Walking near a smaller body of water (like a creek, lake, or pond) in the late Spring and early Summer, you are likely to see today’s word. Being one of the most common visual cues that warmer weather has actually arrived, you can see them scurrying around, often in shallow water. No, not mosquitos – tadpoles. While we are familiar with them and we all know the types of amphibians that they will become, where the word originated and how it came to be applied can be a bit of a mystery.
Much like the way it sounds when we say it, tadpole is actually a compound word. Coming from the Middle English taddepol, it is a combination of the word tadde, which comes from the from Old English tadige or tadie, meaning ‘toad’, and pol, which comes from Middle Low German or Middle Dutch and means ‘head’. The combined meaning of “toad head” may not exactly be glamorous, but it does a fairly good job of describing what you are looking at. Interestingly, the other name for a tadpole – a pollywog/polliwog – perhaps goes a bit further, being a combination of pol and wiglen, meaning ‘to wiggle’ which, when combined, essentially means ‘head wiggler’; however, since this word emerged at least a half-century later, we’ll leave it for another day.
As could be expected, the first known use of the term relates to the larval stage of an amphibian, where it possesses a globular body, no (or small, developing) limbs, gills, and a long tail for propulsion before beginning the almost unbelievable transformation to adulthood where the tail is reabsorbed, the mouth and internal organs are reorganised, and lungs are developed. The first mention occurs in an 1884 dictionary by Thomas Wright and Richard Paul Wülker, entitled Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies, where they succinctly note a mention in the 1400s of: “Brucus, a tadpole.”; however, the first mention that fully utilizes the term can be found in a 1519 Latin grammar textbook, Vulgaria, by William Horman, which gives the translation: “This water is full of tadpoles.”
Less than a century later, the word would start to attain figurative usage, first being used to imply, by larval association, a human child in 1594 via William Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus, where, in Act 4, Scene 2, Demetrius states: “I’ll broach the tadpole on my rapier’s point: Nurse, give it me; my sword shall soon dispatch it.”
After several centuries of usage and understanding, our word then became attributive, as can be seen in William Benjamin Carpenter’s 1847 lengthy titled work Zoology: A Systematic Account of the General Structure, Habits, Instincts, and Uses of the Principal Families of the Animal Kingdom, which notes how: “The young animal [ascidian] has..a large tadpole-like tail.”
Finally, expanding on the earlier mentioned figurative usage of the term as an understanding of a child, combining the term with the suffixes –hood and –-dom, meaning ‘state quality of condition of being’, we can see the term expanded to dealing with anything associated with childhood or infancy: from the posthumously published Charles Kingsley, His Letters and Memories of his Life, we can see Kingsley writing in 1863 about: “Little beggars an inch long, fresh from water and tadpoledom.”; additionally, little more than 2 decades later, Conwy Lloyd Morgan, writing in his 1891 work, Animal Sketches, remarks: “Little Froggies which have just emerged from tadpole-hood.”