Of Pimps and Pyknics


On Translation

Adventures in dictionaries.


An aurochs from The Wonderful Paleo Art of Heinrich Harder, 1920.


In the novel by Patrick Modiano I’m translating, a bus stops at Cross Road in Bournemouth “devant un cottage pimpant,” and I had a feeling, somehow, that my first try, “in front of a pimpin’ little cottage,” was probably not right.

“Origin obscure,” says the Oxford English Dictionary about pimp. You can hear a titch more donnish vinegar in the etymology than the stolid lexicographers usually let show:

Generally thought to be in some way related to 16th century French pimper, vb., present participle pimpant alluring or seducing in outward appearance or dress…. French pimper is taken as ≈ Provençal pimpar, pipar, to render elegant. But these leave much to be explained in the history of the word before 1600.

Much to be explained indeed.

There is no history in English of the classier original meanings; right from the start, the English word meant “one who provides means and opportunities for unlawful sexual intercourse; a pander, a procurer” or “one who ministers to anything evil, esp. to base appetites or vices.” In French, pimper has disappeared and pimpant is just, per Harrap’s New Standard Dictionary, “smart, spruce, spick and span; femme pimpante, chic and attractive woman; une pimpante petite ville, a gay and spruce little town.” It all sounds so innocent, doesn’t it? Pimps—maquereaux—aren’t their fault. But the English, needing a new word for something unsavory, decided (as they so often do) to borrow one from the naughty French.

Weirdly, modern street usage gets back to the word’s more wholesome origins. After Pimp My Ride, the hit MTV show about “doing up your car like an African American Pimp: 20″ gold rims, body kit, tinted windows, loads of ice in the trunk,” the verb pimping up or pimping out is now “more commonly used [to mean] making something cool or better: Yeah, I was totally pimping up my profile today!” or “to go all out on in a fashion manner: whoah that dude got himself all pimped out in the black and pink.” (All quotes in this paragraph from the always useful Urban Dictionary.) A “pimpin’ pink Mustang” isn’t likely to lead to unlawfully getting laid, or to base vices of any sort, but it does look chic and attractive, gay and spruce, spic and span. Pimpant.



In one especially ridiculous Robert Walser story, the narrator meets two characters at the end: a certain “Wulff, 100% German, recalling Auerochsen, the primeval forests, the clang of swords, the pelt of bears. His full beard reached down to the tips of his toes. On his arm was a full-bosomed, voluptuous, firm, and juicy capitalist lady.” I had no idea what Auerochsen were, other than something toweringly Teutonic and paleo enough to be pimpin’ to the juiciest ladies.

My German-English dictionaries offered “Auerochse: aurochs,” which helped not at all. Maybe you know what an aurochs is; I didn’t. To American Heritage, third edition, where this is the whole definition of aurochs: “1. See urus. 2. See wisent.” Urus is: “An extinct wild ox, believed to be the ancestor of domestic cattle. Also called aurochs.” While wisent: “The European bison. Also called aurochs.” And not extinct. There are jokes about endless-loop dictionary entries like these—I had never come so close to finding one. In my translation, I made Wulff recall the aurochs, not the urus or the wisent. Why not? It sounded better.

I later found the creature marauding through the massively vocabularied Patrick Leigh Fermor, too: he describes Rumanian potentates with “phenomenal titles … Great Bans of Craiova, Domnitzas, Beyzadeas, Grand Logothetes, hospodars, swordbearers and cupbearers, all dressed in amazing robes … the only hint of feudal Europe, perhaps, being a crowned escutcheon in which the black raven of Wallachia impales the Moldavian auroch.” He, or his posthumous copyeditor, gets the singular of aurochs wrong (the singular of oxen isn’t och), but arrhh, you can hear the clang of the feudal swords, smell the pelt of the bears.

Moldavia aside, Walser was prophetic about 100% Germanness. A good decade after his 1917 story, German scientists—Heinz Heck in Munich and his brother, Lutz Heck, in Berlin—started a program to breed back the massive primordial beasts, extinct since 1627. The result was Heck cattle, misleadingly announced to the world by the publicity-savvy brothers as “back-bred aurochs.”

