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shameless pleading






It’s a cat’s paw that pries.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word “tool,” as in “He is such a tool”? — Chris.

Well, first things first. Are we certain that the person in question is not, in fact, literally a tool, as one might find in a carpenter’s kit? I seem to recall that former US Representative Tom DeLay spent a good deal of his time trying to get people to call him “The Hammer,” supposedly in reference to his ruthless enforcement of party discipline in passing legislation. I always wondered whether that nickname was really more of an attempt to compensate for the fact that his name was, after all, “delay.” When I went to check up on whatever happened to The Hammer, I found that he had been convicted (nailed?) for money laundering by federal prosecutors (who probably just wanted to steal that cool nickname). He’s appealing his conviction, so his three-year prison sentence has been, sigh, delayed. By the way, my new nickname is The Laser WordShark.

In its most basic literal sense, a “tool” is an implement used to perform work, such as a hammer, a machine (such as a lathe), or, more broadly and figuratively, something (or someone) that is used to accomplish a task, whether it’s a piano used to play a concerto or a lobbyist employed to draft legislation. Since the use of tools has long been viewed as one of the most singular characteristics of homo sapiens (although other animals, including crows, have lately been observed subversively making and using tools), it’s not surprising that “tool” is itself a very old word. “Tool” first appeared in Old English as “tol,” based on the Old Germanic “towlo,” “tow” carrying the sense of “to make or prepare” and the suffix “lo” being “agentive,” in this case meaning “that which does something,” giving us “something that is used to make or prepare something.”

Not surprisingly for a word so old, “tool” has acquired an impressive range of figurative uses. One of the oldest slang uses has been use of the term to mean various bodily organs, particularly what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) calls, with awesome tact, “the male generative organ.” Moving right along, “tool” has also been used, at least since the 17th century, to mean “a person used by another for his own ends; one who is, or allows himself to be, made a mere instrument for some purpose” (OED), or what was called, in a more literate age, “a cat’s paw.” (As I explained a few years back, an ancient fable tells the story of a monkey who came upon some chestnuts roasting in a fire. Lacking the means to retrieve the tasty chestnuts from the fire, the clever monkey managed to convince a somewhat dim cat to reach into the flames with his paw and fetch them. The monkey got the chestnuts, the cat was rewarded with a nasty hotfoot, and a metaphor for “useful chump” was born.)

This use of “tool” to mean “dupe” or “errand boy” dates back to the mid-17th century. At about the same time “tool” was also being used as slang to mean “an unskilled worker or shiftless person,” one who was fated to be exploited by employers. This use also implied that the “tool” was, in fact, a fool, an easily misled person (“This gained the poor Tool intirely, and he was ready from that time to receive any Impression,” 1747), good only for causing trouble to others (“Tricked, fooled, like a child! and through means of this treacherous, drunken tool,” Bret Harte, 1876).

The current use of “tool” as slang combines the “cat’s paw” and “stupid” senses of “tool” described above to produce something close to “deluded and self-important idiot” in meaning. It seems to be gradually losing that “cat’s paw” sense, and lately I’ve seen it being used to mean simply “arrogant fool.” But I’m probably drawing distinctions where none are needed. If you’ve ever had your boss helpfully remind you about the proper method of stapling the covers on your TPS reports, you know what a “tool” is.

2 comments to Tool

  • Alex

    I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that the current usage of “tool” (when referring to a person) more usually represents the “male generative organ” sense of the word.

  • gilly-yo

    I’ve always thought the same thing–or if it at first wasn’t that…I think the young people of today certainly think it was!

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