Of boobs and bagels: etymology and bias

  1. In my last stint in grad school, I had some (thankfully limited) encounters with the discipline of Education, and learned that there is a controversy about the word ‘pedagogy.’ Apparently some educators felt that because it contains the root ped- (from Greek ‘pais,’ child), it couldn’t properly refer to the instruction of adults and needed to be replaced by some other term (and not, it seems, by such available words as ‘instruction,’ ‘tuition,’ and education).

I think we should be careful about confusing etymology with meaning.  The words ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ are derived from ‘hlaf-weard’ and ‘hlaf-dige,’ meaning respectively bread-guardian and bread-kneader; this is an interesting factoid about how the Anglo-Saxons thought about social power, but it has roughly bumpkus to do with the words’ use in modern English–I haven’t heard anyone claim that a gluten-intolerant woman can’t be a real lady.

A little tougher is buxom, which I’m guessing you didn’t know was from the same root as bagel.  The root means ‘bend’; bagels are bent into a ring, and buxom originally meant ‘easily bent to one’s will,’ compliant.  How do you get from obedient to busty?  Well, these are both traits that men in our culture have traditionally valued in women.  I imagine Guy 1 saying “Verily, that Prudence is pleasingly buxom,” meaning she does what she’s told, and Guy 2 assuming this is Guy 1’s coy way of saying he likes her big boobs.

On the one hand, so few people know this that I can’t say it affects the current meaning of the word.  On the other hand, _I_ know it, and it creeps me out, with its implication that obedience is an attractive feminine quality, so I admit that I avoid using ‘buxom’ on those occasions when the topic of breast size comes up.  Certainly there are alternatives–my friend K’s lesbian admirers write things on her Facebook page like “I’d forgotten how majestic your tits are” and “Your cleave is unstoppable,” though I am not sure I would recommend such a direct approach for us boys.

Finally, there are some cases where the word retains a degree of transparency and the history affects the semantics.  I am thinking of words like “chairman” and “fireman.”  It used to be argued (perhaps still is) by conservatives that the “man” in these words was meaningless, and they could apply equally to male or female persons, but it is hard to deny that the default image they summon up is male.  Douglas Hofstadter many years ago performed an interesting thought experiment by satirically transposing the issue of sexist language into the domain of race, something like “Of course a black person can be a chairwhite, spokeswhite, or firewhite–where’s the problem?”  Once you have “chairwhite” in your mind, “chairman” doesn’t sound so good.

So to return to ‘pedagogy’–you remember, we were talking about pedagogy–is there really a problem?  I personally don’t see it, first because there isn’t, to my knowledge,  a history of ferocious centuries of exploitation and oppression of adult learners.  Besides, I don’t think most people think of the child/adult distinction as an essential part of their mental picture of the word, though I could be wrong, I haven’t done a survey.  In any case, oiur anti-pedagogy crusaders (and my textbook) ended up embracing the new word “androgogy.”  This is actually quite ironic, possibly more so than precipitation during your nuptials.  Greek has a word for “human being,” namely ‘anthropos’–this is pretty familiar, right?  Anthopology, anthropomorphic, philanthropist…these all have to do with humans.  So the obvious neologism would be anthropogogy.  But no, the crusaders instead managed to use the Greek root ‘andro-‘ from ‘aner,’ “man, male person.”  As in polyandry and androgynous.  Now we can all feel better, we’ve accommodated the adult learners by excluding half the human race.  Ugh.

I was horrified, and pointed the issue out to my professor, but Dr. L seemed to think that I was being some sort of freaky geek or geeky freak for caring about such things.  This was, after all, the prof who once told me “Roy, you think too much,” a statement that IMO should disqualify anyone from teaching at a university.

The interplay between terms for human being and those for one or another sex is an interesting story in itself, which I’ll take up in another post about “woman.”

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7 Responses to Of boobs and bagels: etymology and bias

  1. Ann Foxen says:

    My, my, my. But what if the bending part of buxom meant that the generously endowed woman could easily bend men to her will. Perhaps no one wanted to say it, but everyone knows that it’s true.

  2. Dan says:

    I think bagel is as Turkish as Baklava. I could be wrong.

    • Roy says:

      Well, OK. My version is based on (a) having looked up the etymology of bagel in a dictionary and (b) having spent years studying the history and development of Germanic languages, of which Yiddish is basically one. The cognates in Old English and Middle High German are pretty compelling.
      If you have some evidence that European Jews borrowed this word from the Turks, I would be glad to hear it.

  3. tzopilotl says:

    intuit/tuition=thuitoca/othuitocac(Nauatl)=think one sees something,=ittitia toca(N).
    bagel=paca/opac(N)=washer,=pacca(N)=with pleasure.
    buxom=poxactic(N)=bland/spongy/loose. x(N)=sh(E).

  4. tzopilotl says:


  5. KVN says:

    Thanks for the differentiation between OCD grammar patrols and actual understanding of what you’re talking about. Heh. (Recently argued with a co-worker on a related topic on which she thought she knew more…. after her chastisement, I continued using my grammar and she went on to righteously use her…. we all know who was right.) But seriously, fun article, well done. 8)

    • tzopilotl says:

      bagel=parcel(E)=Barcel/ona=ba(r)g/cel. it’s the fault of Cataluña.

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