Wednesday, November 30, 2011


S'more \smawr\ or \smohr\ , noun;
Yum! (source)
This word is first attested in 1934 and comes from the rapid pronunciation of some more, as in they're so good you want some more!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Tetchy \TECH-ee\ , adjective;
1. Irritable; touchy

This word is first attested in 1592 as teachie by Shakespeare in 'Romeo and Juliet' and before that its origins are unknown. It's probably a slang word, or at least dialectal, and it may have come from Middle English tatch ("a mark, quality") from Vulgar Latin *tecca via Old French. *Tecca was borrowed from a Germanic source related to Old English tacen, which is the forebear of token.

A number of words in English are first attested by Shakespeare, but unlike C.S. Lewis, he probably didn't invent them. I've written about this before, so if you are interested check out my post on slugabed.

Monday, November 28, 2011


Schmuck \shmuhk\ , noun;
1. Slang: An obnoxious or contemptible person

This word is first attested in 1892 from Yiddish shmok ("penis"), a highly taboo word which probably derived from Old Polish smok ("gras snake, dragon"). There is a word in German, schmuck, that means "jewelry, adornments" which is probably not related, though the similarity to English slang family jewels is hard to overlook.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Bier \beer\ , noun;
1. A frame or stand on which a corpse or the coffin containing it is laid before burial
2. Such a stand together with the corpse or coffin

If you're like me, you only see this word on beer bottles containing German brews. Turns out, it's an obscure English word as well!

Bier comes from Old Englis bær and ber ("handbarrow, litter, bed") from West Germanic *bero, which derives from Proto-Indo-European *bher-. It's related to Old English beran ("to bear") and originally could refer to anything used for carrying, with the specific funerary sense evolving later. French bière ("beer") influenced the word's spelling, which changed around the 17th century.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Boycott \BOI-kot\ , verb;
1. To abstain from buying or using
1. The act of boycotting

Boycott was first attested in 1880, and it comes from the ostracism of Captain Charles C. Boycott, a land agent in County Mayo, Ireland who refused to lower rents for his tenant farmers. Farmers at the time were advised to stop using force to retaliate against landlords. Instead, a man named Charles Stuart Parnell suggested a system of organized ostracisation against unfair and overbearing landowners. Captain Boycott was very unpopular with his tenants, so in September 1880 they joined forces to isolate and alienate him. People quit working their regular jobs and local tradesmen refused to do business with him. Even the postmaster stopped delivering his mail! He tried to fight back with military force, but he treated the servicemen so poorly they eventually joined the tenants' side. At some point Boycott abandoned his lands and was never seen again.
Captain Boycott (source)

Friday, November 25, 2011


Quean \kween\ , noun;
1. An overly forward, impudent woman; shrew; hussy
2. A prostitute
3. British: A girl or young woman, especially a robust one
4. Australian slang: Effeminate homosexual

Quean meaning "young, robust woman" comes from Old English cewne, meaning "woman" or "female surf, hussy, prostitute." The Old English word derives from Proto-Germanic *kwenon from Proto-Indo-European *gwen- ("woman, wife"). Quean is related to queen, which is unique in Indo-European languages because it is not a feminine derivative of the word for king

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Turkey \TUR-kee\ , noun;
Ah, the turkey. The noble, native American bird we so adore for Thanksgiving feasts. So how did it come to be named after Turkey?
It was simply a case of mistaken identity. When Europeans landed in the Americas they mistook this previously unknown bird for the Guineafowl, which is native to Africa (formerly meleagris). At the time, that bird was called a turkey-cock or turkey-hen (depending on gender) because it came to Europeans through Turkish dominions. Eventually the mistake was sorted out, but in the meantime both turkey and meleagris stuck as names for the American fowl.
A Guineafowl (source)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Dice \dahys\ , noun;
This word dates to the early 14th century and it's singular, die, dates to the late 14th century, both from Old French de ("dice, die"), which is of uncertain origin. It's a common word in Romance languages, so it may come from Latin datum, which means "given" but has a secondary sense of "to play" as in "to play a game piece."

