Saturday 10 December 2022

Truckling on

Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.

'Truckling' is one of those words that become odder and odder the more you say or ponder them.  'Truckling' now means to yield meanly or obsequiously.  It is a reasonable and intriguing question to ask why this particular word in this particular form has acquired this sense.  Fortunately we have a number of lexicographical snapshots of its earlier incarnations which, like those unbelievable and embarrassing photographs taken so many years ago showing us with weird haircuts and in outmoded fashions, map out quite clearly the sometimes startling shifts of meaning and - further back - of morphology.

Before it acquired its present pejorative sense, 'truckling' meant to place yourself beneath someone else.  It derived from the truckle bed, which was habitually stored under an ordinary bed, and so was necessarily lower.  It was therefore a fairly natural jump to talk of someone 'truckling' - taking the truckle bed - in other situations.  But it was also an inspired one, born of people's love of analogy, of finding shapes in life that match, of fleshing out the one-dimensional literalism of a word with a multi-dimensional panoply of sly and sideways meanings.

The truckle bed was named for the truckles - small wheels or castors - which it employed.  It was therefore once the bed with the truckles; the English language's powerful compacting ability - where nouns can be rammed together in these pithy, descriptive combinations with an ease denied many other great languages, for example the Romance family - created a new concept out of two old ones.  Time and habit soon did the rest, until the truckle bed became a single idea apprehended without any sense of bifurcation.

The truckle as castor had its origin in an earlier meaning of the word: in medieval times it was a small, grooved wheel used as a pulley for a rope.  Again, our innate ability to spot similarities encouraged the transfer: when people started using small wheels as castors, they clearly looked like truckles, even though they were different in purpose; so truckles they became - or rather the world of the truckle was extended to embrace them.  Linguistic dynamics and the society which drove them then saw to it that the centre of gravity of the word shifted from its original usage to the later, apparently more common and useful one.

The truckle as pulley can be traced back centuries more.  There is a Norman-French word 'trocle' with the same meaning; truckle is merely its Anglicisation.  'Trocle' in turn derives from a simplification of the Latin word 'trochlea', itself a honing of the Ancient Greek 'trochilia'; both mean a pulley wheel.  What is remarkable is not that we can follow the word back so far, but that down the years such myriad tugs and turns have been inflicted on its form and function.  What we do not know are who the people were who caused these shifts.  For every one of them was instituted by someone, at a certain moment, who had the requisite insight or indolence or ignorance.  Nor is this process at an end; who knows what 'truckling' may mean tomorrow?  Perhaps you do: perhaps you will make the next great semantic leap for the world and language to follow.  After all, someone has got to do it.  Keep on truckling.


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