Friday, October 5, 2012


Do you play Scrabble? Or Words With Friends? If so, you know this word, but do you know what it means?

Qi \chee\ , noun;
1. Eastern medicine, martial arts, etc.: Vital energy believed to circulate around the body in currents.

Qi has also been spelled chi or ch'i, depending on which method of Chinese-to-English transcription is in use (qi is pinyin, the others are Wade-Giles). Either way it comes from Chinese 气 (氣), which means "air, breath," and dates to around 1850 in English.

Friday, September 7, 2012

One fell swoop

"Suddenly, in a single action"

I started thinking about this phrase today because I realized I didn't know how to spell the second word. I quickly discovered that the main reason I didn't know how to spell it was because I was mispronouncing it. I always thought it was one foul/fowl swoop. Egg on my face.

So now that we know the correct way to say it (good for you if you've known it all along, smarty pants), the question is: where does it come from?

It is first attested by Shakespeare in Macbeth (1605):
     All my pretty ones?
     Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
     What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
     At one fell swoop?

The fact that Shakespeare was the first to write it down (that we know of) means one of two things: he coined it or it was an existing slang/idiomatic phrase. Shakespeare is the first attestation of many English words because he wrote very idiomatically, which was a revolutionary idea in his day. He also coined his share of words, but it can be hard to tease out what he invented and what he took from slang of various language groups around him.

Shakespeare's usage of one fell swoop gives up clues as to the origin of the meaning. A kite is a hunting bird, which swoops down to catch its prey. Fell in this context means something different than what Modern English speakers might expect: "fierce, savage, cruel." Over the centuries the sense of "savageness" was lost and we are left with a meaning of "all at once."

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Are you a language buff in the NYC area?

Starting later this month, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City is hosting a 5-part series entitled "Is Your Brain Wired for Language?"
The 2-hour Monday evening lectures will cover topics related to how our brains create language, how language shapes our brain, why learning language is so easy for children and so difficult for adults, and how the biology of language in the brain changes throughout our lifespans. Participants will also learn about the hardwired circuity that makes us good at language and what happens when the circuits go awry.

For tickets and exact dates, click here.

**For the record, I am not affiliated with the museum, The Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation, or this lecture series in any way. I just saw this opportunity and thought you might like to go!

Sunday, August 26, 2012


Fabulist \FAB-yuh-list\ , noun;
1. A liar
2. A person who invents or relates fables

dates to the 1590's from French fabuliste, which derives from Latin fabula ("story, play, fable, tale"). Fabula literally translates as "that which is told" and is related to fari ("speak, tell"), which ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *bha- ("speak"). *Bha- is also the forebear of fame via Latin fama and Old French fame.
Fabula is also responsible for fabulous. Latin fabulosus means "celebrated in fable; rich in myths" which became "mythical, legendary" in early 15th century English. Fabulous meaning "incredible" is first attested in 1600.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Sparse \spahrs\ , adjective;
1. Thinly scattered or distributed
2. Not thick or dense; thin
3. Scanty; meager

So, you may have noticed that this blog has been a bit sparse lately. That's because we moved, spent the summer in the midwest, I spent a week in California, and now we're unpacking our house. Basically, I haven't had a lot of spare time. Hopefully things will get back to normal soon and I'll be able to blog again more regularly. In the meantime, let me know if there are any words/phrases/etc. that you are curious about!

Sparse dates to 1727 from Latin sparus ("scattered"), which is the past participle of spargere ("to scatter, spread"), which ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *(s)pregh- ("to jerk, scatter"). That PIE root also spawned such words as Sanskrit parjanya ("rain, rain god"), Old Norse freknur ("freckles"), and English spry ("nimble; agile; energetic; brisk").

Saturday, August 4, 2012

-er v. -or

A friend pointed out an interesting English quirk to me the other day: Why is a prisoner in prison but a jailer runs the jail?

The answer lies in the suffix, -er, which derives from a Proto-Germanic suffix -ărjo-z, which was added to nouns and meant "a person who has do to with [noun]." Originally the main purpose of this construction was to denote a persons job - a jailer work for a jail. In Modern English the meaning expanded to also denote something a person does that is not necessarily their profession - a runner runs, but it's probably not their day job. The definition further evolved into something like "a native or inhabitant of," which is where we get New Yorker or southerner - and prisoner.

As a side note, there is an obsolete definition of prisoner that meant "person who runs the prison."

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Selcouth \SEL-kooth\ , adjective;
1. Strange; uncommon

This word is considered obsolete, but it caught my eye because it is similar to uncouth, a word which I know nothing about (other than the definition, I guess).

Selcouth is first attested in 888 and is a combination of Old English seld-an + cuð ("seldom" + "known"). Cuð became couth, which is also obsolete except as a back-formation from uncouth. The original meaning of couth was "well-known, familiar," so uncouth was "unknown." This evolved into "awkward, clumsy; strange," which led to a 'new' couth which means "cultured, well-mannered."

Friday, July 13, 2012


Streetology \street-OL-uh-jee\ , noun;
1. The science or knowledge of the streets of a town or city
2. The skills and knowledge necessary for dealing with modern urban life

So, this sounds like something you study at the school of hard knocks, no?

Today this word is more a synonym or street smarts than the knowledge required to be a good taxi driver, but it can technically mean both things. It was first attested in 1837 as the title of a book about London. It is, of course, based on street which derives from Old English stret and stræt ("street, high road"), both of which come from an early Western Germanic borrowing of Late Latin strata. Strata is the feminine past participle of sternere ("lay down, spread out, pave") and was used in the phrase via strata ("paved road"). Sternere derives from Proto-Indo-European *stre-to- ("to stretch, extend") from *stere- ("to spread, extend, stretch out"), which is also the forebear of structure. From the very beginning, street has been distinctive from road or way as a paved or 'made' path, as opposed to just a way people go.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Oubliette \oo-blee-ET\ , noun;
1. A secret dungeon with an opening only in the ceiling, as in certain old castles

It dates to 1777 from French oubliette, taken from oublier ("to forget").  Oublier is from Old French oblider, which is the Vulgar Latin derivative of Latin oblivisci ("forget").

Spooky, right? A dungeon with one way in a no way out. Just drop someone in the hole and forget about them. Yikes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Whom \hoom\ , pronoun;
1. The objective case of who
2. The dative case of who

First, the proper way to use who and whom:Both words are pronouns, but who is a subject and whom is an object. So, if your answer is he or she the question word is who. If your answer is him or her use who. That's confusing, so here's an example:
     Who invited Jerry? He invited Jerry.
     Jerry was invited by whom? Jerry was invited by her.

Got it? If not, don't worry about it. It's not really important anymore unless you are a hard-core grammar type, or if someone grading your papers is. This sort of thing (like shall) is a grammar technicality that comes up in the prescriptive v. descriptive debate. Prescriptive grammar is what you are taught in school: 'proper English'. You know, don't split infinitives, don't start sentences with and, etc. Descriptive grammar is the way people really speak. Elisions like gonna and wanna sprinkle oral English, along with abominations like, "Where are you going? I wanna come with." (The error is ending a sentence with a preposition, but you already knew that). Generally speaking, linguists are more concerned with descriptive language because that's the most common way that language is used. Writers, editors, and English teachers are more concerned with prescriptive grammar because 'proper English' is the lingua franca of written language.

