I used to be terrible at Balderdash–you know, that game where you make up and guess about the definitions of words? I had no poker face. Actually, I still have no poker face, but I have something that gives me an edge: educational credibility. Believe it or not, although my Latin, Greek, German, and linguistics studies have certainly given me a vast array of tools to draw upon for making a reasonable guess about where a word comes from, I do not actually know the origin of even a large percentage of the words in the English language.
This does not stop people from asking me about the origin of words as if I were some oracle of etymology, and being the puckish pun-making monster that I am, I frequently abuse this power by giving answers that are both entirely plausible and entirely absurd. Last night, for instance, John made a passing comment noting his curiosity about the origin of “quench.” I glibly said, “It’s from the French word quancaise. You know how “French” in French is francaise? Same type of word.”
I was gunning for a laugh from John, but when he bought my silly explanation, I settled for laughing at him. I’m not above that. Neither, apparently are some of the people who coin words that eventually make it into the dictionary, such as…
The way modern words come into being is this: somebody wants to convey meaning. To do this, they beg, borrow, and steal from the forms that have already been used to express some other relevant meaning. They can combine words, shorten them, mesh word parts together, or make up nonsense that sounds sort of like what you might imagine a word to be. If there is enough value for conveying the specific meaning the new word is attached to, other people pick it up and start using it. Eventually, lexicographers notice the word showing up in the written record and pop it into a dictionary.
I can only imagine how “absquatulate” came to be useful enough to make it into the dictionary. It means “to depart in a hurry,” “to die,” or “to argue.” Somebody stuck our old friend “ab-” (as in “away”) onto “squat” and turned it into a verb with “-ulate,” in analogy to verbs like “medicate.” The literal sense of the word then becomes something like “to squat elsewhere, away from here.” I imagine this was a tongue-in-cheek creation: combining slang with Latin morphology is always good for a laugh (c.f. “busticate”).
The joke is on them, however, because believe it or not, “squat” is actually a Latin-root word itself. Are you ready for this? You might want to hold onto your hats, ’cause it’s a doozy… “Squat” came from the Middle English squatten, which came from the Old French esquatir, which was formed by added the Latinate prefix “ex-” (out of or away) to quatir, getting a word that means “to crush flat.” Quatir comes from the Vulgar Latin (i.e., post-Classical Latin vernacular aka slang) coactire, which comes from the Latin coactus, which is a participle of cogere, a verb meaning “to compress,” which is formed of two parts itself: a verb and a prefix. The prefix “co-” means “together” and the verb agere means “to drive.”
If you take away all the odd little compressions that happen over time, “absquatulate” would look something like this: “abexcoactulate.” If you take away the meaning compressions, you end up with something like “to drive together in an outward direction away from here.”
In hindsight, maybe the reason people believe my prank off-the-cuff etymologies are more plausible than the real thing because seriously, I’m not making this up.