'Boss' has weighty origins

Sometimes when I feel in a good mood I call my wife “the boss”, among other things. 

All was going well until I saw a dictionary reference to the word the other day.

My big dictionary ran several pages in volume 2 describing the word boss. 

But on page 423 it said boss referred to “a fat woman”.

I showed it to my not-so-fat wife. I thought it would get a bit of a laugh.

Big mistake.

Now, I have nothing against fat women. Some of my best friends are fat women. 

But it seems there’s a ­time and a place to make comments about their structure.

I never expected to see the word boss used to describe a fat woman.

But there it was, going back to 1579, so it seems some women have been fat for a long time.

But the word boss had many other uses.

For instance, a boss was, and in many cases still is, various types of swelling on and in the body, a mass of rock, an ornament in ­bookbinding, parts of a ship or an aeroplane, a water conduit, a cask for wine, a term of contempt for some people, a dictator, a farmer who employs labour and works himself, a half-grown calf and many other things.

And here some people thought the boss was no more than the person who hired and fired and kept order in the ­business.

And that description in our language seems to have had American origins, although the word relates to the Dutch.

Apparently the old Dutch word baas related to master. The English used it as a slang word to relate to any person who had a senior position. 

The Americans were accustomed to using the word master, although they did not like this word because it reminded them of the British. 

The first Americans to use the term boss seemed to be Dutch colonists and founders of New York. For a while Americans used the term boss-man, but eventually the word boss came into common use. 

The first use of the word in print that I could find came in 1649 when a person in charge was termed a “work boss”. Even then the term was followed by “Dutch work-baas” in parentheses for those who didn’t understand.

In 1806 American author Washington Irving (the man who wrote Rip Van Winkle, a book I was given in 1949) used the word boss.

For many years so-called black Americans found the word popular but ­eventually it gained ­universal acceptance.

Harry Truman once ­commented: “When a leader is in the Democratic Party he’s a boss; when he’s in the Republican Party he’s a leader.”

I assume that over time the Americans preferred to call a person “the boss” than to call the same person “the master”.

Over the years I have come across many people called “the boss”, some good and some not so good. Some of them could even be quite attractive, in a bossy sort of way.

Webster’s dictionary in some editions called a boss “a protuberant, domelike mass of igneous rock, congealed beneath the surface and laid bare by erosion”. Frank (“Nino Culotta”) O’Grady said this would refer to bald-headed bosses.

But just be careful how you describe bosses, at least in their hearing. 

Big or little, they might not like it.

Incidentally, my copy of Rip Van Winkle ends with a comment about “henpecked husbands”. Remind me to comment on that one day.

lbword@midcoast.com.au

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