Friday, September 30, 2011


Votary \VOH-tuh-ree\ , noun;
1. One who is devoted, given, or addicted to some particular pursuit, subject, study, or way of life
2. A devoted admirer
3. A devoted adherent of a religion or cult
4. A dedicated believer or advocate

This word dates to the 1540's as "one consecrated by a vow" from Latin votum, which derives from the Proto-Indo-European base *ewegwh- ("to speak solemnly, vow"). Originally it referred to a monk or a nun, but by the 1590's it had taken on a more general sense of "ardent devotee of some aim or pursuit." Shakespeare used it in reference to love.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


 OK \oh-kay\
 OK is yet another word, born from slang, that is incredibly popular and widespread, yet where exactly it came from is up for debate. The generally accepted story is that it dates to 1839 and comes from the initial letters of oll korrect ("all correct"). It's a remnant of a New England slang fad where deliberate, jocular misspellings of common phrases were abbreviated. Another example of this is KG for "no go," spelled "know go." From there it was popularized by the O.K. Club, a New York booster group for President Martin Van Buren's 1840 re-election bid in allusion to his nickname Old Kinderhook. The initials stuck as a way to write approval on documents.
Some believe (including President Woodrow Wilson, who spelled it okeh) that OK comes from an alleged Choctaw word oke, meaning "it is." Others have posited that it comes from French au quai, Scottish English och aye, or some word in Wolof brought over during slavery. All of these theories lack credible documentation to back them up.

Interested in how OK spread throughout the US and the world? There's actually a book* about it.

*I have no affiliation with this book, in fact I haven't even read it (yet). But I saw it on Amazon and wanted to share.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Portend \por-TEND\ , verb;
1. To indicate (events, misfortunes, etc.) as in future; to foreshadow; to bode

This word dates to the early 15th century from Latin portendere, which means "foretell," but its original meaning was "to stretch forward" from por- + tendere ("forth, forward" + "to stretch, extend").

I always like the word bode, so I went ahead and looked that up too. It comes from Old English bodian ("proclaim, announce, foretell") from boda ("messenger"). It probably comes from Proto-Germanic *budon-, which derives from Proto-Indo-European *bheudh- ("be aware, make aware"), which is also the forebear of bid.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Kingpin \KING-pin\ , noun;
1. The person of chief importance in a corporation, movement, undertaking, etc.

Between a Rolling Stone article about a Texas-born drug lord, a Playboy article about a big female Meth dealer, and the Breaking Bad marathon my husband and I have been watching, kingpin has been popping up quite a bit lately. In fact, with the decades-long drug US drug war this word seems to be relatively common, which is why I was surprised at the dearth of information about the word in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED offers no etymology and lists just two definitions:
     1. The tallest (central) pin in the game of kayles
     2. That which holds together any complex system or arrangement; also, the most important or outstanding person in a party, organization, etc.

Other sources list a couple more definition, notably the bowling one ("the headpin" or "the #5 pin") and a mechanical definition ("either of the pins that are part of the mechanism for turning the front wheels in some automotive steering systems").
The oldest usage of this word dates to 1801 and it's the first OED definition listed above. It's a combination of king (as in "chief, main") and pin (referring to the pins used in the game). I'd guess that the fact that a kingpin is the tallest and most central pin in this game leads pretty directly into the other definitions. So, if the most central and noteworthy person in an organization is the one running things, he or she is therefore the kingpin.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Sapid \SAP-id\ , adjective;
1. Having taste or flavor, especially having a strong pleasant flavor
2. Agreeable to the mind; to one's liking

This word dates to the 1630's from Latin sapidus ("savory"), which derives from sapere ("to taste, have taste, be wise") from the Proto-Indo-European base *sep- ("to taste, perceive").

