Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Don" and "Doff"

            I’m now old enough to recall words that have been lost to everyday speech since my childhood in the ’40s. There are the “SAT words,” like “eschew” and “ubiquitous,” which the College Board expected high-school juniors and seniors to know for college prep exams. Such words we find now in old novels but rarely hear on the street. “Ubiquitous” got a boost in the ’50s when it was spoken in a margarine commercial that ran ad nauseam. Yes, the ad was ubiquitous, “found everywhere,” for a while, then faded away. And then there are the everyday words, like “don” and “doff,” which entered the language centuries ago:

A pair from the start, both date to the 14th century, with "doff" coming from a phrase meaning "to do off" and "don" from one meaning "to do on." Shakespeare was first, as far as we know, to use the [latter] word. . . . He put it in Juliet's mouth: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet. / … Romeo, doff thy name; / And for that name, which is no part of thee, / Take all myself." (Merriam-Webster Online)

            Today we still hear the word “don” in “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly”: “Don we now our gay apparel, Fa-la-la” etc., a line in which “gay” almost needs to be translated today, not to mention the need for revising the word order. In my boyhood, “Doff” held on in the expression “doff his hat,” which my father did when greeting a lady on the street, and Red Barber and Mel Allen, baseball broadcasters in the ’40s and ’50s, would say a batter doffed his cap as he crossed home plate and acknowledged the cheers for a homerun. Roy Campanella and Yogi Berra, both All-Star catchers, were said to “don the tools of ignorance” when strapping on their shin guards, chest protector, and mask.

            When was the last time, if ever, you heard “don” or “doff” in conversation? Which once-common words that have lost currency do you recall? Like the names of the dead, old words die when human beings no longer remember or use them.


  1. Yikes, a quiz! I know there are a few words that I use routinely that most people don't, but usually they're more along the lines of "yikes" or "sheesh." Still, I'll think about this and see if I come up with some real and true words.

    1. I enjoyed this piece, George, which emphasizes the idea that language continuously evolves and adapts to the society in which it is being utilized. Men hardly ever even wear hats to doff anymore (unless you count baseball caps, lol), and for each word like "don" or "doff" that inexorably goes the way of the dodo bird, another word or acronym like lol, "ping" or "text" (used as a verb, at least), assumes its role within the vernacular of our everyday speech, or in this more modern era, the electronic medium of communication between parties. --Tim Monaghan

    2. Thanks for the comments. The Word of the Year for 2011 is "occupy" in its new sense derived from the various Occupy movements. Believe it or not, an article in the NY TIMES Business Section on Jan. 13 uses the word "ubiquitous."

  2. Funny: we were just talking about "ubiquitous". My dad worked for Bell Telephone, and--also in the 50's ads--telephone booths were ubiquitous. Thanks!