The Dictionary

I was flipping through the old 1936 edition Webster’s Universal Usage Dictionary housed at the coffee shop near my house. There’s this thing called a Ducking Stool, which was used to dunk kids under water when they acted up in school. It was also used on witches, but that was less interesting to me than the schoolkid definition. The definition was something like: “A tool for disciplining miscreant or misbehaving youths by means of immersion in water.” And what it looks like is a chair at the end of a big pole, which is hinged at the center like a see-saw. I thought about what a process it must have been to discipline a kid with this thing. What if it was winter, and the water was frozen over? Did the whole class get to come and watch? What if the teacher wasn’t strong enough to pull the kid back out? I thought of a PTO meeting in 1780; I imagined a short frail teacher in front of the bearded school board Pilgrims, explaining some student’s death by drowning for making an armpit fart or something. Mostly, though, what caught me was the term ‘Ducking’ for the 1936 definition of a bodily immersion in water. I think that the image is more accurate than the contemporary ‘dunking’ used to describe the process. Dunking supposedly comes from this German religious group, who called themselves something like Dunkers, and who were fascinated with the ability of water immersion to cleanse sins. I like the idea of ducks better.
Drew McNaughton
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