When I was a kid, I noted a dirty heavy metal implement with a wooden handle in the basement. I recognized it from cartoons, movies, and so forth: it was a pick. Too heavy for me to wield well, if at all, and I was not so reckless as to try anyway.
Only I was wrong.
Not about wielding it, oh no. It was one of those truly obvious someone-could-get-hurt things. I was wrong about what it was. I learned a few years later its true name.
To this day, that word just doesn’t seem right for the thing. A mattock is like a pick but with an adze on one side of the head rather than points on both sides. It’s heavy and hard and sharp and dirty and seems just like the sort of thing some hapless miner would be found with buried in his head by a vanished enemy. I mean, any mattock I’ve seen looks like its apotheosis involves great gobs of drying, crusted blood all over it. And even in its daily use it is for hacking into earth and rocks and being covered in rust and/or dirt. Sure, the sound of its use might come across something like “ttock” (or more likely “thud” and perhaps “arrgggghhhh” after that). And sure, the trajectory of the word in the mouth goes past the soft /m/ at the lips, through a harder /t/ on the tongue-tip, to a sticking /k/ at the back, like a mattock burying into something (or someone). But the word mattock has completely different tastes and overtones for me.
Two of the world’s soft, comfortable things.
Other such matt matters as matting and matte do not much harden it.
How about the ttock? Taken by itself it would seem to be the exact sound of that pointy end as it meets the unhelmeted skull of the grizzled gold-digger. But it shows up in other words that may not flavour it strongly for most speakers but don’t really reinforce the hardness: bittock, ‘little bit’; brattock, ‘little brat’ (hmm, I was one of those once); dattock, a West African fruit tree; futtock, a middle timber in a ship; hattock, ‘little hat’; kittock, a disrespectful diminutive for a girl or young woman; puttock, a bird of prey; rittock, a tern or small gull; and scuttock, a guillemot. (I thank the Oxford English Dictionary for those.)
Then there are name associations slightly farther afield. Matlock, a TV detective played by Andy Griffith (a favourite of my mother); Ford Madox Ford, born Ford Hermann Hueffer, a British novelist; Ford Madox Brown, a pre-Raphaelite painter and the grandfather of the novelist; Béla Bartók, a Hungarian composer. Indeed, Ford Madox Brown often painted rural folks and workmen, the sorts of people who might use mattocks (though I was unable to find a painting by him in which one is actually represented), and Béla Bartók loved and was strongly influenced by folk music, the music of such working people as also might use such earthworking implements. So perhaps if we crossed the painter with the composer we would get affordable brown mattocks.
Where did we get mattocks? Oh, heck, they’ve been around since time immemorial. As has this word. Actually, it’s a bit of a problem: there is a limit to the memory of where this word came from. We know that it was present in Old English (in various spellings). But we don’t know where Old English got it. Cognates in neighbouring Celtic languages are known to have been borrowed from English, not vice versa. The best we can do, though there’s an attestation gap between the one and the other, is a conjectural connection to Vulgar Latin matteuca ‘club’.
Perhaps with enough digging the attestation gap will be closed. Someone will need to spend the necessary time on their buttocks looking. Alas, it interferes with the necessary time on mattress sleeping. Right now, I know which one I’ll pick.