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Q From Larry Preuss: I have wondered about the origin of the word navvy. My Shorter OED tells me it is an abbreviation of navigator but somehow that doesn’t seem likely. Are there other thoughts on this?

A It’s true enough, though we’ve lost the associations that made it seem an obvious enough coinage to people at the time.

From about 1660 onwards in Britain, many artificial waterways were built to make rivers navigable by ships and boats. These became known as navigations, a term first recorded early in the eighteenth century. The word was later applied to the cross-country canals linking river to river that were one of the engineering triumphs of the second half of that century and the early part of the next.

The labourers who built these navigations — entirely by hand using pick, shovel and barrow — came to be called navigators, an obvious enough association of ideas. The term was transferred to their successors, the often unruly gangs of itinerant workmen who built the railways across Britain from the 1830s onwards. It’s only then that the abbreviated form began to appear in print, and it’s attached in particular to these men and to the era of railway building in Britain. Later in the century it became the usual term for any labourer working on construction projects.

It was so firmly attached to the idea of excavation that when the first mechanical digger came into service in the 1870s it was called a steam navvy.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 21 Aug. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 21 August 1999.