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shameless pleading

Tote

I prefer a gunny sack and a wheelbarrow.

Dear Word Detective: I got to wondering about the current popularity (especially in LL Bean catalogs) of the use of “tote” as a noun (e.g., “Pop your beach gear in one of our handy totes”). I know of “tote” as a verb (e.g., “Tote your beach gear in one of our handy canvas bags”). But before sneering too much at another case of “nouning a verb,” I thought to look up the origin of “tote” to see if it actually started as a verb. Alas! I hit the “origin uncertain” wall — the etymologist’s shrug. Any insight to share? — Danny.

Nouning verbs? Be careful or you’ll provoke a new crusade. The usual complaint among people who complain about such things is directed at “verbing nouns,” using nouns as verbs (“chair,” “host” and “gift” being notorious examples). It’s an ancient complaint, but a few years ago Calvin, of the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, revived the ruckus by famously declaring that “Verbing nouns weirds language.” That line was a big hit with folks who were apparently unaware that approximately one-fifth of our modern English nouns started out as verbs (including “pepper,” “strike,” “divorce” and “fool”). This sort of role-change for words is called “conversion,” and it’s not at all uncommon. As for “nouning verbs,” if it were really such a bad idea, gerunds would be illegal.

Onward. “Tote” was, at least in English, originally a verb. It first appeared in English around 1677, and from the beginning it had the same general definition it has today: “to carry by hand, or to haul or lug on the person (as in a backpack, etc.).” “Tote” is also used to mean “to routinely carry as part of one’s usual equipment” (“Each officer totes a sidearm, pepper spray, a two-way radio and emergency doughnuts”). In the 18th century, “tote” was also used in two slightly wider senses: “to accompany or escort another person” as on a visit (“At Baltimore I made a stay of two days, during which I was toted about town,” Washington Irving, 1807) and “to carry or transport,” not necessarily on one’s body (“I … cart all the wood, tote the wheat to the mill,” 1803).

If you look up the origin of “tote” as a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), you’ll find that they label it as “origin unascertained.” They go on to declare that “There is no foundation for an alleged origin in the black slave communities of the Southern States (and ultimately Africa).” Yet at least two other perfectly reputable dictionaries, Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, find just such a theory plausible, introducing it with “probably” and “perhaps,” respectively.

The specific assertion of the theory is that “tote” harks back to a word in a West African language brought to the American South by slaves, possibly something akin to “tota” (“to pick up”) in Kikongo or “tuta” (to pile up or carry) in Swahili. The time period of first appearance is certainly right, and the spotty written record of creoles spoken by early-generation slaves would make a slam-dunk documentation of a transition from “tota” to “tote” hard to come by. But, given the exact correspondence in the meanings of the words, it certainly doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch. However, considering the apparent lack of any solid evidence at all, I’m not surprised that the OED plays hardball on this one. It’s their job.

Meanwhile, back at the LL Bean catalog (which should be plural, or perhaps something beyond plural, since we receive at least three different versions per day, the latest being “LL Bean for Pets”), “tote” first appeared as a noun in the early 20th century, meaning simply “an act of carrying or transporting.” The use of “tote” to mean “a large canvas carrying bag given in return for money sent to a radio station” is simply a convenient shortening of “tote bag,” which dates back to around 1900 (“The Watson Tote Bag … best thing … for carrying coat, camera, …lunch, &c.,” 1900). For the record, I am the proud owner of precisely zero tote bags, though I do have a dandy messenger bag I used to wear when I rode the subways in New York City. Unlike a tote bag, it leaves your hands free to deal with the things you have to deal with.

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