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Linguistic Origins & Etymology of the English Language: An Etymological Study of the Curious English Word, "Strapping".

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A timely political cartoon about Etymology.  Notice how the way the word has changed is used to comment upon society.

A timely political cartoon about Etymology. Notice how the way the word has changed is used to comment upon society.

What is an etymological study?

An etymological study of a word or term is one that traces its development and usage throughout the past.  These studies are often interesting because language always develops and changes for reasons.  This is a fairly basic etymological study.  I decided to investigate it because I was curious how the word had come to mean what it means.  If this hub is successful, I will repeat this study on new words. 

Again, the focus of this study is not simply to define the term, but to present all the past definitions for it and to explain how and why they have changed (as well as possible).

An example of an etymological dictionary entry.

An example of an etymological dictionary entry.

When, in 1657, George Thornley translated Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe to say “and now and then, one of the bolder strapping girles would catch him in her arms, and kisse him,” one could hardly imagine that this curious term “strapping,” for this passage contains the oldest known record of the word, would eventually come to mean “having a sturdy muscular physique; robust” as it is defined today, in 2006, by the American Heritage Dictionary (Longus 24).  On the contrary, as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, the adjective “strapping” would mean “full of activity, vigorous, lusty” for Thornley and his contemporaries.  The Oxford English Dictionary also tells us that as the term entered the language, in the mid seventeenth century, it was specifically used to describe young women.

            The Online Etymology Dictionary, an online database that is a compilation of many scholarly English etymological reference materials such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Klein's "A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language," cites the terms “spanking” and “whopping” in its etymology of the term.  Apparently all three terms entered the language within thirty years of each other.  This would mean the formation of “strapping” was most likely born in the functional shift from the present participle form of “to strap” to an adjective.  The new presence of three such terms in the mid seventeenth century, all of which came from older roots[1], indicates a linguistic trend.  Such trends are easily understandable by examining our current culture.  Euphemisms, and particularly euphemisms that take only the first letter of the word it stands for, exemplify such a trend in modern linguistics.  One need only utter the phrase, “the ‘N’ word” and then consider all the other possible formations of the euphemism, “the ‘F’ word,” “the ‘B’ word,” to begin to understand how this might have worked for adding “ing” to a word to give it a new meaning in the seventeenth century. 

[1] The OED tells us that strapping comes from “strap” or “strop” while spanking comes from “spank” and whopping from “whop”.

One of the best and most popular etymological dictionaries of the English language is the one published by Oxford University.

One of the best and most popular etymological dictionaries of the English language is the one published by Oxford University.

Considering the lexical meaning of these terms in their original seventeenth century usage, the idea that they are the products of a trend rather than academic or scientific realms becomes plausible.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives examples of all three terms being used to refer to loose women or prostitutes.  This usage obviously carries a pejorative sense that indicates these words would not be appropriate, for the subject matter they appear to describe is inappropriate in and of itself, in academic or scientific studies.   

            If this hypothesis is correct, then understanding how the term could have lost this pejorative sense and ameliorated while at the same time switching in application from one gender to both becomes possible.  The most probably explanation is that the term, since it was never taken too seriously in its original inception, had no strong ties to its original meaning.  Consider the term “strap” there is nothing in the term that conveys the lusty vigorousness “strapping originally meant.  This new meaning, as can be seen by modern linguistic trends, probably lost its appeal as the social and linguistic forces that created these new terms faded or changed.

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Curious about Etymology? Read up!

A great resource for looking up the etymology of any term online is The Online Etymology Dictionary.  You can find the site at the source link below.

A great resource for looking up the etymology of any term online is The Online Etymology Dictionary. You can find the site at the source link below.

Furthermore, the term “strapping” today, as defined by as “muscular and heavily built; beefy,” connotates a certain lustiness.  It would be no large stretch of the imagination to see how a  mind so inclined might make use of a word like “strapping” to describe a well-built and attractive young man given the words past applications.  Considering wit as a source of linguistic creativity, there is even a certain wittiness in the analogy between a muscular young man and a lusty young woman.  Once a shift such as this has been made, the connotation cannot help but ameliorate.

Considering psychology as well, once the term is applied to young healthy men, it would contain for those who used it a sense of envy.  This of course contains the presumption that those using the term “strapping” were men and specifically those that would sit around talking about prostitutes while perhaps drinking.  Again, it is no difficult stretch of the imagination to understand how “strapping” gave voice to a latent envy, amongst those who would talk this way, which elucidates motivation for the shift from one gender to both.  At this point it would only take a matter of time before the more pejorative, and therefore more inappropriate meaning of the word, would be swallowed up by a meaning that is not only more socially acceptable but is also fueled by human psychological desire.

Though it would have been impossible for Thornley or his contemporaries to predict the linguistic evolution of the term “strapping” it is not difficult now, looking back, to see how not only this word but language itself evolves.  Here lies the true value of etymology: not the individual treasures along the way, but the ultimate revelation of the path along which humanity always expresses itself. 

Works Cited

Longus.  Daphnis and Chloe.  Trans. George Thornley.  London.  1894.

“Strap.”  Online Etymology Dictionary.  2001.

“Strapping.”  The American Heritage Dictionary.  4th ed.  2000.

“Strapping.”  2001.

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“Strapping.”  The Oxford English Dictionary.  2nd ed.  1989.

“Strapping.”  Wordnet.  2006.  Princeton University.

The Next Etymological Study?

If you found this hub helpful and would like to see more of this type of hub, please leave me feedback.  Perhaps there is a word you are curious about?  Leave a comment, if it's intriguing to me as well, I just might write my next study on it.

As always, all comments and questions are welcome.  Thanks for reading and check back soon for more hubs!


SunshineToday on March 29, 2011:

Really interesting.

Yours sincerely (or: "I'm delivering this without wax"),

SunShine Today

p.s. look up "sincerely" - you'll just love its etymology!

cdub77 (author) from Portland Or on December 11, 2010:

Beckadidi, there isn't much in the way of examples for this term, unfortunately. However, I have a couple I can add to this article and will do this soon! I just have to look up my sources again to get the exact examples.

Many times, however, we are left with large gaps between uses and with stark changes taking place between instances. It's an imperfect science, but I do know for certain I can give you an example, that I recall from memory, from around the turn of the century.

Great comment and idea! Thanks for helping make this a better article.

beckadidi on December 11, 2010:

Very interesting. It would be nice have an example of when the meaning changed.

KLeichester on December 05, 2010:

This is a nice read. Thanks.

Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on October 27, 2010:


I am fascinated by etymology. I love etymological dictionaries and just read them for pleasure. It's probably because I also love history ~ and etymology is the history of our words. This also fits with my fascination for the origin of place-names.

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