Monday, July 9, 2012


Shall \shal\ , auxiliary verb;
1. Plan to, intend to, or expect to

Shall is the present tense of should, though it is quickly falling into the archaic category, along with whom and probably others.

It comes from Old English sceal ("I owe/he owes, will have to, ought to, must), which is conjugated from the infinitive sculan, and derives from Proto-Germanic *skal- or *skul-. The past tense of sculan was sceolde, which gave rise to should.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


Oology \oh-OL-uh-jee\ , noun;
1. The branch of ornithology that studies birds' eggs

So, the only reason I'm writing about this word is because it reminds me of that line in Zoolander where he talks about how good of a eugoogoolizer he is, you know a person who speaks at funerals.

Oology is first attested in 1831. Oo- means "of or related to eggs or ova" and comes from Greek won ("egg, ovum"). The Greek word, like English egg, ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *owyo/*oyyo- ("egg").

Eulogy dates to the mid-15th century from Latin eulogium, which was borrowed form Greek eulogia ("praise; good or fine language"). Eulogia is a combination of eu + -logia ("well" + "speaking").

Saturday, June 30, 2012

...did you know?

There is one word in the English language that can be read the same way upside-down and backwards? Can you guess what it is?


And, since we're on the topic, swim derives from Old English swimman ("to move in or on the water") from Proto-Germanic *swemjanan, which ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *swem- ("to be in motion"). This word is mostly restricted to Germanic languages, but there are possible cognates in Welsh, Old Irish, and Lithuanian. Most other Indo-European languages use words derived from Proto-Indo-European *sna- ("to swim, to flow") related to Latin nare. We also have a rare and somewhat regional English word that is also related to nare: natatorium ("swimming pool")

Friday, June 29, 2012


Culturati \kuhl-chuh-RAH-tee\ or \kuhl-chuh-REY-tayh\ , plural noun;
1. People deeply interested in cultural and artistic matters

This word is first attested in 1965 from culture + -ati and was possibly influenced by literati. The singular of culturati is either culturatus or culturato. The former is modeled after the Latin masculine singular noun form, -us, while the latter is modeled after the Italian masculine noun form -o. Neither it technically correct or incorrect because the suffix -ati is taken from both Latin and Italian sources.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Oenophile \EE-nuh-fahyl\ , noun;
1. A person who enjoys wines, usually as a connoisseur

So I haven't posted in 12 days, but I have an excuse. I've been apartment searching/moving, and it sucks. BUT, we found a great place and we're all moved in (though not all organized), which does not suck.
Here's something that does not suck. (source)
Oenophile is first attested in 1930 as a combination of oeno- and -phile. Oeno- derives from Greek oino-, which is the combination form of oinos ("wine"). -Phile is also based in Greek, it is from pilos ("loving, dear"). There is an earlier word, oenophilist, which is based on the same two Greek words and dates to 1859, but oenophile is not necessarily derived from it.

Monday, June 11, 2012


Germ \jurm\ , noun;
1. A microorganism, especially when disease-producing; microbe
2. A bud, offshoot, or seed
Germs look kind of cool if you make them colorful! (source)
This word is first attested in 1644 as "bud, sprout" from Middle French germe ("germ (of an egg); bud; seed, fruit; offering"), which derives from Latin germen ("sprout, bud"). I probably ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *gen- ("to beget, bear"), which is also the forebear of genus. The sense of "harmful microorganism" is first attested in 1871, which makes sense because that's about the time we started realizing that microorganisms are the cause of disease.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Masturbation \mas-ter-BEY-shuhn\ , noun;
1. The stimulation or manipulation of one's own genitals, especially to orgasm; sexual self-gratification
2. The stimulation, by manual or other means exclusive or coitus, of another's genitals, especially to orgasm

This word is first attested in 1711, though it technically dates to the 1620's as mastupration. It comes from French masturbation from Latin masturbatione, a noun of action from Latin masturbari ("to masturbate"). The etymology is not 100% confirmed, but it has long been believed to come from *manstuprare, which is a combination of manus + stuprare ("hand" + "defile oneself") with some influence from turbare ("to stir up"). It has also been suggested that the first element comes from an unattested word for "penis," possibly *mazdo-.

Another non-slang word for this act is onanism, which refers to the biblical character Onan, Judah's son. The story goes that after Onan's brother Er died, Judah sent him to fulfill his duty as brother-in-law by impregnating Er's widow. He has sex with her, but pulled out before climax and 'spilled his seed on the ground.' Doing that broke a rule and God killed him for being wicked. Some interpret the story to mean that 'spilling seed' without trying to procreate makes the act a sin.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Link \lingk\ , noun;
1. One of the rings or separate pieces of which a chain is composed
2. Anything serving to connect one part or thing with another; a bond or tie
3. Computer: An object, as text or graphics, linked through hypertext to a document, another object, etc.

So I obviously didn't blog every day for the flats cloth diaper challenge, but I did complete it. If anyone is interested, here's a link roundup of other mommas who blogged about the challenge (scroll to the bottom of the post):
Day 1Day 2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6Day 7

Link dates to the early 15th century as "one of a series of rings or loops which form a chain" and probably derives from a Scandinavian source, likely Old Norse *hlenkr. *Hlenkr comes from Proto-Germanic *klink- from Proto-Indo-European *kleng- ("to bend, turn").

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Eat \eet\ , verb;
1. To take into the mouth and swallow for nourishment; chew and swallow

Today is day 3 of the flat diaper challenge. We're still going strong, though we always hand wash and air dry our flats, so this challenge is pretty easy.

One of babies' favorite things to do is eat. Okay, one of everybody's favorite things to do is eat. And diapers would not be terribly useful if there was no eating involved to create the waste they're catching.
My little guy eating. There's a flat diaper under that adorable owl cover. The fuzz ball is my dog.
Eat comes from Old English etan from Proto-Germanic *etanan, which derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *ed- ("to eat"). *-Ed is also the forebear of edible. In Old English eat was a 'strong verb,' which means it was conjugated as an ablaut. Ablaut conjugation means that the root of the word changes to indicate tense, rather than an affix. Consider the difference between sing/sang/sung and walk/walked/walked. Though there are plenty of holdovers from this system in Modern English, we don't really categorize our verbs this way. Old English had seven major classes of strong verb that each followed their own pattern. It was complicated, but there was a system. In Modern English we just lump them all into one category, the name of which strikes fear into the hearts of foreign language learners everywhere: irregular verbs.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Poop \poop\ , noun;
1. Excrement
Ice cream treat at Modern Toilet in Shenzhen, China...
Every parent who chooses to cloth diaper does it for a reason. Some do it to save money, some do it to save the planet, and some do it because cloth diapers are just so darned cute. Most probably do it for a combination of the three. One thing we do not choose cloth for is the poop. Oh, the poop. Cleaning new-to-solids baby waste out of a cloth diaper is no one's favorite activity, but those other reasons are so compelling that we do it anyway. So, for day two of our cloth diapering challenge, I present poop:

There are several poops in English, but the one we are concerned with here is first attested in 1689 as nursery slang for "to fart," which evolved to mean "to defecate" by 1882. The slang term derives from poop meaning "to produce a short blast of sound, as with a horn," which is first attested by Chaucer in 1390. The word is considered imitative, much like Middle Low German pupen ("to break wind) and Dutch poepen ("to defecate" or "to copulate").

