April 3rd, 2010

Pricks and Stones

By Ainsley Drew

Illustration by Jennifer Daniel

tool – pronounced /tul/

The Old English word tol meant “instrument, implement,” while the word tawain meant to prepare. Each is a root stem of one of my favorite insults that I was called in high-school, tool. (Often used in the context of “You are a total tool,” “God, you’re such a tool,” or “What’s up, tool?”) But before this devolves into the sort of playground pettiness that years of therapy and a life of letters has allowed me to overcome, perhaps looking beyond the point of the barb might take some bite out of its bark. After all, as a writer it’s kind of my job to go beyond the surface impact of a word. I like to fashion myself as a Gil Grissom in the obsequiously lit CSI of the English language.

The first recorded profane use of the word tool is dated back to 1553, when it was used as slang for “penis.” This is worth noting, because it wasn’t until 1812 that the word was associated with driving a car, and only in 1815 was it used as a verb in the way we’ve come to know it today, as “to work or shape with a tool.” Even a carpenter’s favorite “tool-box” wasn’t noted as being used until 1832. That means that the penis slang came before the Pax saw.

When used as a noun, the word has nine meanings, including three that are slang. Other than a hand-held implement for mechanical operations, an instrument of manual operation, a cutting or machine part, and a machine itself, it’s also used for more abstract ideas. We’ve all heard expressions like, “Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life,” or the George Carlin nugget, “Language is a tool for concealing truth.” The definition describes this use as “anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose.” Such as Megan Fox is a tool for arousal, or Big Macs are a tool for a coronary. A person who is used by another is also considered a tool, or a “cat’s-paw,” as the dictionary describes it. The slang definitions include a pistol, a pickpocket, and the ever-“vulgar” penis.

In its modern slang usage, the word has come to mean an idiot, a person who blindly supports authority, a sell-out, and the traditional definition of someone who is used. At Princeton University, the word has taken on a stronger meaning, associated specifically with majors of a particular field, students who try too hard to look like they are not trying to hard, overzealous networking, and writers for the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian. As one tool of the top-ranked school in the country responded to her new label, “But I’m so cool and interesting. I listen to Neutral Milk Hotel and read David Foster Wallace.” While both of these might be tools for a more elevated and erudite life, I’m not sure what the tools are to avoid judgment from other people.

When looking to see what this fine scholar and I would be called in other languages, I learned that there is more than one way to insult a tool. In French there are two words: pion, for someone who is manipulated, and √©quip√©, for a penis. Italians have more than one word for each, with strumento and manichino being slung at those who are duped, and arnese, uccello, and cazzo used with the more pointed definition. This does not bode well for us tools. For if the meaning holds true across land and sea, that means that what’s behind the word has more power than a simple schoolyard epithet. I suppose I should start brushing up on my Alta Vista translation of sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.