Dice have been around since before recorded history and the oldest known dice are part of a 5000-year-old backgammon set found in an archeological site in Iran.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Knavery \NEY-vuh-ree\ , noun;
1. Unprincipled, untrustworthy, or dishonest dealing; trickery
2. Action or practice characteristic of a knave
3. A knavish act or practice

Knavery dates to the 1520's from knave + -ery. Knave comes from Old English cnafa ("boy, male servant"), which is a common Germanic word that appears in similar forms in German, Dutch, and more. Where came from before that is unknown and it is believed that the original meaning might have been "stick, piece of wood." The meaning "rogue, rascal" is first recorded in the 13th century.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Ointer \OINT-er\ , noun;
1. A dealer in grease, lard, tallow, etc.

Ointer first appears in English as a surname and is attested from 1263. It is derived from oint ("to smear with oil, ointment, etc.; to anoint"), which came from Anglo-Norman and Middle French oint, the past participle of oindre, which derived from Latin unguere ("to anoint").

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Caduceus \kuh-DOO-see-uhs\ or \kuh-DOO-syoos\ or \kuh-DOO-shuhs\ or \kuh-DYOO-shus\ , noun;

Alright, I was definitely more interested in the name of this thing than the etymology. But, if you were wondering, it is first attested in 1591 from Latin caduceus, which derives from Greek kapykeion. Though it's probably most recognizable as a medical symbol, originally it was the wand carried by an ancient Greek or Roman herald, specifically the one carried by Hermes or Mercury as the messenger of the gods. Click the pictures source link to read more about the caduceus and its history.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


Saturdaying , noun;
1. Soviet Union: The practice of working on a Saturday without pay for the benefit of the collective

When I first saw this word I thought of that Will Ferrell line from 'Old School': "Well, um, actually [we have] a pretty nice little Saturday [planned], we're going to Home Depot. Yeah, buy some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring, stuff like that. Maybe Bed, Bath & Beyond. I don't know. I don't know if we'll have enough time." I would have guessed that Saturdaying meant spending your Saturday doing weekend going antiquing or something. Turns out, I was pretty wrong.

Saturdaying is first attested in 1920 and is a translation of Russian subbotnik, based on Subbota ("Saturday"). In Cyrillic it's суббота.
"YOU. Volunteer for Saturdaying." (source)

Friday, November 18, 2011


Maieutic \mey-YOO-tik\ , adjective;
1. Of or pertaining to the method used by Socrates of eliciting knowledge in the mind of a person by interrogation and insistence on close and logical reasoning

This word dates to the mid-1600's from Greek maieutikos ("of or pertaining to midwifery"), based on maieu ("to serve as a midwife").

Maieutics is based on the idea that the truth exists in the mind of every person, but it has to be 'given birth' (hence, the midwifery link) by answering intelligent questions.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Rent \rent\ , noun;
1. Payment for use of property

This word dates to the mid-12th century from Old French rente, which derives from Vulgar Latin *rendita, the proper feminine past participle of rendere ("to render").

There is another definition of rent, "torn place," which dates to the 1530's from the noun use of Middle English renten ("to tear, rend"), which is a variant of renden. Renden is the forebear of rend and comes from West Germanic *randijanan, which is related to rind. Rend or variations thereof are not found in other Germanic languages.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Silhouette \sill-oo-ET\ , noun;
1. A dark image outlined against a lighter background
2. The outline or general shape of something
This word dates to 1798 from French silhouette after Étienne de Silhouette, the French minister of finance in 1759. It just so happened that France was going through a credit crisis at the time, so he was forced impose some economic restrictions that irritated people, especially the wealthy ones. Because of the restrictions his name became associated with things that are done or made cheaply, like those black silhouette profile pictures.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Wedgie \WEJ-ee\ , noun;
1. The condition of having one's underpants or other clothing uncomfortably stuck between the buttocks

What a modern word. Wedgie is first attested in 1977 and it's a combination of wedge + -y. There's another wedgie, which is attested from 1940 and it means "wedge-heeled shoe."

Monday, November 14, 2011


Know \noh\ , verb;
1. To perceive or understand as fact or truth; to apprehend clearly and with certainty
2. To be cognizant or aware of
3. To understand from experience or attainment

The origin of know is Old English cnawan ("to know, perceive; acknowledge, declare") from Proto-Germanic *knew-, which derived from Proto-Indo-European *gno- ("to know"). English know covers a few concepts that other languages use at least two verbs to convey. Take, for example, French connaître and savoir. Connaître means "to know a person" or "to be familiar with someone or something." Savoir means "to know a fact," "to know by heart," or "to know how to do something." English know covers all of these meanings. German has four words for know: wissen ("to know"), kennen ("to be familiar with"), erkennen ("to recognize"), and können ("to know how to do something").

