My brother sent me a link to this NY Times story by C. J. Chivers about an American, Isaiah (Cy) Oggins, who became a spy for Stalin and was murdered in a Soviet prison camp. (The author mentioned in the story, Andrew Meier, wrote an excellent book on Russia, Black Earth, and I’d like to read his book on Oggins sometime.) My first question was “What kind of name is Oggins?”; since according to this NPR story he was born to Lithuanian immigrant parents, it’s presumably a Lithuanian name (Agins? Ogins? anybody know?).
But in one of those lexicographical detours I so often find myself on, I came across an odd nautical slang word for ‘the sea,’ oggin, that’s only attested from 1945; the OED says “Origin uncertain; perhaps variant of NOGGIN n. with metanalysis (see N n.). Compare DRINK n. 6.” Noggin was originally “A small drinking vessel” and came to mean “A small quantity or measure of alcoholic liquor” (first attested 1690; the modern slang sense “The head” dates back to 1769: Stratford Jubilee II. i. 28 “Giving him a stouter on the noggin, I laid him as flat as a flaunder”). The comparison to drink (as in “into the drink”) is reasonable. As for the metanalysis, here’s the relevant section of the N entry:

From the beginning of the Middle English period, the coexistence of two forms of the indefinite article (an before vowels and a before consonants) often led to metanalysis (the same phenomenon occurs in other languages where the indefinite article ends in –n, e.g. French, Italian, etc.). Variants arising by metanalysis sometimes alliterate with words with initial n– in alliterative verse, and in some cases have become established as the regular modern forms (so that e.g. Middle English a nadder became an adder; compare also apron, auger, etc.), while conversely some vowel-initial forms have gained n– (so that e.g. Middle English an ewt became a newt; compare also nickname).

Thanks, Eric!


  1. Perhaps Oginskis, as in Ogiński?

  2. The mother and eldest brother of Isaiah Oggins arrived at Castle Garden in New York in 1888. Their surname on the passenger list was transcribed as “Oyens.”
    An uncle of Isaiah, David Ogens, arrived at Ellis Island in 1898. His last residence was “Ponewich”—evidently the present town of Panevezys in Lithuania.

  3. I should mention (what may already be apparent from the forenames) that the family was Jewish. In the 1910 census, the place of birth of Isaiah’s parents was given as “Russ-Yiddish,” and his father was a member of a Hebrew congregation in Connecticut.

  4. Aginis is a Lithuanian surname. I’m not sure which syllable is accented.

  5. A.J.P. Crown says

    ‘A norange’ is the one they usually cite. But I don’t know about that metanalysis. I looked up Noggin the Nog on Wiki (a famous BBC animation, by Oliver Postgate, about Vikings, from 1960s children’s tv) it says

    Linguistically, the hero’s name is from ‘noggin’, one of the very few surviving words of the ancient Celtic Brythonic language of pre-Roman Britain, which survives in the common phrase “use your noggin” (i.e.: ‘use your head, think about a problem in order to solve it’).

  6. Great research, Chris! I wonder if Aginis could have wound up being transcribed as “Oyens”?
    A.J.P.: I’m afraid I’m going to have to go with the OED rather than Random Wikipedia Editor.

  7. One of my favourite slang words.

  8. As the OED almost says, in Ireland, a 200ml bottle of spirits is called a naggin.

  9. There was a Joseph Oggin born in 1776. Subsequent generations had the surname “Ohin.”
    Also, cf., definition:
    BRITISH: Oggi–Naval Modern sailors’ slang for the sea; it is said to be derived from Hogwash, though some assert that it comes from a mispronouncement of Ocean. Synonyms are The Ditch, The Pond, The Drink, all three of which words are used by officers more often than Oggin.

  10. Crown, A.J.P. says

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to go with the OED rather than Random Wikipedia Editor.
    Oh, don’t be such a Luddite conservative. Long live the Celtic Brythonic language of pre-Roman Britain!

  11. hogwash
    Last Sunday after church some guy was telling me that the Chicago community of Hegewisch (wikipedia) was named for “hogwash” , in what language I don’t know, because when transporting livestock by rail it came before the stockyards and the pigs were washed there first before moving further north. For some reason that didn’t sound quite right, but would a guy lie to me in a church with the words of the sermon still echoing from the rafters?
    Looking up the town’s history, it was supposedly started by a guy named Adolph Hegewisch who originally bought the land and was president of the United States Rolling Stock Company .
    But what about the hogwash story? Could Hegewisch really mean “hogwash” in some language, or might he have bought the property because of an older tradition that had an affinity with his name, something like Pig’s Eye Landing in Minnesota? According to the official website:”Its population was primarily immigrants from Poland, Sweden, Croatia, Serbia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ireland.” Plugging the name “hegewish” into Google Translate gets me nothing. Separating “hegewisch” into two words gets nothing in Polish, which the early town was. Likewise in Serbian, Croatian and LIthuanian. But in German we hit the following translation:
    That doesn’t sound anything at all like washing pigs, in fact, it sounds like any dirt on them might be valued. I’m still scratching my noggin over this one.

  12. Nijma, it’s just an ordinary folk etymology. There are a million of them. People (other than linguists) have no clue where words come from.

  13. Ah, “folk etymology”. I’m glad it has a respectable name instead of being just hogwash. I can picture this one starting out as a playground taunt.

  14. Preachy Preach says

    “Flogging the oggin” crops up in one of Terry Pratchett’s novels as a euphemism for being the sailor, IIRC. Given that he’s often heavily reliant on Brewsters Phrase and Fable, a quick skim there may turn something interesing up.

  15. Peter Goodall says

    My father comes from a Portsmouth, England navy family. He uses oggin (relatively often), as in to throw something in the oggin – a deep hole, or the sea. “Throw it in the oggin”. Always gave me a sense that if you did this, what ever it was wouldn’t come back…

  16. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    A few of the older borrowings in Irish from English show signs of coming from pre-metanalysis forms. E.g. naprún, apron, nathair, snake (presumably from “adder” and then applied to all snakes, whereof as we know there are none in Ireland.)

  17. Preachy Preach says

    Which brings to mind one of my favourite bad jokes, which really needs to be told with the appropriate body movements (and appropriate accent) for it to properly work.
    “What did St. Patrick say when he drove the snakes out of Ireland?”
    “Are you alright in the back there?”

  18. For those who object to cars because they are not in the Bible: in Genesis God drove Adam and Eve out of the garden in his Fury; in the New Testament book of Acts, the disciples came together in one Accord.

  19. Elijah, meanwhile, was taken up to Heaven in a Whirlwind.

  20. Oggin (September 2008) is a word I frequently use as part of a phrase ‘in the oggin’, meaning not so much ‘all at sea’ as ‘in deep doo-dah’ or more vulgarly, ‘in the ****’ (substitute fecal matter for the asterisks).

  21. Trond Engen says

    I know how you feel.
    Hat: Remove the spam link and that text could be a nice weekend puzzle for the children.
    [Alas, I’d deleted the comment before I saw yours! –LH]

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