Monday, October 31, 2011


Bromide \BROH-mayd\ , noun;
1. A platitude or trite saying
2. A person who is platitudinous and boring

Bromide is first attested in 1836 from bromine, which comes from French brome, which derives from Greek bromos ("stench"). Bromine compounds were used as sedatives in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so if your personality has the same effect on people, you're bromide.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


Quisby \KWIZ-bee\ , noun;
1. Obsolete slang: A wretch; an idle person

This silly sounding word dates to 1789 and its origin is uncertain, though it may be related to quiz.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Economize \ih-KON-uh-mahyz\ , verb;
1. To practice economy; avoid waste or extravagance
2. To manage economically; use sparingly or frugally

This word dates to the 1640's as "to govern a household" from economy + -ize. Economy, meaning "household management," dates to the 1530's from Latin oeconomia, which was borrowed from Greek oikonomia ("household management, thrift"). Oikonomia evolved from oikonomos ("manager, steward"), which is a compound of oikos + nomos ("house" + "managing"). Economy as in political economy ("wealth and resources of a country") dates to the 1650's.

Using economy as an adjective meaning "cheaper" didn't come about until the early 1800's and was originally an advertising term. By the 1950's the meaning had evolved into "bigger and thus cheaper per unit or amount." The first Costco didn't open until 1983.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Roast Beef

Roast Beef \rohst.beef\ , noun;
Roast beef  is first attested in 1564 and for a long time was seen as a symbol of Englishness, as in roast beef of old England, in reference to a song from 1731.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Umami \oo-MAH-mee\ , noun;
1. A strong meaty taste imparted by glutamate and certain other amino acids, often considered to be one of the basic taste sensations along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty

I have needed this word for the last eight and a half months, and I just happened upon it yesterday. My whole pregnancy I've been asked about weird cravings, but really I haven't had any...except umami, but I lacked a good, concise way of saying it. Now I know, with only a couple weeks (at most) to use it. Sigh. I'll have to remember for next time.

This word is first attested in 1979 from Japanese umami, which dates to at least 1721 from uma- + -mi ("delicious" + suffix to form abstract nouns from adjectives). Sometimes umami is used to mean monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG.

Since we're on the topic of MSG, I have a story for you. A couple years ago I spent a year teaching English in China (here's my blog on the experience). I don't really speak Chinese very well and my character reading is really awful, which occasionally got me into trouble (though not as often as one might think). Anyway, at one point I was coming down with something and had a really, really sore throat. Not wanting to take a crack at the pharmaceuticals quite yet, I decided to gargle some hot salt water to try and clear it up. I went to the store and there were about 8 packages that LOOKED like salt, but from the characters they were clearly different from each other. I hemmed and hawed for a while and finally picked one. I took it home and gargled with it and it tasted really weird. Kind of like chicken stock or something similar. I figured Chinese long-grain salt was weird. Fast forward a few days, I finally get around to looking up the characters on the bag. Lo and behold, I had been gargling MSG the whole time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Republic \ri-PUHB-lik\ , noun;
1. A state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them
2. Any body of persons viewed as a commonwealth
3. A state in which the head of government is not a monarch or other hereditary head of state
4. Capitalized: Any of the five periods of republican government in France
5. Capitalized: A philosophical dialogue by Plato in the 4th century b.c. dealing with the composition and structure of the ideal state

This word dates to around 1600 as "state which supreme power rests in the people" from French république, which derived from Latin respublica, literally res publica ("public interstes, the state") from res + publica ("affair, matter, thing" + "public").

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Bully \bool-ee\ noun;
1. A blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people

This word dates to the 1530's from Dutch boel ("lover, brother") and originally meant "sweetheart." The Dutch word is probably a diminutive of Middle High German buole ("brother"), which is of uncertain origin. By the 17th century, the meaning had evolved from "fine fellow" to "blusterer" to "harasser of the weak." How exactly the drastic change in meaning happened is up for debate, but it may have been influenced by bull ("male bovine"). Perhaps the missing link is a definition of bully that existed around 1700: "protector of a prostitute."