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Shanghai \SHANG-hahy\ or \shang-HAHY\ , verb;
1. To enroll or obtain (a sailor) for the crew of a ship by unscrupulous means, as by force or the use of liquor or drugs

I watched a cable show yesterday about the history of opiates in America. It wasn't very good, but I noticed that they explained that the definition of the word shanghaied originated from people being robbed while high and passed out in opium dens. The Chinese city Shanghai lent its name to this practice because opium dens were mainly Chinatown businesses. I was under the impression that being shanghaied meant something else entirely. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, I was right.

The only definitions the trusty, rusty OED offers have to do with kidnapping. Now, opium dens were probably great places to rob AND shanghai people, but the two crimes are not one in the same. This US nautical slang word was first attested in 1871.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Lionize \LY-uh-nyz\ , transitive verb;
1. To treat or regard as an object of great interest or importance

This word is first attested in 1825 as an intransitive verb "to see the 'lions' of a place." It preserves the sense of lion meaning "person of note who is much sought-after," which dates to the early 1700's in reference to the lions once kept in the Tower of London.

Lion dates tot he late 12th century from Old French lion from Latin leonem, which was borrowed from Greek leon. The source of the Greek term is a non-Indo-European language, possibly Semitic. Most European languages use a form that was borrowed from an older Germanic word.

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Saturday, September 24
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or

Friday, September 23, 2011


Copacetic \koh-puh-SET-ik\ , adjective, verb;
1. Very satisfactory; fine

This American slang word is first attested in 1919 and is of unknown origin. Most of the Oxford English Dictionary citations connect the word with African American or prison culture, so it's not very surprising that the origin isn't documented.

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Friday, September 23
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Cockapoo \KOK-uh-poo\ , noun;
1. One of a variety of dogs crossbred from a cocker spaniel and a miniature poodle

Poodles are fantastic dogs. Smart, cute, and relatively hypoallergenic. So it's no wonder that they are so popular for deliberate cross-breeding -  plus, that name lends itself well to fun portmanteau names. Cockapoo and Labradoodle are supposedly the only poodle-cross portmanteaus to make it into the Oxford English Dictionary so far, and cockapoo is the older of the two. It is first attested in 1960, while Labradoodle dates to 1970.

Personally, I'm a big fan of the Crestepoo (Chinese crested-poodle mix). But, then again, I'm biased.
My crestepoo, Heidi

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Prom \PROM\ , noun;
1. A formal dance, especially one held by a high school or college class at the end of an academic year
80's: Glory days for prom dresses (source)
This is an Americanism that dates to the late 19th century. It's short for promenade, which dates to the 1560's as "leisurely walk" from Middle French promenade. The French word comes from se promener ("go for a walk"), which derives from Late Latin promenare ("to drive animals onward"). It's a combination of pro- + minare ("forth" + "to drive animals with shouts").

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Mobster \MOB-ster\ , noun;
1. A member of the criminal mob

Dating to 1917, the origin of mobster is mob + -ster with influence from American slang gangster, which dates to 1896. That mob is the criminal version of the word, which dates to the 1680's as "disorderly part of the populace, rabble." It derives from a slang shortening of mobile or mobility ("common people, populace, rabble"), which dates to the 1670's from Latin mobile vulgus ("fickle common people"). Mobile vulgus comes from movere ("to move"), which ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European base *meue-.
Mob meaning "gang of criminals working together" is attested from 1839 and originally referred to thieves and pick-pockets. The American English idea of "organized crime" or "Mafia" is first attested in 1927.

