Q: It’s spring and I can hear the peepers once again, which raises a question. Where on earth did the words “tadpole” and “pollywog” come from? They seem to mean the same thing, but they don’t seem to have anything in common linguistically, except perhaps for “pole” and “poll.”
A: You’re onto something there.
The larvae of frogs and toads—known popularly as “tadpoles” and “pollywogs”—have big round heads. And the old noggin sense of the word “poll” is very likely the key to the etymologies of those common names.
“Poll” probably came into English from the Middle Dutch word pol (top, summit), and there are similar words in other Germanic languages. Beyond this, the word’s etymology is uncertain, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The term has been in English in one form or another since around 1300, and it has various meanings relating to the head.
Among other things, it can mean the crown, the scalp, the area where hair grows, and, in the words of the OED, “the prominent or visible part of a head in a crowd.”
That last sense of “poll” has given us many extended meanings related to counting, voting, taxing (“poll tax”), surveying (“opinion poll”), and so on.
But back at the pond, those wiggly big-headed larvae got the name “tadpole” sometime in the Middle Ages. The word is a compound of the Middle English tade or tadde (toad) and, apparently, the noun “poll” (head or roundhead), Oxford says.
The word was first recorded in writing—as “taddepol”—in the 1400s, and its spelling took several centuries to settle down.
Shakespeare, for example, spelled it “tod pole” in King Lear (1608): “Poore Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the tode, the tod pole.”
The modern spelling had become established by the time Oliver Goldsmith wrote An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature (1774): “The egg, or little black globe, which produces a tadpole.”
(An aside: as we wrote in a blog entry earlier this year, the word “tad” for something small, as in “a tad bit,” may be derived from “tadpole.”)
The word “pollywog” came along at roughly the same time as “tadpole” but it took longer to develop its modern spelling.
Its earliest appearance in writing—spelled “polwygle”—is from 1440, the OED says. That very odd-looking word was originally derived, Oxford says, from “poll” plus “wiggle.” In other words, the creature looked like a wiggly head!
It wasn’t until the late 18th century, the OED explains, that a vowel sound crept in between the first two elements of the word, which became “pollywig.” The modern form, “pollywog” followed in the 19th century.
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