New retroacroetymythostupidnym

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Wed Aug 24 02:48:41 UTC 2005

I wrote:

>New York Times, Jan. 1, 1984, Magazine, p. 6/3
>Before leaving the etymology of pogue, let us admit to the possibility
>of being totally off base. James Anderson of the V F W Magazine tossed
>in this disconcerting afterthought: "I think it should be noted that the
>pogy is a common fish on the Atlantic seaboard and dictionary references
>link it with menhaden. No doubt pogey-bait, hence pogue, arose from the
>worthlessness of the fish except as a source of oil or fertilizer.
>Combine this with the large number of Marine Corps bases on either coast
>and you have its probable origin."

Jonathan Lighter wrote:

>I'd be more impressed with the ety. of "pogey-bait" if there was some
>tradition that pogeys snapped at sweets. Maybe there is.

No such tradition that I can discern. But here's another thought... The
pogy was actually used *as* bait, according to a 1949 NY Times article.

"Tall Tales About the Pogy"
New York Times, Sep 18, 1949, (Magazine) p. 26
And as with almost everything else, useful or not, the Yankees sat around
their fish shanties thinking up things to do with pogies and made out
pretty well. They cut them up for bait, and a well modulated pogy of
several days' experience in a bait tub would come out with a peculiar and
piquant redolence which would entice a lobster for miles downwind. It is
said that whenever a stalwart lobsterman on Matinicus opened his bait
bucket, housewives clear up to Bucksport would snap their windows shut
with a bang you could hear for miles. Lobsters are fond of such
delicacies, and sometimes a pogy-baited pot would come up from the briny
with every cranny stuffed tight, and big old he lobsters hanging on the
outside entranced.

So *maybe* "pogy bait" was originally parsed as "pogy as bait" rather than
"bait for pogies" (cf. "boy toy" = "boy as toy" vs. "toy for boys"). Then
as the expression moved beyond New England fishermen the halieutic sense
was lost, and "pogy bait" was reinterpreted as "bait for (semantically
opaque) pogies". Then of course "pogy" needed to be made transparent, so
it was reinterpreted to mean someone who could be easily lured. Presto!

OK, it's a bit far-fetched. But if this conjecture pans out, shouldn't we
call this chain of reanalysis a semantic bait-and-switch?

--Ben Zimmer

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