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Baby \BEY-bee\

Welcome to the word Rolf! My baby was born Monday, weighing 8lbs and 21.5 inches long. We're all very excited (and a little tired) around here!
Baby dates to the late 14th century from babi, a diminutive form of baban ("babe"). Baban dates to the early 13th century and is probably imitative of baby talk, though in some languages the cognate means "old woman." Curiously, that's the end of the line, etymologically speaking. Presumably we've had a word for baby as long as we've had language, but the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources just stop at 1393 with babe. If you have any further insight, please share!

Sunday, November 6, 2011


-esque , adjectival suffix;
1. Characteristic of; resembling or suggesting the style of

This is perhaps my favorite suffix. Why? I don't know. I'm a word person, we have things like a "favorite suffix." Don't judge.

Anyway, -esque comes from French -esque, which was borrowed from Italian -esco. The Italian word is related to Medieval Latin -iscus, which was adopted from a Germanic source. It is related to Old High German -isc, which is the forebear of -ish. -Ish and -esque are used in very similar ways, but -esque tends to stick to words that came to English from Italian via French.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Coupon \KOO-pon\ or \KYOO-pon\ , noun;
1. A portion of a certificate, ticket, label, advertisement, or the like, set off from the main body by dotted lines or the like to emphasize its separability, entitling the holder to something, as a gift or discount, or for use as an order blank, a contest entry form, etc.
2. A separate certificate, ticket, etc. for the same purpose as above
3. One of a number of small detachable certificates calling for periodic interest payments on a bearer bond
4. Metallurgy: A sample or metalwork submitted to a customer or testing agency for approval

Coupon as "certificate of interest due on a bond" is first attested in 1822 from French coupon, which is literally "piece cut off" from couper ("to cut"). The original coupons were a set of certificates that were attached to a bond paper. The bonds ran for a term of years, so over time the certificates were to be cut off and used to get interest payments.

Our modern sense of coupon, as in those slips of paper you cut out of newspaper inserts, is first attested in 1906. Coupon-clipper pre-dates that and originally referred to someone who held a lot of coupon bonds.

Now we have this disaster on TLC:
Show website

Friday, November 4, 2011


Novel \NOV-uhl\ , noun;
1. A fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes

Novel dates to the 1560's from Italian novella ("short story"). Originally novella meant "new story" from Latin novella ("new things"), which is the neuter plural or feminine form of novellus. Novellus is the forebear of the adjective novel (via French novel, "new, fresh, recent"), which predates the noun by about 50 years. The Latin terms ultimately derive from Proto-Indo-European *newos, from which we also get English new via Proto-Germanic *newjaz and Old English neowe and niwe.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Sandwich \SAND-wich\ or \SAN-wich\ , noun;
1. Two or more slices of bread or the like with a layer of meat, fish, cheese, etc. between each pair
2. Something resembling or suggesting a sandwich, as something in horizontal layers
1. To put into a sandwich
2. To insert between two other things

Apparently, today is National Sandwich Day. So, in honor of this glorious holiday let me give you the etymology of sandwich (you know the story, it dates to 1762 and is attributed to the Fourth Earl of Sandwich who couldn't be bothered to pause his card game for a snack) AND the supposed history of a few of our favorite varieties:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Billow \BIL-oh\ , verb;
1. To rise or roll in or like a great wave; surge
2. To swell out, puff up, etc. as by the action of wind
3. To make rise, surge, swell
1. A great wave or surge of the sea
2. Any surging mass

Billow dates to the 1550's, though it may be older in dialectal use. It comes from Old Norse bylgja ("a wave") from Proto-Germanic *bulgjan, which derives from Proto-Indo-European *bhelgh- ("to swell"). Does the PIE word look familiar? It should, it's also the forebear of belly.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Aioli \ahy-OH-lee\ , noun;
1. A sauce made of oil and eggs, usually flavored with garlic, from the Provence region of France

I watch a lot of Food Network. A lot. So I immediately recognized this word*, though I don't think I've ever had it before. Basically, it's flavored mayonnaise. If you've never done it before, I recommend breaking out the food processor and making your own mayo (or aioli). It's really much better than the store bought stuff.

The word is first attested in English in 1914 and is borrowed from French aïoli, which dates to the mid-1700's. It is a combination of ai + oli, which is the old version of ail ("garlic") and huile ("oil").

*It is's word of the day today