The fright in the forest?

Dear Word Detective:  How is it that “moccasin” means both a comfortable kind of footwear and a venomous snake? — Terry Diggs.

Well there you go. If you’ve ever wondered why I keep writing this column after nearly twenty years, there’s your answer. I keep getting questions that pique my own curiosity. I know that there’s no hidden plan or order to English words, and that even mainstream words (such as “cleave”) can develop two opposite meanings (“split apart” and “stick together,” in that case). But  there’s something about a word meaning both “soft comfortable shoe” and “deadly snake” that gets your attention and seems to demand an answer sooner rather than later. I think it’s the ominous incongruity of the two meanings that does it; it’s as if “teddy bear” also meant “assault rifle.”

Interestingly, there seems to be no real doubt that the “shoe” kind of moccasin and the “snake” kind are, in fact, the same word. Our English word “moccasin” is from the Algonquian Indian word “makasin” (or something similar) meaning “shoe,” describing a typical Indian shoe of what is now the Eastern US, made of a piece of soft leather or deerskin, usually having no separate sole. The first mention of the word in an English-language text was in 1612, where the word was spelled “mockasin.” The word was popularized after European trappers and backwoodsmen adopted “moccasins” as footwear, although the spelling of “moccasin” didn’t settle down until the 20th century (“Sometimes, they wear Indian Shooes, or Moggizons, which are made after the same manner, as the Mens are,” 1709; “His dress was a deer-skin jacket, … with morgissons, or deer-skin pumps, or sandals, which were laced,” 1760). Moccasins are still popular today, especially as slippers, and a true moccasin’s “unibody” construction (one piece of leather wrapped under and then over the foot) makes the shoes very comfortable.

The incongruous use of the term “moccasin” to also mean “deadly venomous snake” first appeared in print in 1765 (“We killed a Moccasin snake & toward noon it rained & thundred excedingly”), about 150 years after the word “moccasin” in the “shoe” sense, though it may have been in use far longer. There are actually two types of snakes, both pit vipers, called “moccasin”: the “water moccasin,” a semi-aquatic critter also known as the “cottonmouth” because the inside of its mouth is bright white, and its close relative, the landlubber “copperhead,” named for its reddish head.

Unfortunately, the answer to the central question here, how a word for a comfortable shoe came to mean a deadly snake, is considered a mystery. But I think there are two logical possibilities. The more likely, in my opinion, is that the connection is a reference to the nearly silent passage through the forest afforded to Indians by their soft moccasin shoes. In the 19th century, in fact, prison guards were known to wear similar shoes, also called “moccasins,” made of woolen yarn to muffle their footsteps and make surveillance of prisoners easier (“[Guards at Sing Sing] wear on their feet mocassins, as they are called, which are shoes made of woolen yarn, so that their steps are never heard,” 1834). It’s entirely possible that the power of the moccasin to make one’s footsteps silent made it a good folk term for a snake that could also glide silently through the forests and streams.

My other hunch has to do with the appearance of the snakes. The copperhead in particular has a dramatically ornate and colorful skin. The moccasins worn by Indians in the same general area of the Eastern forests were often decorated with colorful beads or sewn designs on the front “vamp” (above the toes), frequently signs of tribal affiliation, etc. It is possible that the skin of the “moccasin” snakes reminded European settlers of those “moccasin” decorations, a possibility which seems strengthened by the fact that early references to the snakes call them “moccasin snakes,” not simply “moccasins.”

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