Around the time of the Civil War there was a U.S. slang phrase bully to you!, which reflected an earlier positive sense of the word ("worthy, jolly, admirable") dating to the 1680's.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Punkah \PUHNG-kuh\ , noun;
1. India: A fan, especially a large, swinging, screen-like fan hung from the ceiling and moved by a servant or by machinery
1. Of, pertaining to, used on, or working a punkah

This word dates to 1625 from Hindi pankha ("fan"), which derives from Sanskrit paksa ("wing").
Must be nice... (source)

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Kef \keyf\ , noun;
1. A state of drowsy contentment
2. Also keef, a substance, especially a smoking preparation of hemp leaves, used to produce this state

This word is first attested in 1808 from Arabic kaif, which means "well-being, good-humor," specifically in regards to the state of dreamy intoxication resulting from smoking cannabis.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Gnostic \NOS-tik\ , adjective;
1. Pertaining to knowledge
2. Possessing knowledge, especially esoteric knowledge of spiritual matters
3. Capitalized: Pertaining to or characteristic of the Gnostics
1. Capitalized: A member of any certain sects among the early Christians who claimed to have superior knowledge of spiritual matters, and explained the world as created by powers or agencies arising as emanations from the Godhead

The adjective gnostic dates to the 1650's from Greek gnostikos ("knowing, able to discern"), which derives from gnostos ("known, perceived, understood") from gignoskein ("to learn, to come to know").

The noun Gnostic dates to the 1580's as "believer in a mystical religious doctrine of spiritual knowledge." This version ultimately comes from the same Greek words as the later adjective, but it was actually borrowed from Late Latin Gnosticus. It applied to various early Christian sects that claimed direct personal knowledge beyond the Gospel or Church hierarchy. Agnostic, as "one who professes that the existence of a First Cause and the essential nature of things are not and cannot be known" was coined in 1870 by the author T.H. Huxley.

Friday, October 21, 2011


Cognate \KOG-neyt\ , adjective;
1. Related by birth; of the same parentage, descent, etc.
2. Linguistics: Descended from the same language or form
3. Allied or similar in nature or quality
1. A person or thing cognate with another
2. A cognate word

Cognate is very common in historical linguistics, perhaps for obvious reasons. The word itself dates to the 1640's from Latin cognatus ("of common descent"), which is a combination of com- + gnatus ("toether" + "to be born"). Gnatus is the past participle of gnasci, which is the older form of nasci from Proto-Indo-European *gen-/*gon-/*gn- ("produce, beget, be born"). The noun version is first attested in 1754.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Toxic \TOK-sik\ , adjective;
1. Of, pertaining to, affected with, or caused by a toxin or poison
2. Pertaining to or noting debt that will probably not be repaid
1. A toxic chemical or other substance

I am currently obsessed with the cable channel H2. It's an offshoot of the History Channel and I consistently fill the DVR with programs from it, whether my husband likes it or not...

Anyway, I watched a pretty cool program the other day about Hercules. As a word nerd I, of course, noticed when they mentioned an etymological link between a very common modern word (toxic) and the legend of Hercules.

The modern form of the word is first attested in the 1660's from French toxique, which evolved from Late Latin toxicus ("poisoned"). The earlier Latin form was toxicum ("poison"), which was borrowed from Greek toxikon ("poison for use on arrows"). Toxikon is the neuter of toxicos ("pertaining to arrows or archery"), which is also related to toxon ("bow"). Ultimately the word probably comes from a Scythain word that also entered Latin as taxus ("yew").

So what does this have to do with Hercules? Well, the short version of his story is that he was the illegitimate son of Jupiter and a mortal woman. Jupiter's wife, Juno, was pretty irked by this and held a grudge against everyone involved, including Hercules. At some point in his adult life she sent him into a blind frenzy, during which he killed his own wife and kids. When he came to his senses and realized what he'd done he went to the Oracle at Delphi in the hopes of making amends. She sent him off to a king who set him on a series of tasks called the Labors of Hercules. For each labor he had to kill, capture, or destroy something (except for the one task where he had to clean something - stables, to be exact.)

