Final Word

Docking the dock – confusing evidence all we have

Dock.jpg

How did it happen that the word ‘dock’ has over centuries taken on at least five different meanings?

Nowadays one most often comes across the word in connection with people finding themselves in court, accused of committing a crime, or giving evidence in a court case.

But that, chronologically, is only the third context in which ‘dock’ has found its way into the English language, with apparently no direct or indirect link to the first use of the word.
The honour of being the first ‘dock’ goes to plants, mostly of the genus Rumex, and developed from the Old English name, docce, for the plant. The root of docce, in turn, is the Proto-Germanic word dokkon, which also gave us docke in Dutch, docken in German and the Danish dokka. It is also the root of Middle High German’s tocke, meaning ‘bundle’ or ‘tuft’.

The second, and possibly related to the first, use of the term came into being during the 14th century. You ‘dock’ your dog when you cut its tail, with the fleshy part of the tail being called the ‘dock’. The Old English word docca was also used for what we know today as a muscle.

It is the same term that is used, since the early 19th century, when someone’s pay gets cut or held back and is said have been ‘docked’.

While up to here some relationship can be seen between the various uses of the word/term and a possible ‘lineage’, the next use is shrouded in mystery.

Towards the end of the 15th or early 16th century, ‘dock’ made its appearance as a maritime term for a wharf of pier where ships and boats were tied to for loading and unloading.

It is believed to also have been borrowed from Germanic. In that context the root word originally referred to the rut or indent left by boats in the sand where they have been pulled out onto the beach or stayed behind during the low tide.

Some sources believe that in this case the word can be traced back to the Latin ductia, meaning aqueduct, from ducere, meaning ‘to lead’, as in leading or pulling a boat onto the beach.

Finally in court

And finally, in the late 16th century, ‘dock’ landed in court as the word used for that, usually wood-enclosed, area where an accused stands during a trial.

In this context it was originally rogues’ slang which came to English from the Flemish word dok of unknown origin.

Probably quite appropriately in some cases, the Flemish word refers to a pen or cage for animals or, according to some sources, specifically a rabbit cage.

Towards the middle of the 19th century the word also found its way into the kitchen as a cooking term. When you are baking pies or biscuits and to avoid them from swelling or bulging in the oven, and you pierce them to allow steam to escape; you ‘dock’ them.

How and why the term became used in this culinary context remains a mystery, although some sources guess that it may be related to the use of the word in the sense of ‘cutting short’.

Productive word

The word ‘dock’ has over the ages proved to be very productive, especially in the sense in which it was first used in the maritime world.

Today it is used as a term for, among others:

  • A platform for the loading and/or unloading of trucks and trains;
  • For satellites of spacecraft connecting with space stations;
  • A device (‘docking station’) for the charging or recharging of electronic equipment like laptops and cell phones;
  • You could say you have been ‘docked’ when booked off work because of illness or injury for a time; and
  • A ‘scene dock’ is used in theatres for the space close to the stage, usually under the floor, where scenery props or sets are kept for easy and quick changes of scene on stage. 

Whether these diverse uses of the word ‘dock’ developed by coincidence or if somewhere in antiquity and/or the shadows of history there is a single root that explains it all, is a question on which the jury is still out.

by Piet Coetzer

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