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Friday, October 19, 2012

Fobbed off

I recently saw a memo alerting employees at the National Ballet of Canada to the fact that a new security door had been installed, and henceforth they would need a FOB [sic] to activate the door. Throughout the memo, FOB was written in all caps, as if it were an acronym, and in fact I was puzzling what it might stand for. Friends Of Ballet? Then I realized that it was simply the word "fob", which the writer of the memo had not realized was an ordinary word.
"Fob" started out as thieves' slang in the 17th century for a small waistband pocket, especially used for holding a watch or money (you can see why thieves would need their own special word for that!). Although it's uncertain where English thieves got this word from, there is a similar word for "pocket" in a German dialect: fuppe. Gradually the word migrated from the pocket itself to the watch that was in it, then to the chain connected to the watch, and finally to the ornament attached to the end of the chain. In recent times, this has been extended to the much less attractive but oh-so-practical devices that we attach to our bunches of keys to let us in to electronically controlled doors. No word on whether the National Ballet wardrobe department will now be sewing special pockets into the waistbands of tutus to accommodate them.
The verb "to fob off" is older, dating to the Renaissance, and of equally obscure origin, though it may be related to the German foppen (to deceive).

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.