Nautical poop is unrelated.

Monday, May 21, 2012


Diaper \DAHY-per\ or \DAHY-uh-per\ , noun;
1. A piece of cloth or other absorbent material folded and worn as underpants by a baby not yet toilet-trained
1. To put a diaper on

This week is the Second Annual Flats and Handwashing Challenge, put on by As a participant and non-mommy-topic blogger, I am going to spend this week talking about diaper-related words. But first, a brief word on the challenge:
Last year a few articles came out that talked about how some families with no money for diapers were blow-drying used ones and reusing them. This is horribly unsanitary and dangerous. I believe a baby even died from an infection stemming from this practice. Cloth diaper advocates believe that there needs to be more education about the usefulness and frugality of cloth diapering for low-income families, there is even a petition to get them WIC-approved. I agree and have signed the petition.

Now, on to what you're probably here for:
Diaper dates to the mid-14th century as "fabric with a repeated pattern of figures" from Old French diaspre ("ornamental cloth; flowered, patterned silk cloth"), which ultimately derives from Medieval Greek diaspros ("thoroughly white") via Middle Latin diasprum. The Greek word is a compound of dia- + aspros ("thoroughly, entirely" + "white"). Diapers meaning "baby poop holders" has been in continuous use since 1837, though there are hints of its usage as far back as the late 16th century.

How exactly "ornamental cloth" evolved into "baby underpants" is not illustrated by the Oxford English Dictionary, but I would assume it is based on the type of cloth used for diapering a few centuries ago. From my experiences hand washing white cloth diapers, it is difficult (impossible?) to keep them white, so using colorful cloth seems like a much nicer alternative.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012



Homer Simpson may have made this grunt famous, but it is actually first attested in 1945 in a BBC radio script for a program called It's That Man Again. A similar interjection was used by character actor James Finlayson in Laurel and Hardy films, which was the inspiration for Dan Castellaneta's interpretation of "annoyed grunt" in The Simpsons scripts.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Obtest \ob-TEST\ , verb;
1. To supplicate earnestly; beseech
2. To invoke as witness
3. To protest
4. To make supplication; beseech

I've written several times about folk (a.k.a. false) etymologies. Sometimes they are just silly (like fuck being an acronym of "for unlawful carnal knowledge") and others are honest mistakes (like believing male and female are related words). Obtest is not exactly a common word, but it does show us just how easy it is to make erroneous assumptions.

At first glance this word looks like a superlative: obt-est, the most ob(t). So what does obt or ob mean? I don't know, but there are a few hundred thousand English words.

Turns out, obtest is a verb taken from Latin obtestari ("to beseech, implore, to call to witness, to affirm solemnly, to protest"), which is based on testari ("testate, bear witness, testify") with ob- being a prefix meaning "toward, in the direction of."

By the way, there is a word ob in English that is not a shortening of some other word. It means "a wizard or magician; a sorcerer" and was borrowed from Hebrew in the mid-17th century.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


Whore \hawr\ or \hohr\ or \hoor\ , noun;
1. A woman who engages in promiscuous sexual intercourse, usually for money; prostitute; harlot; strumpet

Whore come from Old English hore ("prostitute, harlot"), which derives from Proto-Germanic *khoraz ("one who desires"). *Khoraz ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *qar-, which is the forebear for most Indo-European words for "lover," including Sanskrit kamah. Look familiar? Kamah means "love, desire" and is the basis for the name of the Hindu love god, Kama, and the first element in Kama Sutra.

Since Germanic languages seem to be the only ones that turned *qar- into a pejorative term, some theorize that it was a euphemism for a word that hasn't survived into modern languages.

Personally, I think that strumpet is a hilarious word. It's so similar to crumpets, but having 'tea and crumpets' is very, very different than having 'tea and strumpets'.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Moonshine \MOON-shahyn\ , noun;
1. Smuggled or illicitly distilled liquor, especially corn liquor as illicitly distilled chiefly in rural areas of the southern U.S.

Moonshine is a combination of moon + shine, which is a common compound in Germanic languages. Most Americans probably associate moonshine with illicit alcohol, prohibition, and  illegal corn whiskey. That meaning is first attested in 1782, though the word is a few centuries older. The original meaning of moonshine was "moonlight," which dates to 1425. It can also mean "radiant sweetness," "pleasant distraction," "foolish or fanciful talk," and "a sweet, light pudding."

Some other words for illicit alcohol:
Poteen: 1812 from Irish poitin ("little pot")
Mountain dew: 1839
Pine-top: 1858
Bootleg: 1630's
White lightning: 1921

Another word for moonshine is poteen, which dates to 1812 as "illicit whiskey" from Irish poitin. Poitin means "little pot," so the idea is that it was liquor distilled in small quantities. It's based on English pot ("vessel").

Saturday, April 28, 2012


Vagina \vuh-JAHY-nuh\ , noun;
1. Anatomy: The passage leading from the uterus to the vulva in certain female mammals

Vagina dates to the 1680's from Latin vagina, which meant "sheath, scabbard." It derives from Proto-Indo-European *wag-ina- where *wag means "to break, split, bite."

If you have one, or even if you don't, here are a few interesting facts about the vagina that you may want to know.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


FYI: For your information

So, if you regularly read my posts (God knows if anyone does), you have noticed that I have not been as on-the-ball recently. That's because I have an almost-6-month-old. He's a handful. Anyway, just wanted to let you all know (all two of you? maybe just my dad) that I'm still trying to plug away, but I have abandoned the idea of posting daily. To be honest, I haven't been doing that in quite some time, so the real news is that I am abandoning my practice of going back and populating past days with posts so it looks like I write daily.

FYI is first attested in 1941 in the Washington Post, though they were just explaining the title of some program called, well, FYI. Since it was already the title of something before it ran in a newspaper, I would guess that the initialism was around for a little while beforehand.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Secretary \SEK-ri-ter-ee\ , noun;
1. A person employed to handle correspondence and do routine work in a business office, usually involving taking dictation, typing, filing, and the like

Today is Secretary's Day. Okay, it's actually Administrative Professional's Day, but you know what I mean. Secretary is first attested in 1387 as "person entrusted with secrets" from Middle Latin secretarius ("clerk, notary, confidential office, confidant") based on Latin secretum ("a secret"). The Latin word is actually a compound of se- + cernere. Se- means "without, apart" or "on one's own" from Proto-Indo-European *s(w)e-, which is the third person pronoun and the reflexive marker. Cernere means "separate" and comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *krei- ("to sieve, discriminate, distinguish").

