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Pronounced /ˈnæpɪŋ/Help with pronunciation

Much amusement was caused in my daily paper last weekend by the arrest and trial in France of a group who all admitted being members of the Garden Gnome Liberation Front, and of stealing nearly 200 garden gnomes over a period of two years. What grabbed my attention in the headline to the piece — as it was intended to — was the joyous journalistic coinage of gnome-napping.

That’s an obvious-enough extension of a suffix which first turned up in the term kidnapping and which has been extended further to dognapping and other faintly facetious formations that have taken the fancy of various writers from time to time, like data-napping (stealing information), art-napping (making off with some expensive Old Master), kegnapping (pinching aluminium beer kegs for the metal), space-napping (like kidnapping, only by pointy-eared aliens), and even headnapping (stealing a human head for some Burke and Hare-ish purpose I can’t now recall).

What is particularly excellent about napping is that it still means what it has all along: stealing. In this it differs from others, like burger, which originally had nothing to do with food but was just the ending of Hamburger (something or someone who comes from Hamburg), or -gate (originally the last syllable of Watergate but now a general — but meaningless — suffix indicating that some political hanky-panky is afoot).

The original, kidnapping, was invented sometime in the latish seventeenth century, and referred directly to the stealing of kids — that is, children, in the same way we use the word today, though it was very low slang at the time — particularly to spirit them abroad to work as forced labour on plantations in colonies like Bermuda or Virginia. Only later did it lose its link to children so that it could apply to the abduction of any human being, and it was only in the 1840s that it lost its slangy origins and became standard English.

The second element, nap, was a dialect word meaning to grab, snatch or seize and seems to have had close links with nab in the same sense; nobody seems to know exactly where either comes from, though the Scandinavian languages have a closely similar word.

You might think that another sense of nap is related — a short sleep seized or grabbed in the midst of other matters — but it seems to be quite unconnected, coming from the old English hnappian, “to sleep”. So power-napping, which is apparently a recent US slang expression for taking a quick restorative kip in the office, has no etymological connection with any word meaning to steal from the electricity company. Equally, there’s no common origin to be found between dognapping and catnapping, unless — heaven forfend — you’re a moggie-snatcher.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 08 Nov 1997