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The first ever crossword puzzle was written by Arthur Wynne in 1913:

empty crossword grid with clues

Image from Wikimedia Commons

It has several clues with obscure and obsolete answers, but I was able to find all of them in dictionaries except for this one:

10-18. The fibre of the gomuti palm.

The answer is "DOH", as you can confirm from the crossing clues and from countless crossword solution websites that give the answer with no explanation. But I'm not able to find any references of "doh" being used to mean palm fiber outside of this specific puzzle. Every dictionary I search lists only the Homer Simpson interjection or the first note of a musical scale. It is in the Wikipedia article for the gomuti palm, but it has only a single mention with no source.

So where does the word come from? Surely it must have appeared in some dictionary or encyclopedia in 1913? Or did Arthur Wynne just make it up and hope no one would notice?

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  • 6
    What a fantastic question all-around !
    – Fattie
    May 15 at 12:58

2 Answers 2

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I can only find a few citations for this...and most of them are in books about your crossword. One of them says that the clue "would likely be impossible for most non-botanists," and this book also references it.

But it wasn't made up, since we can find it in a number of older dictionaries, like this old Funk & Wagnalls dictionary, and in this one as well.

Quoting from A Dictionary of the English Language:

DÕH, the name applied in Java, to the fibre of the Ejoo or Gomuti Palm

Per this journal, the original language was Javanese, but I doubt that a more detailed etymology can be easily found.

(There's a slight discrepancy in the scientific name given by modern sources and that given by the quoted dictionary; the dictionary says Arenga Saccharifera and modern sources call it Arenga pinnata, but the two are synonymous according to Wikipedia.)

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  • 2
    Nice finds! It never even occurred to me to try Google Books.
    – Carmeister
    May 14 at 13:50
  • Any idea why DÕH is capitalized in your definition? Is it an acronym, perhaps? Or is that the standard in this specific dictionary and all words are capitalized in their entries?
    – terdon
    May 15 at 11:41
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    @terdon - that's the standard; they're all capitalized. May 15 at 12:04
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    The change in botanical name isn't really a contradiction. Species are renamed relatively frequently. Sometimes because we figure out they were originally assigned to the wrong genus, sometimes because we find out that two things we thought were separate species are actually the same, and one of them gets reclassified as a synonym of the species designation which was officially published first.
    – R.M.
    May 15 at 14:57
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    @R.M. - yes, contradiction was probably the wrong word. I still felt it was worth noting in case someone looked at the dictionaries I linked (which use Saccharifera) and compared it to other sources. But yes, you're right. May 15 at 15:12
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Adding to Heartspring’s answer:

Doh appears to be an anglicized rendering of the Javanese Duk or Dok (Malay: ígok)* — both of which are pronounced sort of like doh — without a k sound.

The earliest use** of doh I could find in print was in Popular History of the Palms and Their Allies (Berthold Seemann, 1856). About arenga saccharifera (the Gomuti palm), it says:

Like all plants enjoying a wide geographical distribution, this tree is distinguished by names as numerous as the languages of the countries which claim it as a member of their flora. In Malay, the tree is called Anao . . . and the horsehair-like material . . . Iju (Ejoo or Eju) or Gomuti. In Javanese the tree is called Aren, the material like horsehair Duk (occasionally spelt Doh), the gossamer-like substance Kawul, and the sap Lagen . . .
Source

One imagines that Arthur Wynne (1871–1945), the son of a newspaper editor, had a stack of dictionaries lying around. The earliest lexicon I could find containing doh was The Treasury of Botany (John Lindley, Thomas Moore, 1866):

DOH. A javanese name for the hosrehair-like fibres of the Gomuti palm, Saguerus saccharifer
Source

(In that dictionary, we can also find another of Arthur Wynne’s plant crosswords from his original puzzle: NARD.)


* The History of Java (Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1817)

** Update: An earlier use of doh — perhaps informing the 1856 book above — appears in Wanderings in New South Wales, Batavia, Pedir Coast, Singapore, and China (George Bennett, 1834):

About some of the native habitations, that large and elegant palm . . . it is the “Anau” of the Sumatrans; was called at this place “Eju” and “Doh” by the Javanese: it is valued . . . for the black fibres [resembling] horsehair.
Source

 

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  • I found an entry (in Indonesian) about Javanese duk: senaraiistilahjawa.kemdikbud.go.id/search/duk . I guess the phonetic signs should be /dʊʔ/. It translates to (Malay) ijuk. Also, the Javanese and Malay words seem close enough and may be cognates, and wiktionary says that ijuk was from Proto-Malayo-Polynesian *izuk.
    – qrsngky
    May 16 at 2:33

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