I think that the transition from "secret keeper" to our modern idea of a secretary (or administrative professional, let's be p.c. about it) makes a lot of sense if you watch Mad Men.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Niggardly \NIG-erd-lee\ , adjective;
1. Reluctant to give or spend; stingy; miserly
2. Meanly or ungenerously small or scanty

I saw this word in a post on (a fantastic site that I love) and thought, "Oh my!" But, despite how this word looks, it has nothing to do with the highly-charged word nigger.

Niggardly is first attested as an adjective in 1561 and comes from the noun niggard. Niggard dates to the mid-14th century as nygart and is of uncertain origin. The suffix suggests that French was involved somewhere along the line, but the root word nig is probably related to a Old Norse hnøggr ("stingy"), which derives from Proto-Germanic *khnauwjaz. There's another possibly related word in Old English, hnewa ("stingy, niggardly") which has since disappeared.

Nigger, on the other hand, dates to 1786 as neger from French nègre, which is borrowed from Spanish negro ("black") from Latin nigrum ("black"). From the very beginning nigger was a nasty word and the 'reclaiming' effort didn't take hold until the Black Power movement of the 1960's. Negro in English pre-dates nigger by a couple centuries (it's first attested in the 1550's) and was the politically correct descriptive term for "member of a black-skinned race of Africa" until it was ousted by black in the 1960's.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Chin \chin\ , noun;

Chins are weird. For one thing, people are the only animals that have them. Think about it, other animals just have the bottom of their jaw while we have this jutting thing below that. Is it because we speak? Or does it have something to do with our unique diet? Or maybe sexual selection? The truth is, no one really knows but anthropologists love to debate it. There's an interesting overview here.

Another weird thing about chins is that we are extremely vain about them. Google image search chin and you will see tons of plastic surgeons' before and after pics, as well as plenty of devices to lift your chin or combat double-chins and the fat deposits underneath. There are also plenty of pictures like this to make you smile:
While the jury is out on the origin of our chin, the origin of the word is a little more certain. It is from Old English cin, which derives from a general Germanic word that comes from Proto-Indo-European *genu- ("chin, jawbone").

Sunday, April 8, 2012


Easter \EE-ster\ , noun;
1. An annual Christian festival in commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, as calculated according to tables based in Western churches on the Gregorian calendar and in Orthodox churches on the Julian calendar.
Painted Easter eggs in Romania (Photograph: Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)
Easter comes from Old English Easterdæg, based on Eastre from Proto-Germanic *Austron. Austron is a pagan goddess representing fertility and spring whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox. Her name ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *aus-, which means "to shine, especially at dawn." *Aus- also spawned east.

English and German are the only Indo-European languages who use this word for Easter (German Ostern). Everyone else, even other Germanic languages, use a word based on the biblical name for the holiday: pascha. Pascha is a Latin word meaning both "Passover" and "Easter" which was borrowed from Greek pascha, which comes from Aramaic pasha ("pass over"). English also has a word paschal that means "of or pertaining to Easter," but it is not attested until the early 15th century.

Monday, April 2, 2012


Bride \brahyd\ , noun;
1. A newly married woman or woman about to be married
I was a bride once.
Bride comes from Old English bryd ("bride, betrothed or newly married woman"), which derives from Proto-Germanic *bruthiz ("woman being married"). Other Indo-European words have a similar word that means "daughter-in-law" instead of "bride," but there is a good reason for that. In ancient Indo-European cultures a married woman moved into her husband's family home so the only way for a "newly wed female" to be part of the family was if she was the daughter/sister-in-law. From that it is perhaps unsurprising that this word ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *bru-, which means "to cook," which would have been a daughter-in-law's job.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Fool \fool\ , noun;
1. A silly or stupid person; a person who lacks judgment or sense
1. To trick, deceive, or impose on

Fool dates to the late 13th century as "silly or stupid person" from Old French fol. Fol had a couple meanings: "madman, insane person; idiot; jester," "blacksmith's bellows," and it also operated as an adjective meaning "mad, insane." It comes from Latin follis ("bellows, leather bag"), which ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European root *bhel- ("to blow, swell").

Think your April Fool's joke was awesome? Awesomer than these? Probably not.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Oll Korrect

Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday, dear ok,
Happy birthday to you!
It's a rare word (particularly a slang one) for which you know the actual date it was born. As for ok, it was first printed in The Boston Morning Post on this day in 1839 as an abbreviation for oll korrect. It was just one of many silly abbreviations borne of a New England slang fad, though none had the staying (or growing) power of ok. For more, check out my original post on ok here.

Friday, March 16, 2012


Midwife \MID-wahyf\ , noun;
1. A person trained to assist women in childbirth
2. A person or thing that produces aids in producing something new or different

You'd think that since I already had my baby I'd be over looking up websites about giving birth, but no. I guess since I had a rather unconventional birth I'm just still curious about how the whole thing works. All this reading, of course, got me thinking about where the word came from. Turns out it's a combination of two relics of Old English.

This word dates to the 1300's as "woman assisting." It's a Middle English compound of mid + wif ("with" + "woman"), the idea being it was the woman with you during childbirth.

Mid is one of several cognates in the Germanic family tree that all mean "with," including Old English. Whatever Proto-Germanic word spawned them ultimately derives from the same Proto-Indo-European base that became Greek meta. In Middle English mid coexisted with wið, though they were not synonyms of each other (in fact, in some cases they were opposites). By the time Modern English evolved, with had completely replaced mid except in rare holdouts like midwife.

Wif became wife in Modern English, but in Middle and Old English it meant "woman" from Proto-Germanic *wiban, which is of uncertain origin. It may come from Proto-Indo-European *weip- ("to twist, turn, wrap") or *ghwibh- ("shame" or "pudenda"). Neither is considered particularly convincing. Here's something I didn't know: an old wives' tale preserves this sense of wife = "woman." So it really means "old women's tale." Egg on my face.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Mogul \MOH-guhl\ , noun;
1. An important, influential, or dominant person; a magnate

I watched a show about the Taj Mahal the other day, where I learned that mogul comes from the Mughal Empire, which came to power in India in the mid-16th century and ruled until the early 18th century. The emperor Shah Jahan, who build the Taj Mahal, was Mughal and the tomb is considered a quintessential example of Mughal architecture. The Mughal emperors (and their name) can be trace back to the Mongols and Genghis Khan. Mogul is first attested in English in 1577, though the "magnate" definition doesn't appear until 1655.

Now, for you ski bunnies out there who are wondering what this has to do with your mogul, or "a bump or mound of hard snow on a ski slope," the answer is: nothing.