One of the creatures he had to kill was the Lernaean Hydra, which is a serpent/reptile/water beast with many heads, and if one of those heads were cut off, two more would grow in its place. This made it pretty hard to kill, but of course Hercules did it, and after it was dead he dipped his arrows in the Hydra's poisonous blood. So his poison arrows became linked with toxon ("bow"), and the etymology continues from there, as outlined above.

Okay, this story is a bit shaky, I'll admit...but it's kind of cool, no?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Vibe \vahyb\ , noun;
1. Informal: Vibration

Vibe dates to 1940 as a shortening of vibraphone, which is one of these:
Vibe as an abbreviation of vibration is first attested in 1967, though its slang sense of "instinctive feelings" is attributed to the whole decade of the 1960's.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Idea \ahy-DEE-uh\ , noun;
1. Any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity
2. A thought, conception, or notion
3. An impression
4. An opinion, view, or belief
5. A plan of action; an intention

Idea dates to the late 14th century as "archetype of a thing in the mind of God" from Latin idea ("idea"). In Platonic philosophy it means "archetype" from Greek idea ("ideal prototype," literally "the look of a thing (as opposed to the reality); form; kind, sort, nature"). Greek idea derives from idein, which comes from Proto-Indo-European *wid-es-ya-, a suffixed form of *weid- ("to see"). *Weid- is also the forebear of vision. The definition "result of thinking" is first attested in the 1640's.

Monday, October 17, 2011


Tawdry \TAW-dree\ , adjective;
1. Gaudy, showy and cheap
2. Low or mean; base: tawdry motives
1. Cheap, gaudy apparel

Right before Mr. B and I moved to New York City, an ex-teacher of his was having a retirement party that we attended. This over-the-top, flamboyant theater teacher's reaction to our move was hilarious. He told us that New York was a wonderful place, an adult's playground! And then, lowered his voice and added with a wink, "But nothing tawdry..."

The adjectival usage of this word dates to the 1670's from the noun, which dates to the 1610's as "silk necktie for women." It's a shortening of tawdry lace (dating to the 1540's), which was an alteration of St. Audrey's lace. This piece of jewelry was a necktie or ribbon that was sold at the annual fair at Ely on October 17th to commemorate St. Audrey, the queen of Northumbria who died in 679. As the story goes, she was particularly fond of cheap necklaces, so when she supposedly died of a throat tumor, it was God's punishment for her youthful fondness for said showy necklaces.

For more on the life of St. Audrey (also called St. Ethelreda), check out Catholic Online here.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Lummox \LUHM-uhks\ , noun;
1. A clumsy, stupid person

This word dates to 1825 as East Anglian slang. As a slang term, it's origins are uncertain, but it's probably either taken from dumb ox with influence from lumbering, or it's a dialectal form of lummock ("move heavily or clumsily").

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Sunday, October 16
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Sabermetrics \say-ber-MET-riks\ , noun;
1. The application of statistical analysis to baseball records, especially in order to evaluate and compare the performance of individual players

This word is first attested in 1982 from sabre + -metric. Sabre here is taken from the acronym SABR, or Society for American Baseball Research.

Moneyball, anyone?

Friday, October 14, 2011


Belly \BEL-ee\ , noun;
1. The front or under part of a vertebrate body from the breastbone to the pelvis, containing the abdominal viscera; the abdomen
2. Appetite or capacity for food; gluttony
3. The womb
4. The interior or inside of anything
Love it!
In looking up midriff yesterday, I noticed (with help from my German-speaking husband) that both Old English hrif and Old High German href ("womb, belly, abdomen") have been replaced by something that sounds more like belly (bauch in German).

Sooooo, belly comes from Old English belg ("leather bag, purse, bellows"), which derived from Proto-Germanic *balgiz ("bag") from Proto-Indo-European *bhel- ("to blow, swell"). The meaning of "body" didn't arise until the late 13th century, and by the mid-14th century it had shifted to mean "abdomen" specifically.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Midriff \MID-irf\ , noun;
1. The middle part of the body, between the chest and the waist

Since we were on the topic of muffin tops yesterday, it's only natural to move on to midriffs today. Right?

