• roughneck •
Pronunciation: rêf-nek • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A rowdy, a thug, a tough, a hooligan. 2. An oil-rig worker.
Notes: There are two kinds of compound nouns. One that refers to things that are members of the category of the head of the compound, which is always the second constituent. For example a birdhouse is a kind of house and a motorboat is a kind of boat. Today's Good Word is the other kind, whose meaning has "having X" built in. Thus a redhead is not a head, but someone who has a red head and roughneck is someone who has, figuratively, a rough neck. This noun may be used verbally with the meaning "to act like a roughneck".
In Play: Working on an oil rig is a rough job, so we can see how those who work on an oil rig picked up this name. A father might ask his daughter's date: "What kind of roughneck are you, 'Snake', an oil rig worker or . . . the other kind?" We have another word whose meaning approaches that of today's Good Word: "There's a fine line between roughhousing and roughnecking, and you guys crossed it when you broke my lamp."
Word History: This word is obviously a combination of rough + neck. Rough was ruh in Old English, cousin of German rau "rough", and Danish and Norwegian ru "rough". The ancestor of neck, hnecca, occurred rarely in Old English and it meant "nape (back) of the neck". Old English preferred hals or heals as a word for "neck", cousin to German Hals "neck" and Norwegian hals "neck". However, both these languages sport a cousin of English neck, German Nacken and Norwegian nakke referring, as in Old English, to the nape of the neck. (Kathleen McCune of Norway is no roughneck for 'twas she who suggested today's Good Word.)