We just flew back from Copenhagen today. Copenhagen is a great place if you like slots.
No, I’m not talking about gambling. Or maybe I am…
Slot is Danish for ‘castle’ (or ‘palace’). Copenhagen has several of them. Not all are still in use as royal residences, but some are. Denmark still has royalty and those royalties seem to get pretty good royalties from their royalty, if the number of royal endorsement seals on high-end products is any indication. I noted the royal seal on my 750 mL glass of beer that I had before boarding my flight, and the same seal on the high-end clothing store next to the bar.
But that’s not a gamble; that’s straightforward commerce. The gamble comes more in whose face is on the coins. (Actually, only the 10 and 20 kroner coins have a royal face; the others just have hearts around the edge and a hole in the middle.) The throne is a slot to fill; which coin gets dropped in that slot? It may be a political machine, but when the wheels turn you don’t know for sure what you’ll get when they stop – and what the coins will look like when they come out.
Denmark’s royalty was elected by the nobility until the mid-1600s. The nobles were a rather fractious lot and had last say in many things, notably finances, and after a couple of military defeats in the 1650s which led to a lot of bills to pay, King Fredrik III asserted the need for a strong, stable government, and so he instated hereditary monarchy and a law declaring the king to be sovereign beyond the law and inferior only to God. The people seemed to like that. Absolute monarchy held sway in the country for almost 200 years, until another war’s disastrous conclusion led to the establishment of a constitutional state – but retaining the hereditary royalty. So it remains a closed shop, and who you get is determined by the lottery of birth: who happened to be born when to whom. Ya pays yer royalties, ya takes yer princes and princesses.
It’s fitting to call it a closed shop. That word slot is an old Germanic word relating to just that: closing and locking. There’s another country that calls a castle a slot: the Netherlands. As it happens, you’ll also see signs on doors in the Netherlands saying gesloten. That means ‘closed’. With just a slight difference in historical sound changes you get German geschlossen ‘closed’ and Schloss ‘castle’. See the pattern? A fortress or castle is a closed, locked place – and a palace is a later development of a castle.
How does that relate to English slot? Is it from the door bolt sliding in a slot? No, actually. The English slot that is related is out of use now in most places; it refers to a bolt or bar for locking a door. To find the ‘groove’ version, we need to do a bit more sleuthing. It showed up first in English to refer to the slight depression running down the middle of the breast. But it seems to have taken that from the groove in the hoof-print of an ungulate animal, Old French esclot. That in turn appears to come from Old Norse slóð ‘track’, which is related to modern English sleuth. (A side-note: a sleuth may track an animal by its spoor; in modern Dutch, ‘railway track’, as in Track 9 in a station, is spoor. In Danish, by the way, it’s spor. But don’t think for a moment that Dutch and Danish are mutually intelligible. They’re not really that closely related.)
It is from that ‘groove’ sense that most English usages of slot come, be they the specific times allotted for plains coming into and going out of an airport (such as the plane I was on today) or (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary) “The middle of the semi-circular or horseshoe-shaped desk at which a newspaper’s sub-editors work, occupied by the chief sub-editor” – from which we get The Slot, Bill Walsh’s website for copy editors.
We could draw a parallel between the chief copy editor and a king, I suppose: the heart of the operation. But the slot in the newsroom is the beating heart, the control centre. That is not so true of royalty anymore; they are more ceremonial now. Just as well. We have seen how, in times past, when we have looked in the middle of the chest, the heart has been barred, closed – or when we look for it we find no more than a hole in the middle. Why cast lots or play slots with a country’s future?
We’re just as well off in English, where slot functions better as a word for things that often make a sound like “slot!” when in use: grooved mechanisms and openings for coins. But of course, we have a monarch too (not you, Americans; I’m talking about us members of the Commonwealth). She looks very nice on the coins.