Gimp means cripple. Not flattering and probably hurtful to some, though a friend with multiple sclerosis who died fifteen years ago cheerfully called himself a gimp, and mock-complained that his legs, almost worthless by the time I knew him, were gimpy. Then I read Chekhov’s “Polinka,” a story written in 1887, making it late-early or early-middle Chekhov. He was twenty-seven. The translation is Constance Garnett’s (The Darling and Other Stories, 1917).
The title character is a dressmaker shopping for fabric and waited on by Nikolay Timofeitch, a “graceful, dark young man” in love with Polinka, who is in love, of course, with another. This little story is an exercise in maintaining appearances, a “romcom” of indirection. Talk of fabric is interleaved with references to the never-named boyfriend, a student. Nikolay, a clerk, is intimidated by the social rank of the student, and warns Polinka he’s only after her dowry. By the end of the story, Polinka is weeping, though Chekhov never tells us why. Does she love Nikolay? Is she encouraging the student solely for the sake of social status? The story ends with Nikolay, seeing Polinka’s tears “still gushing,” listing various sorts of lace: “`Spanish, Rococo, soutache, Cambray . . . stockings thread, cotton, silk . . .”
Back to gimp. Early in the story, Polinka asks to see some. “For what purpose?” Nikolay asks, and she replies: “`For a bodice trimming—to trim a whole dress, in fact.’” “Nikolay Timofeitch lays several kinds of gimp before Polinka; she looks at the trimmings languidly and begins bargaining over them.”
So, gimp is material but what sort and how does it relate to the word’s more common meaning? The OED offers seven usages. Four simple letters have evolved exponentially over the centuries. Here is the definition as the word is used by Garnett: “Silk, worsted, or cotton twist with a cord or wire running through it. Now chiefly applied to a kind of trimming made of this . . . sometimes covered with beads or spangles.” The etymology is identified as our old friend “of obscure origin,” though possible Dutch and German roots are suggested.
The fourth definition is the one I’ve always known: “a lame person, a cripple; a lame leg; a limp. Also as v., to limp, hobble.” Again “origin uncertain; perhaps a corruption of gammy.” That’s a word I vaguely remembered. Graham Greene used it in Brighton Rock: “One leg was gammy, he moved it with a mechanism worked from his pocket.” It’s English, whereas gimp is American. The two senses of gimp seem entirely unrelated. Our language, once again, is unapologetically profligate.