One of the words we discussed at the French conversation group last night was kidnap, which is enlever or kidnapper (verb) and enlèvement (noun) in French. We wondered where the English word comes from, so I thought I’d investigate.
According to the OED, kidnap originally meant “to steal or carry off (children or others) in order to provide servants or labourers for the American plantations” and came to mean “to steal (a child), to carry off (a person) by illegal force”. It is formed of kid (child) and nap (to snatch, seize).
The word kid comes from the Middle English kide/kede/kid (young goat), is thought to come from the Old Norse kið /cʰɪːð/ (young goat), from the Proto-Germanic *kiðjom. It started to be used as a slang expression for child in about the 1590s, and was considered low slang at first, but by the 19th century it was accepted in informal usage.
The word nap (to seize, catch; to arrest; to steal) is of uncertain origin. It is possibly related to the Norwegian word nappe (to tug, snatch, arrest) and the Swedish nappa (to snap, snatch). Then again, it might be related to nab (to seize, to catch and take into custody, to apprehend, arrest, to imprison).
The Welsh for kidnap is herwgipio /hɛrʊˈgɪpɪɔ/, from herw (raid, wandering) and cipio (to capture, snatch, grab). Herw also appears in herwhela (to poach) – hela = to hunt; herwlong (pirate ship); and herwr (prowler, robber, outlaw).