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shameless pleading

Chug

All I want for Christmas are my new front teeth.

Dear Word Detective: When I was a kid, the older boys in my south Minneapolis neighborhood spent a lot of time building and riding go-carts. At least, they are called “go-carts” everywhere else in the world, including most of Minneapolis, but in our weird little micro-logoverse, they were called “chugs.” (They were not powered, which may have been implied.) Have you ever come across this, or is this the ultimate in regional dialect? — Charles Anderson.

One of the great things about writing this column is that it gives me a good excuse to relive my childhood. I well remember building, with my friends in the early 60s, various wheeled death-traps we called “go-carts,” even though ours were cobbled together from old packing crates and lacked the engine, steering and brakes of a “real” go-cart (which was probably a good thing). I also vividly remember the day that my friend across the street was given a Thunderbird Junior, a miniature electric car, by business associates of his father (it had a huge Pepsi logo on the side). That car so effectively trumped anything the rest of us could possibly muster that I took up rock collecting a week later.

Speaking of “go-carts,” which we use to mean a very simple, often home-made, racing car with or without an engine, I was surprised to see that the term dates all the way back to the 17th century. It was originally applied to a wheeled wooden frame in which children learned to walk without falling.

“Chug” is a very interesting word, for two reasons. First, although “chug” has, as a noun, a verb, and in combination with other words, produced dozens of varied meanings, it’s a relatively young word. “Chug” first appeared in print as a noun in 1866. Secondly, all the various senses of “chug” refer, in some way, back to its origin, which was onomatopoeic, or “imitative” of a particular sound. In the case of “chug,” the particular sound is a dull, muffled and somewhat explosive sound, a little bit more energetic and mechanical-sounding than a “thud,” but definitely in the same aural ballpark (“The ponderous brother came down upon the floor with a ‘chugg’ that shook the house,” 1866). Although it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what sound inspired “chug,” it is so often likened in dictionaries to the sound of a steam or internal-combustion engine that it’s reasonable to assume that some sort of engine gave us the word.

The most common use of “chug” is, no doubt, in reference to the sound of an engine, especially a steam engine, such as on a locomotive. Applied to a car engine or some other machinery, “chug” often indicates either that the contraption is under-powered or that the engine is running a bit roughly. “Chug” as a verb is also used, by extension, to mean “moving along slowly but steadily” (“After dinner we hit the road again, and passed Harry about 20 miles up the road, still chugging along in his old Pinto”).

“Chug” has also, in US regional speech and slang, been used to mean “to hit” or “to punch,” or “to throw a heavy object into water,” again referring to the dull sound produced. But the most well-known use of “chug” as a verb is probably to mean “to drink a great quantity (usually of beer, etc.) without pausing.” This “chug” is actually a short form of “chugalug,” meaning the same thing, which is a US coinage dating back to the 1940s. The “alug” in “chugalug” is meaningless, but makes the word perfectly imitative of the sound of someone “chugging” a pitcher of beer (minus the subsequent retching, of course).

The closest I’ve found to the use of “chug” to mean “go-cart” comes from the 1920s, when “chugwagon” was US slang for an automobile (“I could buy and sell guys that’s got three homes and a couple of chugwagons,” Burnett, Little Caesar, 1928). I haven’t found any documentation of “chug” as widespread slang for any sort of homemade car, so I guess you and your Minneapolis friends were a linguistic lost tribe in that regard. “Chug” in that sense does do a good job of evoking the slow and precarious nature of such vehicles; we should probably be glad it never appeared in a newspaper headline.

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