Pet Sounds

dollI happened to notice the word “Strumpfhosen” in some German text — kind of a nice sound to play with, having that odd cluster of consonants in the middle — and from the context, given that I don’t know much German, I guessed that the word meant “stockings”. That sounded about right, because it reminded me of the lovely English word “strumpet”, the kind of girl you can be sure will be wearing stockings, probably fishnets.

Sadly, the German word really means “tights” in English, or “pantyhose” in American. I actually prefer the American term for its ugly awfulness: much more appropriate.

But I did wonder about “strumpet”, where did that come from? So I consulted my oracle of English etymology, Origins by Eric Partridge. Partridge, who died in 1979, had a particular interest in slang and less polite language (he also wrote A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English) so he was bound to know the origins of strumpet. Or so I thought. His etymological dictionary actually gives it as “o.o.o.” — “of obscure origin”, or “I have no idea”.

Well, being Partridge, he makes a suggestion at least, that it may derive from the Old Dutch “strompen”, to stride or to stalk. “A stalker of men?” he asks. Hmm. Even though you could do that very well in stockings, I’m not convinced. I think the “pet” part might be a diminutive, like the word “pet” itself, originating in the French word “petit”. “Strum”, of course, means to play a musical instrument repetitively and monotonously, as singer-songwriters do. Partridge says its onomatopeic, linked to “thrum” and “hum”.

But the element “strumi-“, from Medieval Latin, originally referred to any swelling or enlargement, (although the words which contain it now, such as “strumiferous”, apply specifically to goitre, swelling of the thyroid gland). I’m going to abandon the guitar-playing strumpet and go for the cute little one who causes something to be enlarged.

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