May 26, 2013

"Trunk."

The word "trunk" has come up — by chance — in 2 posts today.

1. "The plus-size 'bikini'": "Note that the caption refers to the bottoms as 'trunks,' a word that strikes me as way too masculine (perhaps because I associate it with elephant appendages)."

2. "'The Giving Tree' — 'Remember that book...": "In his childhood, the boy enjoys playing with the tree, climbing her trunk, swinging from her branches, and eating her apples. However, as time passes the tree becomes mean, jealous, and stingy...."

When things like that happen around here, it's de rigueur to consult the (unlinkable) Oxford English Dictionary. The first meaning, going back to 1490, is "The main part of something as distinguished from its appendages," which explains how we talk about trees.
1490   Caxton tr. Eneydos iv. 17   Eneas..hewe the troncke of a tree oute of the whiche yssued bloode.
That leads to a figurative use, for example:
a1616   Shakespeare Measure for Measure (1623) iii. i. 70   You consenting too't, Would barke your honor from that trunke you beare, And leaue you naked.
The second meaning is: "The human body, or that of an animal, without the head, or esp. without the head and limbs, or considered apart from these..."
a1616   Shakespeare Henry VI, Pt. 2 (1623) iv. ix. 84   There [will I] cut off thy most vngracious head;..Leauing thy trunke for Crowes to feed vpon.
So how do we get to the elephant's trunk, which seems to have it backwards, with the word referring to the appendage and not the main part? And what about those swimming trunks? There's the "trunk" that is a large piece of luggage, and I see that usage seems to have come from the fact that trunks were once made out of tree trunks. Another word for that sort of trunk is "chest," which seems to take us back to the human torso sort of trunk. A puzzle!

Anyway, the elephant's trunk is the 15th meaning for "trunk," and there's no explanation for why the appendage gets the word that originally meant the main part.
1589   R. Baker in R. Hakluyt Princ. Navigations i. 138   The Elephant..With water fils his troonke right hie and blowes it on the rest.
1613   S. Purchas Pilgrimage 816   There was another strange creature in Nicaragua..like a blacke Hogge, with..a short truncke or snowt like an Elephant....
And we need to scroll down to meaning #17 to get to the pants category, first with "trunk-hose," and then "trunks" to mean "Short breeches of silk or other thin material; in theatrical use, often worn over tights...."
1836   Dickens Pickwick Papers (1837) xv. 152   The appearance of Mr. Snodgrass in blue satin trunks and cloak, white silk tights and shoes, and Grecian helmet.
And finally, "orig. U.S. Short tight-fitting drawers worn by swimmers and athletes."
1883   Pall Mall Gaz. 26 July 7/1   Captain Webb attempted his perilous feat of swimming the Niagara Rapids... He wore a pair of silk trunks....
1894   Ralph in Harper's Mag. Aug. 341   Nude bathing will not be permitted... The use of tights or ‘trunks’ will not be allowed.
With little help from the OED, I'm going to leap to the supposition that meaning #17 is an example of metonymy — where a word referring to one thing is used to refer to a related thing, like "dish" for the food on the dish. The trunk is in the garment and the garment gets called by the thing it contains. That wouldn't explain why we say "trunks" in the plural, which is like "pants," which we can easily tell is plural because pants have 2 legs. (Calling pant legs "legs" is clearly metonymy.) Oddly, trunks, unlike pants, lack legs, but I think if we go back to the first #17 usage and see "trunk-hose," we get a clue for where "trunks," plural, came from. It was a one-piece garment, the tights, and the term got transferred to those puffy panties that covered up the dancer's bulges...



... until they didn't....



As for the elephant's trunk, the 15th meaning of "trunk," I'm thinking the word for the main part became the word for the appendage as way to express the awesome size of the appendage. It might have been a comical figure of speech at one time, the way a man's very large phallus might be called his "third leg."

23 comments:

Ignorance is Bliss said...

A post about recent trunk posts, and no mention of Penelope?

ndspinelli said...

We would drive to the Ct. shore in the summer when I was a kid. My old man would hang his wet bathing trunks on the car antenna to dry on the way home. I always considered that term masculine..le trunks, not la trunks.

Ann Althouse said...

"A post about recent trunk posts, and no mention of Penelope?"

I considered it, but that wasn't today, and I didn't have anything interesting to say about the name.

Charlie Martin said...

"Note that the caption refers to the bottoms as 'trunks,' a word that strikes me as way too masculine (perhaps because I associate it with elephant appendages)."

