Indo-European Root of the Day: Tuck


A funny word we use only rarely in life, and only in specific instances, tuck turns out to be a rich and robust word – it’s a near cognate of its original IE root – with an equally rich history.

The IE root is deuk, “to lead.” Besides tuck we get a number of words from this root that come to us both from Germanic and Latin.

English tuck and Indo-European deuk are very similar, except for a couple sound replacements. The switch from d to t is a classic switch in a word traveling from IE and Latin into Germanic. Another noted example is the word god: in Latin god is deus, in early Germanic/Scandinavian it’s tiu, as in Tuesday, God’s Day. Pretty cool, right? (It’s also similar to the Greek Zeus.)

What’s interesting about the tuck/deuk similarity is that the word’s travels through language took it further and further away from the root sound, only to come back again. (Which is not to say this similarity has any meaning. But from a poet’s perspective the similarity in sound is worth noting.) Tuck is actually a skewed version of the word tug, meaning “to lead, to pull, to pull together, to draw (in).” Tug – say it out loud and you’ll hear how a g sound can easily become a ck – comes from Old English teon, which comes from Germanic teuhan, from which we also get the funny, savage word wanton. We get a number of other similar words from Germanic variations on deuk: tow, taut, and tie, all words that involve pulling in some way.

Deuk feeds more directly into Latin as ducere, “to lead,” and from that Latin root we get words like duke (a leader), duct (and similar words like aqueduct, viaduct, conduct), abduct, produce, reduce, seduce, and educate, “to lead out or bring up.” You can see the d/t shift even more clearly.

What I like most about the word tuck is its relationship with tug. Even though both are the same word, they have come to mean different things. The “to lead” part of the definition has disappeared over the centuries and both words are verbs that essentially mean “to pull,” which is sort of a more violent kind of leadership. Tuck however is a much softer word than tug, which still has some violence attached to it, a certain forcefulness that tuck lacks. Today tuck is used almost exclusively in reference to garments and cloth. Tuck means to pull or gather together folds in a piece of fabric. You also tuck things in and pull them tight, like a shirt into pants, and you tuck your child into bed, pulling covers over and tightening them. Now we have the nip/tuck, pulling and tightening skin. And in Britain “to tuck in/away” is “to eat.” Who knows where that came from.

Also we have the weird word tucker, or tuckered (out). The word first crops up in 1830s New England. This slang term gets right at the heart of the modern meaning of tuck, which is the idea of creating snugness and comfort. (Snug, coincidentally, comes from the same root that spawned a whole host of words about writing, ker (III). Another post.) “To tucker” is “to tire, to weary,” but the word has a sweetness to it that weary does not. The origin of tucker is unclear as far as I can tell, but there are a couple possibilities that relate to tuck’s bedtime meaning: when you’re tired, you get tucked in, so you are tuckered; or, if you take tuck to mean stretch (like pull) it becomes a slangy term for another sleepy action, the stretch. Or it may simply be the product of misuse, like so many of our most unusual words.

I find the deuk/tuck similarity so beautiful because the words are so very different. Deuk is this grand old word meaning simply and profoundly “to lead,” and today we have tuck, a meek little word with a singular task, to describe the act of pulling and gathering clothes. Something to think about when you’re dressing in the morning and deciding what to do with those shirttails.

B.H. Fairchild, “Delivering Eggs to the Girls’ Dorm”
Jeff Tweedy, “Poor Places”
  • Thanks for the comment. I didn’t mean to imply that at all, but I can see how I wrote it confusingly. Our word “god” also comes from German (“gott”) but as you noted, the origin is completely different (IE root “ghau” meaning to invoke, or one who is invoked).

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