Although the research started in the 1920s, and the first bull said to resemble an aurochs was born in 1932, the whole effort has been remembered, not entirely unjustly, as a project of “Nazi science,” madly breeding a genetically pure super-race. Lutz joined the Party early. Time magazine says “the Nazi government funded an attempt to breed them back as part of its propaganda effort.” But one English journalist, Simon de Bruxelles, seems to have cornered the market on magnificent aurochs headlines, from “A shaggy cow story: how a Nazi experiment brought extinct aurochs to Devon”—

Through the misty early morning sunlight dappling a Devon field a vision from the primeval past lumbers into view. The beast with its shaggy, russet-tinged coat, powerful shoulders and lyre-shaped horns could have stepped straight from a prehistoric cave painting. The vision is … Bos primigenius, the aurochs, fearsome wild ancestor of all today’s domestic cattle, immortalised tens of thousands of years ago in ochre and charcoal in the Great Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux in southwest France…

—to, just last month, the nearly incomparable “Peace in our time after slaughter of Nazi super-cows:”

Britain’s only herd of “Nazi” cattle has been turned into sausages because they were so dangerous that no one could go near them…. The cattle, which have long horns as sharp as stilettos, were an attempt by Nazi scientists to re-create the prehistoric aurochs, a breed of giant wild cattle regarded with awe by Julius Caesar….

Atavistic Northern European grandiosity about aurochs lives on. There’s a new effort to resurrect the ancient breed, the Tauros Project, led by Dutchman Henri Kerkdijk, and an even newer offshoot from 2013: the Uruz Project, complete with a TED event. They want to help “rewild” Holland by “de-extincting” the animals that inhabited earlier ecosystems. It all sounds pretty plausible: as this useful summary explains, scientists sequence aurochs DNA from old bones found in Britain, then go looking for breeds of cattle alive today with segments of aurochs DNA still intact. (“Tauros,” initially called “TaurOs” ≈ Taurus + Os, “Bull + Bone.”) With the sequencing of the complete aurochs genome, celebrated on the Breeding-Back Blog last year, the double-helix dictionary of the aurochs is complete. A few more generations of selective breeding and there we’ll have it.

The aurochs are not being “recreated,” as an online commenter puts it: “They are just being ‘rejoined.’ The genes are still there, spread through the population of cows.” They are being spelled.



I am currently writing a book on the Rorschach test, and during its heyday in the fifties the inkblots were used for just about everything. One article I found, from 1952, used the test to confirm evidence published elsewhere that healthy women undergo psychological changes during menstruation. It’s when the author describes his test subjects—twenty female medical-student colleagues, age twenty-two to twenty-six, who took the test once during the month and then showed up again on the first day of their period, “voluntarily, for which I am grateful,” he remarks—that the article really gets weird.

Although he couldn’t, “for obvious reasons,” undertake “the necessary measurements” on his med-school buddies to confirm their Kretschmer types, he could tell by looking that they “all tended toward the pyknic type.” Then come four paragraphs on what earlier researchers—Munz, Enke, Kloss—had said about the pyknic’s typical Rorschach results. Um, what?

Wikipedia time. The consonant-heavy Ernst Kretschmer, in his book Physique and Character, defined three physical types: the athletic, the asthenic (i.e., scrawny), and the pyknic, from Greek pyknos, meaning squat and fat (and, yes, pronounced just like picnic, with no long vowel or silent k). Each type was associated with certain personalities and prone to particular mental illnesses. All this from the Ernst Kretschmer page, which mostly but not entirely manages to keep it together. The more interesting connections aren’t there, though: Physique and Character was published in 1921, the same year as both Carl Jung’s Psychological Types, later simplified to the Myers-Briggs test, and Hermann Rorschach’s Psychodiagnostics, the book that introduced the world to the inkblot test. It was a good year for typing people. Those female medical students looking at inkblots, in any case, apparently were chubby, chatty, friendly, “interpersonally dependent,” and predisposed more toward manic depression than schizophrenia.

Kretschmer was also a founding member and president of a group gulpingly called AÄGP, and the AÄGP page has, as Wikipedia likes to say, “some issues.” Here it is: “International General Medical Society for Psychotherapy was a society founded by Dr. Josef Sullivan, a German psychologist as Allgemeine Ärztliche Gesellschaft für Psychotherapie (AÄGP) in 1927. The prefix international was added in 1937. After Matthias Göring became the president as Carl Gustav Jung.”

So there are still some far-flung outposts of garbledom left on Wikipedia, in case you were wondering. Even here, we can find that strange and salutary feeling lumbering into view from the primeval past: when we go looking for references with a semblance of authority, only to find ourselves more perplexed than ever.


Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.