaning “foot soldier” and based on the same roots.

The pawnshop sense of “pawn” came along a bit later, first appearing in English in the 15th century meaning “the state of being held as security for repayment of a loan,” usually in the form “at pawn” or “in pawn.” The source of this “pawn” was the Old French “pan,” meaning “pledge,” and the root of that was a Germanic word that may also have given us “penny.” That Old French “pan” (pledge) is, oddly, identical in form to the Old French “pan” meaning “cloth,” raising the possibility that the original sense may have been fabric used as a means of exchange.

In any case, “to pawn” as a verb showed up in the mid-16th century and “pawnbroker,” meaning a person who loans money on an item held as security, appeared in the mid-17th century. “Pawnshop” appeared in the mid-18th century, the earliest use in print found so far being in Henry Fielding’s 1749 comic novel Tom Jones (“My fine Clothes being often on my Back in the Evening, and at the Pawnshop the next Morning.”).

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