What poppycock and cockamamy have in common

Indo-European roots for excrement

Dear Sir. I always felt a sense of pride that, of all the words for excrement in all the world’s languages, it was the Spanish word caca that had come to transcend language barriers and be used universally to mean what it means. But recently I came across something that indicated that caca is not so much Spanish as Yiddish or Hebrew. Can you tell us what the origin of the word really is, languagewise? — Rick Munoz, San Diego

Answerwise, I can, Rick. The word itself is definitely Spanish. But following the caca trail back many thousands of years in linguistic time, we arrive at the Indo-European language that spawned everything from Norwegian to Hindi. Many languages in Europe, the Middle East, and the Near East include descendants of the Indo-European roots kakka- or kaka-, to defecate. Most English dictionaries that bother to list caca trace it to the Latin equivalent, cacare. The Dutch version, kacken, has given us the handy noun “poppycock,” meaning “nonsense.” The Yiddish kock produced “cockamamy” (ridiculous, absurd). Yiddish expert Leo Rosten calls this word “Yinglish,” a blend of Yiddish and English, since it was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan early in this century. My favorite loan of the word caca, though, comes directly from Spanish — cacafuego, literally, “shit fire,” a perfectly acceptable term in 16th-century England for a devilish or argumentative person or a bully, definitely a word to be proud of.

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