There is another obsolete usage of mobster from the 18th century that meant "a member of a mob or crowd, a member of the common people." The later version of mobster has the same etymology as this one, but the two don't seem to be strongly connected because of the influence of gangster. This is perhaps not entirely surprising since the suffix -ster is pretty common.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Roundabout \round-uh-BOUT\ or \ROUND-uh-bout\ , adjective;
1. Circuitous or indirect, as a road, journey, method, statement, or person
2. Of clothing: Cut circularly at the bottom; having no tails, train, or the like
1. A short, close-fitting coat or jacket worn by men or boys, especially in the 19th century
2. One of these bad boys:
This looks scary... (source)
This word as a noun or adjective comes from the adverbial usage of round about which dates to the early 1300's. The sense of "traffic circle" is first attested in 1927

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Facinorous \fuh-SIN-uh-rus\ , adjective;
1. Extremely wicked or immoral; grossly criminal; vile; infamous

This word is first attested in 1548 from Latin facinorosus ("criminal, wicked"), which derives from facinor ("deed, especially a bad one"). Though facinorous is now archaic, it was very common in the 17th century.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What did you just call me?

The fascinating thing about slang is that it changes. A lot. Often quickly.
Some words stick around (or make a comeback) as a tongue-in-cheek reference to a different time - think the bee's knees - while others just fade away (do you know what Let's ankle! means?). I have long been fascinated with taboo words, particularly profanity. But, unlike some profanity, taboo slang can be painfully cruel for one generation and meaningless to the next. I was reminded of this recently while watching a bunch of 'Boardwalk Empire' episodes. I caught a few derogatory terms being used (mainly mick and spic) that many of my fellow millenials may have never heard of. And, even if we have heard of the words and know what they mean, they no longer carry the same (or any) emotional sting.

So, here are some approximately Prohibition-era derogatory terms that may or may not carry any emotional weight today. Bear in mind that 'first attested' means 'first time written down', so all dates are approximate and an older attestation date just means the word was around for a while before the Jazz Age hit. Also, this is by no means a comprehensive list because there's no such thing as a comprehensive list of any slang terms.

Bohunk: "Lower class immigrant from Central or Eastern Europe" - First attested in 1903, probably a combination of Bohemian + a distortion of Hungarian.
*Celestial: "Chinese" - First attested in 1842 from The Celestial Empire, which was a name for China in the 1800's.
Dago: "A foreigner" - First attested in 1723 as Southwestern US slang for a man with Spanish heritage based on a corruption of the name Diego. Later extended to Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian people in general and eventually (now?) a disparaging term for any foreigner.
Dinge: "Black person" - First attested in 1848 in reference to a jazz style developed by black musicians and connected to dingy ("dirty").
*Harp: "Irishman" - First attested in 1904, presumably linked to the instrument which must have been popular in Ireland.
Jig: "Black person" - First attested in 1924 and probably the same word as jig ("a lively dance"), but possibly a back formation of jigaboo.
Jigaboo: "Black person" - First attested in 1909, related to jig and modeled after bugaboo (an object of terror, like the boogyman).
Kike: "Jew" - First attested in 1904 from an alteration of -ki or -ky, which were common endings for Eastern European Jewish immigrant names in the early 1900's.
Mick: "Irishman" - First attested in 1850 from a nickname for Michael, which is a common Irish name.
Ofay: "White person" - First attested in 1899 and of uncertain origin
Reuben: "A farmer or unsophisticated person from the country" - First attested in 1804 from the supposed tendency of people in rustic communities to use biblical first names, such as Reuben. This evolved into rube, which is still sometimes used.
Spade: "Black person" - First attested in 1928 in reference to the black card suit, spade. Originally it was an offensive term used by African Americans to refer to other African Americans with particularly dark skin, but it was eventually (possibly after prohibition) adopted by white people as a contemptuous word.
Spic: "Latino" or "Italian" - Originated in Panama during canal construction as spiggoty, but evolved to spic by 1913. It started out as a derogatory term for "Latino/a" from the phrase No spick English. The word has also been applied to Italians, possibly as an alteration of spaghetti.
Wop: "Italian" - First attested in 1912 of uncertain origin, but possibly connected to guappo (Italian dialect for "bold, showy, ruffian")

Let's ankle! means "Let's go for a walk"
*This may just be slang, not a derogatory term

