Saturday, October 30, 2010


Yesterday, I glanced at the car idling next to me while waiting for the traffic light to turn green. My eye was caught by a bobblehead doll of Sarah Palin installed on the dashboard. What struck me upon reflection was not the political statement, but the origin of the word.

A bobblehead doll is designed to nod its oversized head on a spring when it is agitated by motion. The verb to bobble has two current meanings: (1) to move with continual bobbing, and (2) to mishandle or fumble the ball in sports. The former applies here.

The core is the verb to bob, in use since the 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary says that it is apparently onomatopoeic, expressing short jerking or rebounding motion. The OED goes on to define to bob as, “to move up and down like a buoyant body in water, or an elastic body on land; hence, to dance; to move to and fro with a similar motion, esp. said of hanging things rebounding from objects lightly struck by them.”

The fishing bobber is a cousin; bobsled is not. The bobsled came from the bob meaning to cut short, as in a bobtail horse. The original bobsled was used to haul logs, and it consisted of two short sleds linked together to move in unison. A long sled fully loaded would have snapped in the middle when bouncing over bumpy terrain; two short sleds would bob merrily along.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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