Q: I’m from upstate NY, but I’ve lived in NC for almost 20 years. When native North Carolinians use the word “toboggan,” they’re talking about a hat. When I use it, I’m talking about a sled. Who’s right?
A: You’re right, but so are your North Carolina neighbors. In American usage, a “toboggan” can be either a sled or a snug knitted cap—one suitable for a chilly toboggan ride.
“Toboggan” is a word with roots deep in the North American wilderness, from a time before Europeans arrived on the continent.
The word comes from “a North American Indian name in Canada of a sleigh or sledge,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED mentions two principal Native American languages with the name: Micmac (tobakun) and Abenaki (udabagan).
Similar words in “other allied Algonquian languages,” the OED says, are the Montaignais word utapan, the Cree otabanask, and the Ojibwa odaban-ak.
The French in Canada adopted the word in the late 1600s, spelling it tabaganne, and it appeared in English writing in the early 1800s.
In English, according to the OED, the word originally meant “a light sledge consisting of a thin strip of wood turned up in front, used by the Canadian Indians for transport over snow.”
Today, the dictionary adds, “toboggan” can mean “a similar vehicle, sometimes with low runners, used in the sport of coasting (esp. down prepared slopes of snow or ice).”
The OED’s earliest English version, spelled “tobogin,” was recorded in Sir George Head’s Forest Scenes and Incidents in the Wilds of North America (1829):
“After leaving Fredericton there was no town nor village at which the required articles could be procured: namely, a couple of tobogins, a tobogin bag, a canteen … two pairs of snow shoes.”
The “toboggan” spelling didn’t arrive until half a century later, in the 1870s. Here’s one example, cited in the OED:
“The little hand-sledge … which the English have christened by the Canadian term ‘toboggan.’ ” (From John Addington Symonds’s Sketches and Studies in Italy and Greece, 1874.)
In the mid-1800s, soon after the noun “toboggan” came into English, people began using it as a verb. So to “toboggan” meant to ride a toboggan. And what did one wear while tobogganing? Read on.
By the late 19th century, people were using the term “toboggan cap” (and slightly later “toboggan hat”) to mean a stocking cap, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.
DARE’s examples begin with “toboggan cap” in 1870 (from Minnesota), “toboggan cap” in 1886 (Ohio), and “toboggan hat” in 1908 (Ohio).
As the OED reports, the former item was even offered for sale in a 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog, which advertised “Toboggan Caps or Toques.”
In the 1920s term for the cap was shortened to “toboggan,” which the OED defines as an American term for “a long woollen cap.”
The OED’s earliest citation for “toboggan,” meaning the cap, is from a 1929 issue of the journal American Speech: “Toboggan, a woolen cap.” The journal gives the example “Take off your toboggan.”
Oxford’s most recent example is from a 1975 issue of the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer, in a description of a burglar: “He was wearing a red toboggan and tight pants, police said.”
While the OED doesn’t say the term for a cap is chiefly used in the South, that seems to be the case.
DARE describes this use of “toboggan” (along with “toboggan cap” and “toboggan hat,” plus the shorter “boggan” and “boggin”) as “chiefly South, South Midland; also Inland North.”
We’ll close with another quote from the Raleigh News & Observer, this one from 1995 and cited in DARE:
“What once were tobogganing caps became, over the years, simply ‘toboggans.’ Except we pronounce them, in our own uniquely Southern way, ‘toe-boggins’ or sometimes, in the privacy of our own homes, merely ‘boggins.’ ”
Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.