That mogul dates to 1956 from Austrian German mugel ("hillcock") from mocke ("chunk, lump"). It's probably related to the noun mow ("stack of hay") which ultimately derives from Proto-Germanic *mugon.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


π =

Alright, that's enough of that. Unless you want more, then click here.

Pi is the ratio of any Euclidean circle's circumference to its diameter. It's also a really f-ing long number that some people get off on memorizing as many of its digits as possible.

π is the Greek letter that corresponds to our 'p' and has been the symbol for the above number since 1706, though the notation wasn't popularized until Leonard Euler used it in 1737. Note that Π is also pi, but it means something totally different in mathematical notation.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Pencil \PEN-suhl\ , noun;
Well, he's certainly chipper (credit)
This word dates to the late 14th century as "an artist's fine brush of camel hair" from Old French pincel ("artist's paintbrush"). The French word derives from Latin penicillus ("paintbrush, pencil") which is the diminutive version of peniculus ("brush") that literally means "little tail." Peniculus is the diminutive of penis ("tail"), which derives from Proto-Indo-European *pes- or *pesos- ("penis").

Since writing instruments were originally fine brushes, this lineage makes a lot of sense. Applying pencil to the modern "graphite writing implement" dates to the late 16th century.

If you noticed the similarity between Latin penicillus and English penicillin, you're in good company. Penicillin was taken from Penicillus notatum, which is the name of the mold from which the medicine derives. It got the name because its cells apparently resemble pencils.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Queue \kyoo\ , noun;
1. A braid of hair worn hanging down behind
2. A file or line, especially of people waiting their turn

This word dates to at least 1475 from Anglo-Norman keu from Middle French queu, which derives from Old French cue ("tail") from Latin cauda ("tail").

If you look at this word's history in English and French it has several spellings and a number of meanings.
Some English spellings: keue, kue, kuwe, que, queue
Some French spellings: queu, quewe, queuue, cueue, keue, keuwe, queue, cue, coe
Some extra (now rare or obsolete) definitions:
   "A band of parchment attached to a letter, with seals on the free ends:
   "A line of dancers"
   "The tail of a beast" - specifically, a forked or double tail
   "A long plait of hair worn hanging down at the back from the head or wig; a pigtail"
   "A barrel or cask capable of holding about one and a half hogsheads (238L) of wine or other liquid"
   "A support for the butt of a lance, attached to the breastplate of a suit of armor"
   "A tailpiece of a violin or other instrument"
   "The tail of a music note"

It is also used in computer terminology to indicate a list of data items, commands, etc. stored so that it is retrievable in a definite order (usually the order of insertion).

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Boulder \BOHL-der\ , noun;
1. A detached and rounded or worn rock, especially a large one

This word dates to 1607 as a shortening of boulder-stone, which derives from Middle English bulderston. The exact etymology of the English words are uncertain, but there is a word in Swedish bullersten, which is a large stone in a stream as opposed to klappersten, a small pebble. Bullersten is a combination of buller + sten ("noise" + "stone"). Bulderston probably derives from the same source as bullersten, but since there are no similar words in other Germanic languages it is hard to establish a firm link between the two. Plenty of Germanic languages have cognates with the first element, bulder-, but no one except us and the Swedes compound it with something like -stone.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The "F" Word

Fuck \FUHK\ , verb;
1. To have sexual intercourse with
2. Slang: To treat unfairly or harshly
1. Slang: (used to express anger, disgust, or peremptory rejection)
1. An act of sexual intercourse
2. A partner in sexual intercourse
3. Slang: A person, especially one who is annoying or contemptible

Fuck is one elusive word, etymologically speaking. It's likely been taboo for it's whole life, so it is extremely difficult (probably impossible) to say how long that life has been. It is first attested in the early 16th century, but the existence of a surname Fucker (attested in 1278) and a possible *wink*wink* at it in a 15th century poem suggests it older. There are several theories as to the origin of the word, some of which are as plausible as they are unprovable and some of which are just plain wrong.

That 15th century poem hints at fuck with fuccant, which is pseudo-Latin. This probably has nothing to do with the etymology, though, because all other attestations and possibly related words are decidedly Germanic.

The oldest examples of the word are from Scottish, which suggests Scandinaivian roots. There is a Norwegian dialectal word fukka ("copulate") and two Swedish dialectal words focka ("copulate, strike, push") and fock ("penis") that may be related to our English naughty word.

Some theorize that the word evolved out of Middle English fyke which meant "move restlessly, fidget" and "dally, flirt." That word is probably from an North Sea Germanic source that also spawned Middle Dutch fokken and German ficken. Originally German ficken meant "itch, scratch," then "make quick movements to and fro, flick," then "fuck."

The Middle English slang word for "have sexual intercourse" was swive and there is a suspiciously similar word firk ("to press hard, beat") which are unrelated to fuck. Same with French foutre and Italian fottere.

There are also various internet etymologies that are just ridiculous. Fuck is not an acronym for "for unlawful carnal knowlegde" and pluck yew has nothing to do with it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Gasser \GAS-er\ , noun;
1. Something that is extraordinarily pleasing or successful, especially a very funny joke
2. A person or thing that gasses

Gasser dates to 1829 as "a person responsible for gassing yarn or fabric." The slang meaning of "a talkative or boastful person; a chatterer" is first attested in 1855 and presumably based on the US slang word gas or gasbag. Both words are first attested in in the 1840's and are either the act of or the person who "talks at length but says little of value."

The Oxford English Dictionary does not list the first definition above. I would guess that meaning to be based on the expelling of air that happens when you laugh.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Body \BOD-ee\ , noun;
1. The physical structure and material substance of an animal or plant, living or dead
2. A corpse; carcass
3. The trunk or main mass of a thing

Body comes from Old English bodig ("trunk, chest of a man or animal"), but before that the origin is unknown. It only has one known relative in the Germanic tree, which is botah in Old High German, but that has been replaced by leib and körper in Modern German.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Native American English

Yesterday I went to the National Museum of the American Indian in NYC. It was pretty cool for a free museum, and the best part by far was this random presentation set up on a card table in the middle of this huge, beautifully painted rotunda. The guy was talking about various aspects of Native American life and he mentioned several words that native languages contributed to American English. Generally speaking they are vocab words for things that they invented or foods that are native to this hemisphere, and many words were first adopted by the Spanish and were borrowed into English from the Spanglicized words.

Here are some examples and the Native American word from which they originate:
cashew: Tupi (Brazillian) acajoba
canoe: (Haiti) canoa
hammock: (Caribbean) hamaca
potato: (Haiti) batata
tobacco: (Haiti) tabaco - actually the word for a smoking pipe, the plant had a different name
crab: (South American) - means crab tree, not the crustatian
skunk: Abenaki segankw
woodchuck: Cree wuchak

Monday, March 5, 2012


Smitten \SMIT-n\ , adjective;
1. Struck, as with a hard blow
2. Grievously or disastrously stricken or afflicted
3. Very much in love

I had an 'aha' moment about this word recently. I've only heard it in the context of "very much in love," but I noticed how orthographically similar it is to that good old Biblical word smite. Turns out, there's a good reason for that: they're the same word.

