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March 20, 2020  |  Friday words #212  |  298 hit(s)

We could probably all use a break from the Serious Stuff, so here's a new-to-me word that's just for fun. What do you call the button on the top of a baseball cap? Like this:

If you guessed "button on top of a baseball cap," I would commend you, because really, does that thing have its own name? Even companies that make baseball caps call it a button. But in certain circles there actually is a special name for it: squatchee. (Hold that thought.) You're not going to find the word in Merriam-Webster, but it's in Urban Dictionary and if you go hunting for the word, it turns up plenty.

Where did such a strange little word come from? There's an interesting story here. The term was associated with the baseball commentator Bob Brenly, who'd been a catcher during his playing years. He learned it in the 1980s from his then-teammate Mike Krukow. Krukow had in turn picked it up from Sniglets, which was a kind of joke dictionary listing "any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should." Sniglets was the work of Rich Hall, a comedian in that era, and "his friends," as the cover says. It sounds like they sat around and made up words, and they seemed to have a talent for coining funny ones.

Here's a twist. For Sniglets, they invented the word squatcho (-o, not -ee) to name the button on top of a cap. Mike Krukow was browsing the book and picked up squatcho, which he thought was funny, and started using it with other baseball players on his team. Somewhere in the everyday banter of the players, the variant squatchee emerged. When Krukow and Bentley retired and when into sports commentary, they took the words with them and used them both variants on the air so that the terms spread out into more general use. (You can read all of this, including interviews with these guys, in an article on the Uni-Watch site.)

It seems remarkable to me that a word invented for fun by a comedian seems poised to become a "real word." All that's really needed now is for all of us to say "squatchee" or "squatcho" every time we talk about that button. I suppose I should also note that that word sniglet, which Rich Hall also invented, is now in the dictionary. Bonus.

As an aside, what's the squatchee for? According to one answer I found, it was there originally to help hold the cap together, but now is decorative. I'm no clothes designer, so I'll take their word for it.

Just a short one for origins today. Did you ever wonder where zigzag came from? Those Z's, they could be from a lot of different places. Reputable sources suggest that it ultimately comes from German. They have a word Zacke, which means "point, peak, jag, spike." That makes sense, since the pattern formed by a zigzag is a set of teeth-like points. We got it from French (where else: en zigzag), who seem to have gotten it from an existing German word zickzack, which described military fortifications.

If the -zag part comes from Zacke, what about the zig- part? The theory is that zickzack/zigzag was formed through reduplication (aka lexical cloning), in which a word is formed from repeated elements. In English, reduplication gave us words like goody-goody, bye-bye, hoity-toity, chit-chat, and flim-flam. You can see that reduplication works a little differently in different words—sometimes the word is repeated outright (goody-goody), and other times there's variation. In chit-chat and zigzag, the main vowel is varied[1], so this is sometimes called ablaut reduplication. We like reduplication in English, and it looks like 18th-century Germans liked it too. Hence zickzack, hence zigzag. Which certainly describes the origins of many words in English.

[1] Interestingly, it varies in a somewhat predictable way; we say chit-chat, but we don't have words like chat-chit.

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