Last week Buzzfeed published a collection of memos, prepared in 2015 by a former British intelligence agent, that make “explosive — but unverified — allegations that the Russian government has been ‘cultivating, supporting and assisting’ President-elect Donald Trump for years and gained compromising information about him.” The “compromising information” included reports that Trump had engaged in “perverted sexual acts” in a Moscow hotel – acts that had been arranged and monitored by the FSB, Russia’s foreign security service.
The story introduced several terms to the public, including kompromat (a Russian portmanteau meaning “compromising material”) and “golden shower” (defined in the report as “a urination show” performed by Russian prostitutes). But the word that circulated most widely was dossier, which can mean “file,” “document,” “report,” or “case history,” often with detailed information on a specific person or subject.
How an unverified but explosive dossier became a crisis for Donald Trump https://t.co/W1lO6nhni0— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 16, 2017
New York Post, January 13, 2017
Dossier entered English directly from French; the OED’s earliest citation has the surprisingly late date of 1880 (“The dossiers of the electioneering agent”). Forty years later, the novel Bulldog Drummond (named for the main character, a “gentleman adventurer”) included this snappy line of dialogue: “Here's his dossier..‘Ditchling, Charles. Good speaker; clever; unscrupulous. Requires big money; worth it. Drinks.’”
The French source of dossier is dos, which means “back” (from Latin dorsum, which also gave us endorse and dorsal). In Old French, a dossiere was a back-strap or ridge strap of a horse’s harness. How do we get from back to bundle of papers? “From their bulging,” the OED tersely advises. The American Heritage Dictionary has a different theory: the bundle of papers is labeled on the back.
Bundles of papers brought out at Trump’s January 11 press conference to serve as evidence that Trump is turning over his businesses to his children. Are the pages as blank as they appear? Possibly.
The English slang term doss, meaning “a place for sleeping” or, more generally, “sleep,” appears to share the same root as dossier, but is about a century older. It evolved from dorse, in which, in many English dialects, the r is silent. The connection here: When you sleep, you’re lying on your back. Well, sometimes, anyway.