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).

3 thoughts on “Kidnap

  1. kid retains its original meaning in German Kitz “fawn, goatling”. kidnap is entführen, literally “lead away, lead out”.

  2. The Swedish word is kidnappa which is a loan from English and first appeared in newspapers in the 1930s. You can tell it’s a fairly recent loanword by the fact that the initial k is pronounced hard /k/ rather than soft /ɕ/, like it would normally do before a front vowel. The words for young goat, kid and killing, on the other hand are pronounced with a soft k.

  3. The word fits easily into Tagalog as kidnapin (past kinidnapetc.) and could pass for a native root – same with holdapin (hinoldap).

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