Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Mosquito Beyond Explanation

You’d think that a word with an unknown etymology would leave me with little to write about. But you’d be wrong.
gallinipper (GAL-eh-nip-per) — noun: an insect capable of inflicting a painful bite, usually a large mosquito or a crane fly.
Officially, that small chunk of syntax above seems that all that anyone has to say about the word, other than that it is chiefly used in the American South and Midwest and that its first recorded use was in 1709. Curiously, the crane fly as defined by Wikipedia doesn’t seem to bite, so only the “large insect” aspect of the creature would seem to render the definition accurate. Also, the insect is known as “daddy long-legs” in Canada, the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, whereas that name here in the U.S. usually refers to a spider. (I’d forgotten it, but I mentioned the crane fly previously on this blog, when I was pondering the plural form of the word daddy long-legs. A few years later, I still don’t know what the plural might be, though I’m happy to see that I’m not the only one wondering.) Thus, gallinipper and daddy long-legs both seem to be catch-all words that rarely seem to mean much. As far as where it comes from, I can only say that it would seem to follow a certain pattern common to that very specific kind of Americanisms along the lines of thingamajigger and other such old timey-sounding metasyntactic words.

A 1985 dictionary of regional English — brought to you and me alike through the magic of Google Books — gives us some added dimension to the confusion, offering no less than twelve variants on the word, including galnipper, galknipper, gallinapper, gallon dipper, gannipper, ganninipper, gollynipper, gullynapper, gurnipper, gabber napper, galliwopper, and my personal favorite, granny nipper. Even this entry, however, notes that “some of these insects do not bite.”

Words that gallinipper beat out for this week’s spot include a few notables — among them griffonage (meaning “careless handwriting” seemingly in the way people today use chicken scratch), gumma (“a syphilitic tumor,” which hearkens back to the last “G” word-of-the-week, grandgore), and gunsel, which formerly meant “a man’s young homosexual companion” but thanks to a line in The Maltese Falcon can now mean “gunman” or “hoodlum.”

Previous words of the week:

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