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date: 20 September 2017


The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins

Julia Cresswell



Trunk comes via Old French from Latin truncus ‘the main stem of a tree’. The word has branched out in several directions. The meaning ‘a tree's main stem’ is behind the sense ‘the human body’ and others with the notion of a central connection, such as trunk road. The ‘chest, box’ meaning arose because early trunks were made out of tree trunks. The circular shape of a tree trunk prompted another branch referring to cylindrical hollow objects, including, in the 16th century, the elephant's trunk. In the 16th and early 17th centuries men wore trunk-hose, full breeches extending to the upper thighs and sometimes padded, worn over tights. The style went out of fashion, but in the theatre actors wore short light breeches over tights, which they called trunks. In late 19th-century America men's shorts for swimming or boxing took over the name. Truncheon [ME] comes from the same root. In early use this referred to a piece broken off from, for example, a spear and was also a word for a cudgel. The word came to refer to a staff carried as a symbol of office from the late 16th century and eventually (late 19th century) to a short club carried by a police officer. Truncate [LME] is unconnected, being from Latin truncare ‘maim’.

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