Increase your knowledge of English words by learning the neat origin of a winter word like Tuque.

At the Wording Desk

Bill Casselman

I begin with a fave Québécoise saying:

Attache ta tuque!
Translation from Quebec French into American English: “Get ready (for heavy action)! Fasten your seat belts! Let ‘er rip!” In other words, put your tuque on your head because things are going to get crazy, no to say wintery. That’s why, ahead of the brutal, brumal blast, I celebrate this snug head gear.

Origin of Tuque as Object and as Word
Over the centuries many preposterous hats have been offered as solutions to the problem of keeping North American noggins cozy in winter. None suits this Canadian better than the tuque, a knitted wool cap invented by anonymous European sailors who pulled large socks over their foreheads to keep warm at sea ― at least so goes one tale about the genesis of tuque.

The lowly tuque (or toque) has survived being tasselled, bobbed, debobbed, plastered with commercial logos of NHL hockey teams, and tarted up in fluorescent glow-in-the-dark colours. Buck-toothed, Idaho-stuck yokels don tuques. So do moguls buffaloing down Wall Street through New York City blizzards.

The word tuque is Québécois French, a slight variant of toque which in France meant a cap that knocked (toquer) against the back of the neck or shoulders because it had a long, droopy end. The French word and a similar Italian word, tocca ‘cap’, were imported from Spain in the fifteenth century (Spanish toca) to describe a pageboy haircut actually worn by pages.

Origin Unknown? Balderdash!

Some dictionaries state that the Spanish toca is of unknown origin. Piffle and rubbish! Tocar in Spanish means ‘to touch.’ The pageboy bangs hung down and touched the shoulders, like the end of the sock cap, the ‘touch’ cap, la toca, our tuque, that came along a little later. In Spain la toca also named a female hair style, a high female head-dress and a large kerchief worn at the back of the head that ‘touched’ (tocar) the lady’s shoulders.

As for its unknown origin, how about the common street Latin verb tocare or toccare, vernacular ablaut versions of tegere 'to cover,' a Latin verb whose forms are usually given as tego, tegere, texi, tectum.This everyday Roman verb gave rise to many important Latin words. A toga was a wool  covering for the whole body. A tectum (Latin, 'roof') was a covering for a whole dwelling. Many Latin relatives of this vebal root wound up in English, words like protect, detection, and tegument 'natural protective outer covering of a body, plant, or rganism.'

Toque not tuque?
The now defunct Canadian Oxford Dictionary insisted that toque is the common English Canadian spelling. I suggest that this form has been almost totally replaced since the 1980s by the French Canadian spelling. I see chiefly tuque in print in Canadian newspapers and Canadian sports stories. The COD also offers this bizarre and unsupported etymology: “ultimately from a pre-Romance form like tukka ‘gourd, hill.’ Wheeeeeeee! Let’s riffle through all the dictionaries and madly grab at anything remotely similar. Of course, I haven’t personally spoken to any pre-Romantics… lately. Needless to say my opinion of the Oxford etymology is that it is utter bilge.

The snuggly headgear even appears on the map of Canada. La Tuque in Québec received its name from a riverbank cliff that resembles tuques worn by early fur trappers. The town crest proudly symbolizes its name.

Bill Casselman, November 02, 2016

Copyright 2016 William Gordon Casselman

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