Smitten is first attested in the mid-13th century as the past participle of smite. Smite comes from Old English smitan ("to hit, strike, beat"), which had a past participle smiten. It derives from Proto-Germanic *smitanan, which possibly comes from Proto-Indo-European *(s)mei- ("to smear, to rub").

This idea of being "very much in love" appears in the 1660's. I guess they decided that to fall in love was a very grievous infliction indeed.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Oaf \ohf\ , noun;
1. A clumsy, stupid person; lout
2. A simpleton; dunce; blockhead
3. Archaic: A deformed or mentally deficient child; a changeling

Oaf is first attested in 1638 and is a variant of auf ("a changeling; a foolish child left behind by the fairies"), which derives from Old Norse alfr ("elf, fairy").

In case you didn't know (I didn't), a changeling is "a child surreptitiously or unintentionally substituted for another" or "an ugly, stupid, or strange child left by fairies in place of a pretty, charming child."

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Dorky \DAWR-kee\ , adjective;
1. Stupid, inept, or unfashionable

Dorky is first attested in 1970 and is based on dork, which is first attested in 1964. It's US student slang that is probably an alteration of dick.

Friday, March 2, 2012


Sloth \slawth\ or \slohth\ , noun;
1. Habitual disinclination to exertion; indolence; laziness
2. Any of several slow-moving, arboreal, tropical American edentates of the family Bradypodidae, having a long, course, grayish-brown coat often of a greenish cast caused by algae, and long, hooklike claws used in gripping tree branches while hanging or moving along in a habitual upside-down position
3. A pack or group of bears

This word dates to the 12th century as "indolence, sluggishness" from Middle English slou. Slou comes from Proto-Germanic *slæwaz and is also the forebear of slow. Slou displaced Old English slæwð, which is pronounced nearly the same way as sloth, but spawned sleuth ("sloth, laziness"). Sleuth meaning "detective" is unrelated.

Now, go look up sloth videos on YouTube. You're welcome.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Sepia \SEE-pee-uh\ , noun;
1. A brown pigment obtained from the ink-like secretion of various cuttlefish and used with brush or pen in drawing
2. Photography: A print or photograph made in this color
3. Any of the several cuttlefish of the genus Sepia, producing a dark fluid used naturally for defense and, by humans, in ink
1. Of a brown, grayish brown, or olive brown similar to that of sepia ink

I, for one, had no idea that sepia had anything to do with ink, let alone fish. I assumed that it was just the way photographs where printed back in the day. Well, you know what they say about assumptions...

Sepia comes from Italian seppia ("cuttlefish"). The pigment meaning is first attested in 1821, though the cuttlefish meaning dates to the 1560's. Seppia derives from Latin sepia ("cuttlefish"), which was borrowed from Greek sepein ("to make rotten"). Sepein is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the forebear of sepsis.
Cuttlefish in sepia...see what I did there? (credit)

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Damn \dam\

This word dates to the late 13th century as "to condemn" from Old French damner ("damn, condemn; convict, blame; injure"). Damner derives from Latin damnare ("to adjudge guilty; to doom; to condemn, blame, reject") from damnum ("damage, hurt, harm; loss, injury; a fine, penalty") which is possibly an ancient religious term evolved from Proto-Indo-European *dap- ("to apportion in exchange"). It has likely been an expletive for as long (or longer than) it's been a word with theological and legal meanings. But, like most expletives, it wasn't used in print so it's hard to trace.

Damn is part of one of the most famous movie lines of all time. In the movie 'Gone With the Wind,' Rhett Butler famously delivers the line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" as he walks out on Scarlett at the end. At the time, using damn in film and radio was a big no-no, so the studio had to do a lot of petitioning to get the word in and the line was considered a breakthrough moment. Another (more important) breakthrough credited to 'Gone With the Wind' is the first Oscar ever awarded to an African American, which happened on this day in 1940. The movie cleaned up the Oscars that year, kind of like Adele at this year's Grammys. One of their eight Oscars was Best Supporting Actress, awarded to Hattie McDaniel for her portrayal of 'Mammy.'
Hattie McDaniel (source)

Ms. McDaniel was a pretty interesting woman, so I suggest clicking here or on the picture's source link to read a little more about her.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Bismuth \BIZ-muhth\ , noun;
1. Chemistry: A brittle, grayish-white, red-tinged, metallic element used in the manufacture of fusible alloys and in medicine

Bismuth dates to the 1660's from German bismuth, which is of unknown origins. It may be connected to Old High German hwiz ("white"), but the connection is tenuous at best.

And now, the reason for this word today:
Bismuth crystals are GORGEOUS. Holy cow. Seriously, Google image search them.

Monday, February 27, 2012


Medieval \mid-EE-vuhl\ , adjective;
1. Of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or in the style of the Middle Ages
2. Informal: Extremely old-fashioned; primitive

If you are a reality tv. nut like me, you can probably guess why I picked this word for today. For those who don't know what I'm talking about, last night's Celebrity Apprentice featured a challenge at Medieval Times. One of the cast members is Victoria Gotti, author and spawn of the infamous John Gotti. At some point she was asked to look up some stuff about the medieval period and she set to work looking up 'mid-evil' online. Mid-evil. You saw the part where she's an author, right? Cough*ghostwriter*cough.

Anyway, medieval was coined in English in 1827 based on Latin medium + ævum ("middle" + "age"). The word for medieval in the middle ages was, well, now.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Cariad \KAR-ee-ad\ , noun;
1. Welsh English: A sweetheart, a lover

This word dates to 1871 and is based on caru, which means "to love, woo" from the Proto-Indo-European base *qar-, which just so happens to be the forebear of whore.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Free \free\ , adjective;
1. Enjoying person rights or liberty, as a person who is not in slavery
2. Provided without, or not subject to, a charge or payment
3. Not held fast; loose; unattached

This word derives from Old English freo ("free, exempt from, not in bondage" and "noble, joyful") from Proto-Germanic *frijaz, which comes from Proto-Indo-European *prijos ("dear, beloved") based on the root *pri- ("to love"). The connection between "free" and "love" is pretty common in Indo-European languages. The theory is that the free members of your clan, as opposed to the slaves, were your family and friends so you loved them. This is echoed in the verb free from Old English freogan which meant "to free, liberate" and "to love, think lovingly of, honor."

Gives you a whole new perspective on the old adage: If you love something, let it go. If it returns it's yours forever, if not it never was.

Friday, February 24, 2012


Asshat \AS-hat\ , noun;
This word is not in the Oxford English Dictionary, so I'm going to play armchair etymologist here. From my extensive research (aka the last 10 minutes on Google), it seems that this word appears sometime around 2008. It's obviously a combination of ass + hat and it's obviously hilarious.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Raven \RAY-vin\ , verb;
1. To seize by force; plunder
2. To eat or prowl voraciously
3. To have a ravenous appetite

This word is first attested in 1513 and has nothing to do with this guy:
It's a variation of ravin from Anglo-Norman ravein, which derives from Anglo-Norman and Middle French ravine. At various points ravine meant "impetuosity, force, violence," "robbery," "rape, ravishment, stolen property"). It ultimately comes from Latin rapina ("pillage, plunder, robbery").

