Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Whence ‘Dork’?

Victoria Leonard responded to my claim that dork is a “concocted” word in my essaylet on the word slang with the following comment:

Hi. In today’s Good Word, you say that “dork” is completely concocted. Not so. It comes from Science Fiction fandom. A good fannish dictionary will tell you that it is short for “doorknob,” and refers to a person having the personality of one.

First, let me say that I love Victoria’s creative vocabulary: fandom, fannish, etc. These are perfectly good, unconcocted derivations. We will have to do dork in the Good Word series someday to compensate for these usages alone. I am also impressed with the creativity of the etymological explanation.

However, that said, I remained convinced that dork is a concted word. In fact, Victoria’s explanation describes a perfect process of “concoction”. Taking a word more or less at random, removing random letters from it, and assigning a more or less random meaning to it is not what we would call a “derived” word. Word-formation rules are fairly rigid, involve prefixes and suffixes, and leave speakers with little if any latitude in applying them. Keep in mind that in the 60s dork referred to the male, well, you know, whachamacallit. Only in the 70s did its meaning slide over to “dolt”, so it was concocted well before the meaning necessary to Victoria’s hypothesis came along.

This explanation reminds me of the urban myth that posh originated as an acronym for “port out starboard home” when our British ancestors were sailing to India. Rarely are words created by playing with letters since only a minority of languages even have writing systems. Those words that are created this way seldom survive. Only recently have words like sonar, radar, laser stuck and the reason they succeeded is because they sound like regular nouns made from verbs. In fact, some people are beginning to say “to lase” rather than “to laser”, showing the powerful influence of regular rules on irregularly created words.

5 Responses to “Whence ‘Dork’?”

  1. Daisy Says:

    Linguistic myths are my favorite tales to collect. One of the best I heard was the origin of the Castilian accent in Spain. The myth stated that a prince of the region had a lisp, and to avoid offending his highness, the people instead began to imitate his manner of speech. The implausability of this tale gave me great gales of laughter. Are there other less notorious myths that you could explore?

  2. rbeard Says:

    There are at least a few more related to words–the origin of the word “gaudy”, for example. I’ve never collected them. There is at least one website out there devoted to urban myths and it probably has most of them. I was thinking of doing “gaudy”, anyhow.

  3. TootsNYC Says:

    if “dork” once referred to the make member, is it not possible that it arrived from a heavily accented version of “dick”?

    But no, usually what happens is the “r” is *removed* (Worcestershire sauce, as an example).


    As for word-origin myths, or term-origin myths, I have always loved the plethora of ideas for “rule of thumb.”

  4. rbeard Says:

    “Rule of thumb” is easy. I live in a house built with a “rule of thumb”, i.e. carpenters who had no real rule and so sighted a straight line by aliging the end of a wall with their thumb while squinting with one eye. “Rule” originally was a mearuring rule, i.e. ruler.

  5. Jay bell Says:

    I just happen to know the people who invented the word Dork
    Martin Bell and a school partner were assigned o invent a word and definition.
    They came up with dork as meaning a dumb or dense person ie a dolt.
    It was mid 50s in American Fork Utah. The class thought the word funny and used it all over.
    Both were astonished when the word showed up on a tv show many years later.

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