Bill Long 12/23/05
Another Circuitous Journey
I was following my usual pattern yesterday--this time I was reading along in an article on the social context spawning the significant 1916 legal case, MacPherson v. Buick, a case which I will write about elsewhere--and I fell into distraction. Just a word about that case, first of all. In MacPherson the New York Court of Appeals, speaking through Justice Cardozo, eliminated the common law privity requirement in order to sue a manufacturer for negligence. Mr. MacPherson had bought a car in 1910, and the wooden spokes gave way while he was driving at a reasonable speed in 1911, causing the car to crash and severely injuring him. The manufacturer argued that because it was not "in privity" with MacPherson (he bought the car from a dealer), no liability should attach to the manufacturer. Well, let's not get into the legal stuff here, even though you should know, so you can sleep in peace tonight, that the MacPherson's won the case.
What arrested my attention were remarks by witnesses at trial regarding the strength of the car's wooden spokes.*
[*And this point should make someone out there want to put together a history of spokes on car wheels...]
MacPherson's legal team put on three witnesses, each of whom claimed twenty or more years in "judging hickory" (the wood used to make the wheel spokes). One testified that after the accident "the wood was brittle, coarse grained, such as you find in old trees."* When "sound hickory" breaks, it
[*You get the point, of course. If the wood was faulty when the car was manufactured, you have a good case for manufacturer liability.]
"brooms up, slivers up..." A second witness, James P. Tittemore, testified that sound wood splinters or brooms while "dead or dozy" wood lacks this elasticity. Apparently this was industry terminology, because the scholar I was reading found a brief from an earlier legal case in which the Ford Motor Company described the wood in that case as "dozy and brashy, meaning timber that would break square off and not splinter, and further showing that wood in that condition would break much more easily and upon less strain than perfectly sound timber" (quoted in Susan H. Clarke, "Unmanageable Risks: MacPherson v. Buick and the Emergence of a Mass Consumer Market," 23 Law & Hist Rev 1, 31 (2005)).
Now the legal issues in MacPherson and early automobile cases are fascinating, but I couldn't fully get to them because I was plunged into world of dozy and brashy wood vs. wood that brooms and slivers. I felt privileged to be entering into the world of another profession at another time, and I took off my shoes upon entering this holy ground. And, I said to myself, I had to find out something about that little word dozy.
Entering Into Dozy
So I did what any normal person would have done faced with the same problem. I consulted the OED s.v. The first definition, not unexpectedly, was "drowsy, sleepy" or mentally "sluggish; stupid; lazy." "The 4th mate...has been Sick and dozey 1/2 the time" (Does that make him an 1/8th mate?) Or, from early in the 20th century, "Soames directed his gaze at the pink face of dosey old Mothergill." But the second definition was what I really wanted. It says: "Of timber or fruit: In a state of incipient decay; 'sleepy.'" From a chemical journal in 1882 we have the following: "The water runs in around the wood and makes it dozy, wet, and heavy. And D.H. Lawrence used the term in 1923: "Fatuous letters from friends in England..as dozy as ripe pears in their laisser aller heaviness."
The OED also directs us from dozey to the second definition of doted, which means either to be "stupid, foolish, in second childhood" or with respect to trees, "decayed inside, unsound." As early as 1466 we have an attestation which speaks of "White oke, not doted, nor storvyn. Oh-oh, I can see this article going on forever, can't you? ("storvyn" by the way relates to "starve," but we don't want to go down that road now). From 1559: "Woode whether it be rotten and doated, or sound." But someone (not me, not now) needs to study the word dote over time to discover how something that originally meant "to be crazy" or "infatuated" or "out of ones' wits" could also attach to a tree that is decaying. Nevertheless, we have this from 1893: "In North Carolina..it is said of trees dead at the top, that they are doted, or have doted."
Doted and dozy don't seem, however, to be etymologically related, even though they live on the same street. Dozy is related, of course, to doze, which meant, originally "to stupefy; to muddle; to make drowsy or dull; to bewilder or confuse." "Night and suspicion doses the mind." But by the late 19th century, we have dozy being used to mean "in a state of incipient decay; 'sleepy.'" The first attestation of dozy in this form is the 1872 quotation from Schele de Vere's Americanisms: "Dozy and dozed are said in Pennsylvania of timber beginning to decay and unfit for use, while the decay is yet hardly perceptible, but the timber already brittle."
So now I have it. Dozy, which is derived from doze (meaning sleepy) means in a state of decay and is a distant cousin of doted but is probably more of a laughing heir than one within the accepted degree of consanguinity for marital purposes. Nevertheless, it seemingly was a Pennsylvania regionalism that was picked up by the auto industry or by experts in the wood products field in the 19th century. I don't think the word is used much anymore because Internet searches yielded nothing.
But now that I have solved that one, I still have loose ends hanging, don't I? I became fascinated with finding Schele de Vere's Americanisms, in order to discover the full quotation. And, so I went there next. You can see now why I never get my reading assignments done.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long