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Bender said...

trunk (n.) mid-15c., "box, case," from Old French tronc "alms box in a church" (12c.), also "trunk of a tree, trunk of the human body," from Latin truncus, originally "mutilated, cut off." The meaning "box, case" is likely to be from the notion of the body as the "case" of the organs. English acquired the other two senses of the Old French in late 15c.: "main stem of a tree" and "torso of a human body." The sense of "luggage compartment of a motor vehicle" is from 1930. The use in reference to an elephant's snout is from 1560s, perhaps from confusion with trump (short for trumpet). Railroad trunk line is attested from 1843; telephone version is from 1889.

See also - trunnion (n.) "either of two round projections of a cannon," 1620s, from French trognon "core of fruit, stump, tree trunk," from Middle French troignon (14c.), probably, from Latin truncus (see trunk).

Jaske said...

In construction, a trunk is the enclosure or main pathway of pipes/conduit/ducting used to supply service throughout a large structure. A skyscraper will have a vertical trunk, a cruise ship's will be horizontal.

edutcher said...

So trunks are no different from pantyhose?

Joe Namath will be so relieved.

America's Politico said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
America's Politico said...

Folks- Howdy, this long weekend there are no top-left, above-the-fold, scandals in all newspapers. I live for these scandals. Nothing excites me more than scandals. I am so excited about the IRS scandal that I cannot contain myself (e.g., the left are silent even though it could have been them; they are so dumb that I like to laugh at their silence; the right is over-reach; it may back-fire and it will be fun to see them mess up; the reporters, as usual, are clueless; next tax season expect many people - say from the deep south - to not submit their tax returns; this is going to last a year at least). BUT, no stories this weekend. What a tragedy. I loved when people like former Sen. Bob Toricelli from NJ was being grilled. Or, when Beth Dozoretz had to take the fifth. Nowadays Lois Lane is taking the fifth. I love it. I was disappointed that the Howard Kurtz journalism scandal died in a week. Or, non-scholar Jonah Lehrer has disappeared (even though his books are still available in university libraries). No, no, no, when there is a political/journalism scandal, stretch it. Make it last an entire season. Most people watch prime-time TV. Me, I just look for scandals. That's my oxygen. That's what makes me alive.

Peter Hoh said...

Webster gives two meanings of trunk that might explain how the elephant's proboscis got that name.

7. a long tube through which pellets of clay, beans, peas, etc. are blown. [Obs.]

8. a large, long, boxlike shaft, pipe, etc., used to convey water, air, etc., from one point to another.

Phil 3:14 said...

Junk in da trunk.

El Pollo Raylan said...

"Animal Fair" (the version my mother sang to me):

I went to the animal fair,
The birds and the beasts were there,
The big baboon by the light of the moon
Combed down his auburn hair
The monkey he got drunk
He climbed the elephant's trunk
The elephant sneezed and fell on his knees
And that was the end of the monk

edutcher said...

Somebody remind AP about what Menendez said.

betamax3000 said...

Trunks: truncated pants.

El Pollo Raylan said...

I don't know much more about the word "trunk" than has been presented here already. When I have doubts about the original metaphorical roots of words, I turn to German. Their word for trunk in the the tree sense is Stamm which seems self-evident. Their word for the elephant's body part is the compound noun Elefantenr├╝ssel. The root of that word is R├╝ssel which traces back to and stems from the same root as "to root." which is an apt description for what elephants and penises do.

David said...

My fave was always "trunk lines," the railroad term. I still puzzle on how that name came about. It's now used for telephone lines, computer communications, oil and gas transmission and perhaps more.

Then there was putting on wet bathing trunks--yeech.

wholelottasplainin' said...

Anyone old enough to remember that the name of the 70's band Grand Funk Railroad was a [labored] pun on Grand Trunk Railroad that ran through Flint, MI?

I'm not sure why the term mystifies so many. A tree trunk has branches, as does a railroad trunk line.

Astro said...

OED 'trunk'

Ann Althouse said...

Astro said..."OED 'trunk'"

That's not the OED.

Issob Morocco said...

Are swim trunks considered appropriate wear at Althouse or is there a Fatwa on them because they are male shorts?

Rusty said...

"The plus-size 'bikini'"

This will not end well.

Carl said...

My experience is that the OED isn't a good source for etymology, as their concern is primarily the lineage (the "what" instead of the "why"), they are conservative about supposition, a nearly always necessity, and they don't do a lot of comparison across languages other than English.

Astro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.