As for the black, winged raven, it comes from Old English hræfn from Proto-Germanic *khrabanas, which derives from Proto-Indo-European *qer-, which is imitative of harsh sounds.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Ash \ash\ , noun;
1. The powdery residue of matter that remains after burning
2. A light, silvery-gray color

comes from Old English æsce ("ash") from Proto-Germanic *askon, which ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *as- ("to burn, glow"). Today is Ash Wednesday, which dates to the 1300's and Pope Gregory the Great, who sprinkled ashes on people's heads on the first day of Lent because ashes were a symbol of grief or repentance

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Song \sawng\ or \song\ , noun;
1. A short metrical composition intended or adapted for singing, especially one in rhymed stanzas; a lyric; a ballad

Song come from Old English sang ("art of singing, a metrical composition adapted for singing"), which derives from Proto-Germanic *sangwaz.

Song's close relative, sing, comes from Old English singan, which means "to chant, sing, tell in song," but can also refer to the noises of birds. It comes from Proto-Germanic *sengwanan, which derives from Proto-Indo-European *sengwh- ("to sing, make an incantation"). Sing doesn't appear to have any direct relatives in other Indo-European languages, as most all of them derive from *kan- ("to sing"), which is the forbear of Latin cantere and English chant. 

Monday, February 20, 2012


Soup \soop\ , noun;
1. A liquid food made by boiling or simmering meat, fish, or vegetables with various added ingredients
2. Slang: Added power, especially horsepower

In light of what we learned about restaurant yesterday, I think it's a good time to talk about soup. Eh, who am I kidding, it's always a good time to talk about soup, especially in February.

Soup has, presumably, been around as long as bowls. That's a long time. This particular English word, however, dates to the 1650's as "liquid food" from French soupe ("soup, broth"). Soupe derives from Late Latin suppa ("bread soaked in broth") which was borrowed from a Germanic language. Which one, we're not sure, but there is Proto-Germanic base *supp- from Proto-Indo-European *seue- ("to take liquid") that spawned it.

Soup as in soup up an engine is first attested in 1921 and comes from the noun soup meaning "narcotic injected into horses to make them run faster." What does that have to do with broth and liquid food? Very little, it's based on supercharge.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Restaurant \RES-ter-uhnt\ or \RES-tuh-rahnt\ or \RES-trahnt\ , noun;
1. An establishment where meals are served to customers

This word is first attested in 1827 and comes from French restaurant. Restaurant, of course, means "restaurant," but its original meaning was "food that restores" from restaurer ("to restore or refresh") from Old French restorer. Restorer derives from Latin restaurare ("repair, rebuild, renew"), which is a combination of re- + -staurare ("back, again" + "restore").

To say that restaurant originally meant "food that restores" kinds of glosses over the whole thing. In the 1400's, Middle French restaurant (or restorant) was any food, cordial, or medicine that restored one's strength or health. By the late 17th century it referred specifically to a "fortifying meat broth" (kind of like our chicken soup), and a century later it had come to refer to the place where that fortifying meat broth was served, and then just "place where food is served."

Those French could have never guessed we'd turn it into this:

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Female v. Male
The tricky thing about historical linguistics is that things are not always as they seem. A folk etymology (aka fake etymology) of these words might have you believing that female is a derivative of male or vice versa. In reality, the fact that these words have a similar form in English is a coincidence. Female dates to the early 14th century from Old French femelle ("woman, female"), which derives from Middle Latin femella (" female"), which is based on the Latin diminutive of femina ("woman"), femella ("young female, girl"). It ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *dhei- ("to suck, suckle" or "produce, yield"). Male also dates to the 14th century and comes from Old French, but it appears decades later than female and the word it comes from is masle. Masle derives from Latin masculus ("masculine, male"), which is the diminutive of mas ("male person or animal, male")

Friday, February 17, 2012


Twit \twit\ , noun;
1. An act of twitting
2. A derisive reproach; taunt; gibe
3. A foolish, stupid, ineffectual person
1. To taunt, tease, ridicule, etc. with reference to anything embarrassing; gibe at
2. To reproach or upbraid

This word dates to the 1520's and is the aphetic* form of atwite from Old English ætwitan ("to blame, reproach"), which is a combination of æt + witan ("at" + "to blame"). Witan derives from Proto-Germanic *witanan, which comes from Proto-Indo-European *weid- ("to see"). The meaning "foolish, stupid, ineffectual person" is first attested as British slang in 1934 and it made the leap across the pond in the 1950's and 60's thanks to British sitcoms.

*Apheresis is a form of sound change that often involves the loss of an unstressed vowel, as with atwite > wit. Technically it is the loss of any sound, so all those word-initial silent 'k' words in English (e.g. knight) are also products of apheresis.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Pettifog \PET-ee-fog\ , verb;
1. To bicker or quibble over trifles or unimportant matters
2. To carry on a petty, shifty, or unethical law business
3. To practice chicanery of any sort

Pettifog and pettifogging both come from pettifogger, which dates to the 1560's and is based on petty and a second element possibly from Dutch focker. Focker comes from either Flemish focken ("to cheat") or Middle English fugger, which is the surname of a renowned family of merchants and financiers in Augsburg, Germany in the 15th and 16th centuries. From that famous family, the word came to mean "monopolist, rich man, usurer."

Petty dates to the late 14th century as "small" from Old French petit ("small"), which probably derives from Late Latin pitinnus ("small") of unknown origin. The original meaning in English was not negative, which survives in the term petty cash. By the 1520's it had come to mean "of small importance" and evolved into "small-minded" by the 1580's.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Hircine \HUR-sahyn\ , adjective;
1. Of, pertaining to, or resembling a goat
2. Having a goatish odor
3. Lustful; libidinous
Someone's horny! Too easy... (credit: Robert Scott, source)
This word dates to the 1650's from Latin hircinus ("pertaining to a goat") from hicus ("he-goat, buck"), and possibly related to hirsutus ("shaggy").

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Love \luhv\ , noun;
The origin of love is Old English lufu ("love, affection, friendliness") from Proto-Germanic *lubo, which derived from Proto-Indo-European *leubh- ("to care, desire, love").

Monday, February 13, 2012


Alembic \uh-LEM-bik\ , noun;
1. Anything that transforms, purifies, or refines
2. A vessel with a beaked cap or head, formerly used in distilling

This word dates to the late 14th century from Middle French alambic, which came from Arabic al-anbiq ("distilling flask") via Old Spanish. Al-anbiq was a borrowing from Greek ambix ("cup") of unknown, but possibly Semitic, origin.