Friday, September 16, 2011


Galaxy \GAL-uhk-see\ , noun;
1. Astronomy: A large system of stars held together by mutual gravitation and isolated from similar systems by vast regions of space
2. Any large and brilliant or impressive assemblage of persons or things
Very cool (source)
Galaxy dates to the late 14th century from Old French galaxie, which derives from Late Latin galaxias ("Milky Way"). The Latin word was a borrowing from Greek galaxias in galaxias kyklos, which is literally "milky circle" from gala ("milk"). Gala comes from Proto-Indo-European *glact-, which is also the forebear of lactation. Galaxy is sometimes used to mean Milky Way specifically, though Milky Way entered English as a translation of Latin via lactea.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Bacchanalia \bak-uh-NAIL-yuh\ , noun;
1. Plural, capitalized: The ancient Roman festival in honor of Bacchus, celebrated with dancing, song and revelry
2. A riotous, boisterous, or drunken festivity; a revel
Well, being naked is a good start for revelry... (source)
This word dates to the 1630's as "drunken revelry" from the name of the Roman festival held in honor of Bacchus. Bacchus is the Roman version of Dionysus, who was the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, and wine, and of ritual madness and ecstasy in Greek mythology.

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tbursday, September 15
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Fey \FAY\ , adjective;
1. Possessing or displaying a strange and otherworldly aspect or quality; magical or fairylike; elfin
2. Having power to see into the future; visionary; clairvoyant
3. Appearing slightly crazy, as if under a spell; touched
4. Scottish: Fated to die; doomed
5. Scottish: Marked by a sense of approaching death

The origin of fey is Old English fæge ("doomed to die" or "timid, feeble") and/or Old Norse feigr, both of which come from Proto-Germanic *faigjo-, which derives from Proto-Indo-European *peig- ("evil-minded, hostile"). *Peig- is also the forebear of foe.

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Wednesday, September 14
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Quicksticks \KWIK-stiks\ , adverb;
1. Colloquial: Quickly, without delay

This word dates to the 1860's as a shortened version of in quick sticks ("quickly, without delay").

Monday, September 12, 2011


Groom \groom\ , noun;
1. A bridegroom
2. A man or boy in charge of horses or the stable
3. Archaic: A manservant
1. To tend carefully as to person and dress; make neat or tidy
2. To clean, brush, or otherwise tend an animal
3. To prepare for a position, election, etc.

I've been reading Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett and the word groom is used quite a bit to mean "man or boy in charge of horses or the stable." The book is set in 12th century England, so I assumed it to be a precursor to the modern usages of the word. Turns out, I was only half right.

The core word here is the noun groom, which dates to the 1200's from groome ("male child, boy"). It has no known cognates in other Germanic languages, so its etymology is uncertain. It may derive from Old English *groma, which is realted to growan ("grown") or it could be a borrowing from Old French grommet ("servant").  The meaning "male servant who attends to horses" dates to the 1660's and eventually transformed into the verb usages of this word in the mid-1800's. The figurative sense of "to prepare a candidate" is first attested in 1887 and was originally an Americanism.

Now for the other half. Groom, meaning the husband-to-be at a wedding is a shortening of bridegroom, which dates to the 1600's. Bridegroom comes from Old English brydguma ("suitor"), which is a combination of bryd + guma ("bride" + "man"). -Guma turned into -groom in the 1700's because of a folk etymology that connected the word to groom as outlined above. But, since a folk etymology is a false etymology, the connection is obviously tenuous.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Bellwether \BEL-weth-uhr\ , noun;
1. A leader of a movement or activity; also, a leading indicator of future trends
How's you like to butt heads with this guy? (source)
This word dates to the mid-14th century, though as a surname it goes back to the 12th. It's a combination of bell + wether based on the practice of hanging a bell on the neck of the lead sheep in a flock (the wether). Today, a wether is a castrated male sheep, but in Old English weðer meant "ram," so the idea a wether being the lead sheep may make more sense.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Abaft \uh-BAFT\ or \uh-BAHFT\ , preposition;
1. To the rear of; aft of
1. In the direction of the stern; astern; aft

This nautical term dates to the 1400's from on baft, which evolved from Old English on bæftan ("backwards"), a combination of be + æftan ("by" + "aft"). Æftan is an Old English word that is actually a superlative of æf, which means "off," so æftan means "most back" or "from behind." The word dates to at least 937, though the nautical sense didn't arise until around the 1660's in Middle English.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Ziff \zif\ , noun;
1. Australian slang: A beard

This word dates to 1919 from unknown origins.

