In History, What is, Words

Tulips, Edam, the Cruyff turn… Just three things we can thank the Dutch for. I’m afraid that was the best I could do. Just three things. To which I can now add one more: plug.

You don’t have to look too far to find English words of Dutch origin. From aardvark to wildebeest, the dictionary is riddled with peculiar creatures given their names by the Dutch – a fact that only adds to their peculiarity.

Walrus anyone?

Meerkat? Cockatoo? Arjen Robben? These are all pleasing words to conjure with but when it comes to day-to-day practical value, none can match the pragmatic ‘plug’.

The word first came to England in the early 17th century, along with Puritanism and the bubonic plague. It was a common term among sailors, who were forever plugging leaks in ships, when they weren’t searching for El Dorado or being beheaded for treason. That sense of blocking up a hole remained the main definition of plug for a couple of hundred years, until someone decided to turn it into a verb meaning to work hard at something. Plug away.

Why this was isn’t documented, or it doesn’t appear to have been anyway. I did have a brief look. We have to presume that the act of plugging (e.g. a leak in a ship) was a notoriously repetitive and laborious task.

Then along came the internal combustion engine and the need for something to stick in a hole in the engine to ignite the fuel. Enter the spark plug – literally. It served the traditional purpose of a plug, in that it filled a hole, and it was electrical, so it provided the linguistic bridge for the word plug to skip across and establish itself as an electrical device. It still involved sticking something tightly in a hole but now, rather than stopping a flow (water), the plug facilitated one (electricity).

Within a couple of decades the admen were pouncing on the zeitgeist (a small Dutch rodent) and referring to their ads as ‘plugs’. Why do you think that was?
a) Because they were promotional interjections, inserted like a plug
b) Because they plugged away repetitively to get their message across
c) Because it sparked the flow of public awareness
d) Because it stopped your business going down the drain

Shameless plug: For answers to everything except the above question, call Balance today!

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