Wednesday, March 8, 2017


With the reemergence of Christopher Steele, former MI6 guy, who went into hiding after compiling a not (yet) wholly substantiated intelligence report which became public through Buzzfeed, the word "dossier" has attained prominence in the news cycle. And I have become aware that I don't really know what a dossier is. I mean, I have a sense of it, just from this example, but I don't know its precise definition or its origin--though on that last, I assume it comes to us from the French. Let's find out.


                                                                                Yann Riché

A dossier is actually a pretty simple thing. It's just a collection of detailed papers about a certain person or a certain subject. And, yes, it's from the French. It came into English some time around 1880, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The dos part comes from twelfth century French and means "back", which in turn goes back to Vulgar Latin dossum, a variant of the Latin dorsum, also meaning "back", like, you know, dorsal fin.

There are a couple of ideas out there about why "back" has anything to do with it. One is that these packets of paper used to have  characteristic labels on the back. Another, at first glance,  a little more out there, is that such bundles of papers would have a bulge that resembled the curve of a back. (I say, show me.) But an interesting support to that hypothesis is that there is another Old French word, dossiere, which meant the back strap or ridge strap of a horse's harness. So, you decide.

                                                                            Pete Markham

In looking at the site English Language & Usage, a different aspect of "dossier" came up, which hadn't quite risen to the surface for me, but is interesting in the current context. A commenter there said that for him, "dossier" had a negative connotation, and he wasn't sure why, given the neutral character of the definition. Another commenter said that this was because of its Cold War connotations, and still another that most of us know the word largely from spy novels. Someone else pointed out that in fact, dossiers had been kept on potential enemies of the state by regimes long before the Cold War, and that there are cognates and near cognates in several European languages.

That said, "dossier" is a word that can and often does have a completely neutral meaning. As I was looking up the etymology, I found a listing for Etymology Dossier, which turned out to be a detailed list of a chapter's contents on Medieval Grammar.

In the current moment, though, all our thoughts do tend to drift spyward...