Alright, confession time: I just wanted an excuse to post this:
Windmill ziff (source)
And this:
Champion ziff (source)
Also, this:
Crazy ziff (source)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Ampersand \AM-per-sand\ or \am-per-SAND\ , noun;
1. A character or symbol for "and"

This word is a mondegreen* that dates to the early 1800's. For more, check out's article.

*A mondegreen is a misinterpretation of a word or phrase that sounds like another word or phrase that has been heard. For a humorous dose of mondegreens, check out

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Crimp \krimp\ , verb;
1. To press into small regular folds; make wavy

This word dates to the 1630's, possibly from Old English gecrympan ("to crimp, curl"), but most likely it's from Middle Dutch or Low German crimpen ("to shrink, crimp").

Of course, the best thing that's ever happened for the word crimp was the 80's

Monday, September 5, 2011


Breatharian , noun;
1. A person who believes it is possible to subsist healthily on air alone
1. Of or relating to a breatharian

This word is first attested in 1979 from breath + -arian, based on the form vegetarian, fruitarian, etc.

Breatharianism is rooted in Hinduism and yogic philosophy. The basic concept is that human beings can be sustained on prana alone. Prana is the vital life force in Hinduism, and one of the main sources of prana is the sun. According to breatharians, the energy in sunlight can be enough to keep the human body alive and well.

This is, of course, a very controversial practice and people have died attempting it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Civil Service

Civil Service \SIV-uhl-SUR-vis\ , noun;
1. Those branches of public service concerned with all governmental administrative functions outside the armed services
2. The body of persons employed in these branches
3. A system or method of appointing government employees on the basis of competitive examinations, rather than by political patronage

This word is first attested in 1765, and was originally reserved for the branch of the East India Company that was run by non-military staff.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Rusticle \RUHS-ti-kl\ , noun;
1. An elongated structure often found on underwater shipwrecks, somewhat like a stalactite or icicle in appearance, consisting of microbial and fungal growths inside a layer of iron oxide
Rusticles on the Titanic (source)
This word was coined in the 1980's (first attested in 1986) because of what researchers found when they found the Titanic. It's based on the form icicle.

Friday, September 2, 2011


Ribald \ RIB-uhld\ or \RAHY-buhld\ , adjective;
1. Vulgar or indecent in speech, language, etc.; coarsely mocking, abusive, or irreverent; scurrilous
1. A ribald person

The noun version of this word dates to the mid-13th century as "a rogue, rascal, scoundrel, varlet, filthy fellow" from Old French ribalt. Its origins are uncertain, but it may be related riber ("be wanton, sleep around") from Proto-Germanic *wribanan, which derives from the Proto-Indo-European base *wer- ("to turn, bend"). The adjective version is first attested in the 1500's.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Cryptic \KRIP-tik\ , adjective;
1. Mysterious in meaning; puzzling; ambiguous
2. Involving or using cipher, code, etc.
3. Zoology: Fitted for concealing; serving to camouflage

This word dates to the 1630's as "hidden, occult, mystical" from Latin Latin crypticus. Crypticus was a borrowing from Greek kryptikos ("fit for concealing"), which derives from kryptos ("hidden"). Kryptos ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *krau- ("to conceal, hide") and is the forebear of crypt.

Anyone else remember The Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt? He scared the pants off me when I was a kid.
Creeeeepy (source)