I was sort of surprised to see that midriff is actually a pretty old word in English. It comes from Old English midhrif, which is a compound word from mid + hirf ("mid" + "belly"). Hrif derives from Proto-Germanic *hrefiz-, which comes from Proto-Indo-European *kwrep- ("bodfy, form, appearance"). Notice the similarity between that PIE word and corporeal, corpse, etc? Good eye, they also derive from *kwrep-.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Muffin Top

Muffin Top \MUHF-in-TOP\ , noun;
1. A crisp, flat muffin that resembles the top portion of a typical muffin
2. Slang: A roll of excess fat that hangs out over a person's waist when wearing a garment with a tight waistband
Never a good look... (source)
The word muffin dates to 1703 and originally was spelled moofin. It is possibly derived from Low German muffen, the plural of muffe ("small cake"). It may also be connected with Old French moufflet, which was an adjective for bread that meant "soft."
Muffin top, specifically, is first attested in 1914 in reference to the top of an actual muffin. The slang term, depicted above, is not recorded until 2003. Perhaps it is no accident that back in 2003 low-waisted jeans and midriff-baring shirts were, unfortunately, in style at the same time.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Popinjay \POP-in-jey\ , noun;
1. A person given to vain, pretentious displays and empty chatter; coxcomb; fop
2. British: A woodpecker, especially the green woodpecker
3. Archaic: The figure of a parrot usually fixed on a pole and used as a target in archery and gun shooting; a parrot

This word dates to the late 13th century as "a parrot" from Old French papegai, which was borrowed from Spanish papagayo. The Spanish word was borrowed from Arabic babagha', which was possibly formed in an African or other non-Indo-European language as an imitation of a parrot's cry. For a while it was used as a compliment in allusion to the beauty and rarity of parrots, but by the 1520's it could also mean "vain, talkative person."

Monday, October 10, 2011


Hoon , noun;
1. A hooligan

I love random Australian/New Zealand slang words. This one is first attested in 1938 and is unknown origins.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


Camera \KAM-er-uh\ or \KAM-ruh\ , noun;
1. A boxlike device for holding a film or plate sensitive to light, having an aperture controlled by a shutter that, when opened, admits light enabling an object to be focused, usually by means of a lens, on the film or plate, thereby producing a photographic image
2. The device in which the picture to be televised is formed before it is changed into electric impulses
3. A judge's private office
Camera originally entered the English language as "the papal treasury" in the mid-16th century from Latin camera ("vaulted room"), which derives from Proto-Indo-Europen *kam- ("to arch"). Thus, the meaning "vaulted building" which arose in the early 1700's. In the early 18the century, camera was used as a short form for camera obscura ("dark chamber"), which was a black box with a lens that could project images of external objects. This usage became the word for "picture-taking device" when modern photography began in the mid-1800's and extended to the television filming device in 1928.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


Plush \pluhsh\ , noun;
1. A fabric, as of silk, cotton, or wool, whose pile is more than  1/8 inches (.3 cm) high
1. Expensively or showily luxurious
2. Abundantly rich; lush; luxuriant

The self-designated last name of this goofster:
Nyjer Morgan, aka Tony Plush (source)
It's October, so that means baseball is on every night in this house. As a Cubs fan, I obviously have to jump on some other bandwagon in the post season, so it's convenient that my husband just so happens to be a Brewers fan and they have been doing well so far. This guy, Nyjer Morgan, is hilarious. Yeah, he's a little silly and his antics can be a bit distracting, which is why baseball purists like to bitch about him. But, you can't deny that he's entertaining. So, even if you aren't much of a baseball fan, I recommend looking him up on YouTube.

Anyway, back to the word at hand: plush. It's first attested in 1594 as "soft fabric" from Middle French pluche ("shag, plush"). Pluche is a contraction of peluche ("hairy fabric"), which derives from Old French peluchier ("to pull, to tug, to pluck" - as in, the final process in weaving plush). All this ultimately comes from Vulgar Latin *piluccare ("remove hair"), which evolved from Latin pilare ("pull out hair") based on pilus ("hair").
The adjectival definition meaning "swank" dates to 1927.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Foo Fighter

Foo Fighter \FOO-FAHY-ter\ , noun;
1. Any unidentified flying object described as a ball of fire or light

So, that band didn't come up with this one on their own?
Foo fighter is first attested in 1945, though it's likely a bit older since it's US military slang. It comes from a nonsense word created by American cartoonist Bill Holman in his strip 'Smokey Stover.'

Here's a comic from the 1930's which includes the word foo:

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Druthers \DRUTH-erz\ , noun;
1. One's own way, choice, or preference

I love this word! If I had my druthers, I'd figure out a way of sticking this into my speech every day...

It's first attested in 1895, though a word like this is likely much older in spoken language. It's a jocular formation based on I'd ruther, which is an American English dialectal form of I'd rather.

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Tbursday, October 6
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Posset \POS-it\ , noun;
1. A drink made of hot milk curdled with ale, wine, or the like, often sweetened or spiced

I don't know about you, but this sounds disgusting. The word dates to the mid-15th century and is of unknown origin. Posca has been suggested as a related word, but the Oxford English dictionary dismisses it on both semantic and formal grounds. Connections with Middle French possette and Irish posoid have also been suggested, but it seems that those words were probably borrowed from English, not the other way around.

After some Googling, it appears that posset is now a kind of dessert, sort of like a pudding. I also see that eggnog is considered a related item, so maybe calling it 'disgusting' was preemptive. Then again, there's no curdled milk in eggnog...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Apple \AP-uhl\ , noun;
1. The usually round, red or yellow, edible fruit of a small tree, Malus sylvestrius, of the rose family
2. The tree that produces such fruit
The origin of apple is Old English æppel ("apple, any kind of fruit; fruit in general") from Proto-Germanic *ap(a)laz, which derives from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *ab(e)l ("apple").

There are two words in Indo-European languages that originated as generic words for fruit. One is PIE *ab(e)l and the other is Greek melon (based on PIE mahla-, meaning "grapevine, branch"). Both of which contribute to the modern belief that the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve ate in Eden was an apple. This is highly unlikely, though, because apples did not exist in the area where Eden is believed to have been during biblical times.

Fun fact: Calling women's breasts melons goes all the way back to ancient Greek.

Monday, October 3, 2011


This word dates to the 1600's from Italian zero, which derives from Middle Latin zephirum. Zephirum was a borrowing from Arabic sifr ("cipher"), translated from Sanskrit sunya-m ("empty place, desert, naught")

My favorite website,, offers up a history of zero here.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Lego \LE-go\ , noun;
Lego is first attested in 1957 from Danish Lego, which is a respelling of leg godt ("play well"), based on lege ("to play"). The attestation may be a bit late, as the company website says the Lego Group was founded in 1932 and the word is their coinage. The discrepancy is probably because the company was originally a small carpenter's workshop, and the iconic colorful bricks didn't come along until 1958 - which coincides with the Oxford English Dictionary's first recorded attestation.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Wordmonger \WURD-muhng-ger\ or \WURD-mong-ger\ , noun;
1. A writer or speaker who uses words pretentiously or with careless disregard for meaning
2. A person skilled in the use of words

Well, this is interesting. The online dictionaries seem to agree on the first definition, while the Oxford English Dictionary claims that as the original definition, but now it can also mean the second. Is it just me, or are they opposites? What do you think of when you hear wordmonger?

The word is a combination of word + monger, which dates to 1590. Monger comes from Old English mangere, from Proto-Germanic mangojan, which derives from Latin mango ("dealer, trader"). The Latin word is a noun derivative of Greek manganon ("contrivance, means of enchantment"), which derives from the Proto-Indo-European base *mang- ("to embellish, dress, trim"). Using it in combination form in English (like wordmonger, fishmonger, whoremonger, etc.) dates to at least the 12th century, though the negative connotation of that type of compound didn't happen until the 16th century. There was a verb form of monger in Old English, but it was lost and regained from the noun version in the early 1900's.