If this word is ultimately Semitic (and even if it isn't), it has certainly taken an interesting path through history. Semitic languages, including Arabic, are part of the Afro-Asiatic language tree, which is separate from the Indo-European language tree. Within Indo-European, Greek is part of the Hellenic branch, while French and Spanish are Italic and English is Germanic. So, assuming this word ultimately derives from a Proto-Semitic source, it went from the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic tree to the Hellenic branch of the Indo-European tree, back the the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic tree, then on to the Italic branch of Indo-European, and eventually landed in the Germanic branch of Indo-European as an English word. Of course, it made other stops along the way and no doubt survives in various forms in other Afro-Asiatic and Indo-European languages.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Gnarly \NAHR-lee\ , adjective;
1. Gnarled
2. Slang: Distasteful; distressing; offensive; gross
Methuselah, gnarly (source)
This quintessential 80's teen slang word actually dates to the mid-1800's, though the slang meaning really only dates to the 1970's as surfer slang. Gnarly meaning "gnarled" is first attested in 1846 and is based on the noun gnarl, which is a back-formation of the adjective gnarled. Gnarled was used by the almighty Shakespeare himself and is a variation on knurled from Middle English knurl ("a rock, a stone"), which is of uncertain origin.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


Ore \awr\ or \ohr\ , noun;
1. A metal-bearing mineral or rock, or a native metal, that can be mined at a profit
2. A mineral or natural product serving as a source of some nonmetallic substance, as sulfur
Bornite, or 'Peacock ore' (source)
Ore dates to the 12th century and is the result of a convergence of two Old English words: ora ("ore, unworked metal") and ar ("brass, copper, bronze"). Ora is related to ear, which meant "earth," and ar meant "brass, copper, bronze" from Proto-Germanic *ajiz- from Proto-Indo-European *aus- ("gold"). It took until the 17th century for the words to be fully assimilated and the result was the form ar took on the meaning of ora.

Friday, February 10, 2012


Needle \NEED-l\ , noun;
1. A small, slender, rod-like instrument, usually of polished steel, with a sharp point at one end and an eye or hole for thread at the other, for passing thread through cloth to make stitches in sewing
2. Medicine: A hypodermic needle

This word comes from Old English naeðlæ from Proto-Germanic *næthlo, which is literally "a tool for sewing" from Proto-Indo-European *net-la- based on *(s)ne- ("to sew, to spin"). The suffix *-tla indicates use as an instrument, so "to sew" + *-tla is "sewing instrument."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Frog And Toad

Frog and toad \frawg-and-tohd\ , noun;
1. Slang: Road

This phrase is from Cockney rhyming slang, which has been around the East End of London since at least the mid-1800's. It works by replacing a word with a rhyming phrase (e.g. frog and toad for road, apples and pears for stairs) and then often omitting the rhyming word. So He's upstairs becomes He's up the apples and pears becomes He's up the apples. It's a kind of in-group argot or jargon, which further separates Cockney speakers from other English dialectal groups. This particular phrase is first attested in 1859 and has lasted through at least 2007.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Plenum \PLEE-nuhm\ , noun;
1. A full assembly, as a joint legislative assembly
2. The state or a space in which a gas, usually air, is contained at a pressure greater than atmospheric pressure
3. A space, usually above a ceiling or below a floor, that can serve as a receiving chamber for air that has been heated or cooled to be distributed to inhabited areas
4. The whole of space regarded as being filled with matter (opposed to vacuum)

This word dates to the 1670's from Latin plenum ("full") as in plenum spatium ("full space"), which is the neuter of plenus ("complete, full") which ultimately derives from Proto-Indo-European *ple- ("to be full"). Plenum is the opposite of vacuum. But not this vacuum:
The opposite of this is a toddler (credit)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Smorgasbord \SMAWR-guhs-bawrd\ or \SHMAWR-guhs-bohrd\ , noun;
1. A buffet meal of various hot and cold hors d'oevres, salads, casserole dishes, meats, cheeses,e tc.
2. An extensive array or variety

This word dates to 1893 from Swedish smörgåsbord, which means "open sandwich table." Bord means "table" and is related to English board. Smörgås means "bread and butter," but it's a compound of smör + gås ("butter" + "goose" or "a clump of butter"), so smörgåsbord could literally be "butter goose table." Smör is related to English smear via Proto-Germanic *smerthan from Proto-Indo-European *smeru- ("grease").

Monday, February 6, 2012


Pussyfoot \POOS-ee-foot\ , verb;
1. To go or move in stealthy or cautious manner
2. To act cautiously or timidly, as if afraid to commit oneself on a point at issue
1. A person with a catlike, or soft and stealthy, tread
2. British: A teetotaler or prohibitionist

This word is first attested in 1910 from pussy + foot with influence from the earlier pussy-footed ("light-footed" or "excessively cautious or hesitant").

The thing that surprised me about this word was the teetotaler meaning. Apparently it was the nickname of an American magistrate, W.E. Johnson, who supported Prohibition. His "stealthy methods," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, earned him the nickname.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Giant v. Patriot

Giant \JAHY-uhnt\
Giant dates to the 1300's from Old French geant, a later form of the earlier jaiant, which derives from Vulgar Latin *gagantem. *Gagantem is based on Latin gigas, a borrowing from Greek gigas. Gigas were one of a race of savage beings who were eventually destroyed by the Greek gods and probably ultimately comes from a pre-Greek language. Prior to the 1300's the Old English words for giant were ent, eoten, and gigant. The original sense of "man of great size and strength" survives into modern languages, but since the1530's it can also mean "person with an extraordinary quality" and since th 1550's it can mean "very tall person." It has been a team in the National Football League since 1925.

Patriot \PEY-tree-uht\ or \PA-tree-uht\
Patriot dates to the 1590's as "compatriot" from Middle French patriote, which derives from Late Latin patriota ("fellow-countryman"). The Latin word is borrowed from Greek patriotes ("fellow countryman"), which evolved from patrios ("of one's fathers"), similar to patris ("fatherland") from pater ("father"). The suffix -otes expresses a state or condition. In the 1600's patriot came to mean "loyal and disinterested supporter of one's country" which evolved into an ironic term of ridicule by the mid-18th century in England. In post-WWII American English the word experienced a kind of revival as a positive word. It has been associated with the famous (and infamous?) Patriot Act since 2001. It has been a team in the National Football League since 1959.

*Both images are from

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Super \SOO-per\ , noun;
1. Informal: A superintendent, supermarket, supernumerary, or supervisor
2. An article of a superior quality, grade, size, etc.
3. Beekeeping: The portion of a hive in which honey is stored
4. Printing: A supercalendered paper
5. Television: An additional image superimposed on the original video image
1. Of the highest degree, power, etc.
2. Of an extreme or excessive degree
3. Informal: Very good; first-rate; excellent
4. Measurement: Superficial
5. Superfine
1. Slang: Very; extremely or excessively

This word is first attested in 1837 as a back-formation from the prefix in superfine. Superfine dates to 1682 as an indicator of "highest grade of goods" and comes from Latin super ("above, over, beyond"). Latin super derives from the Proto-Indo-European base *uper, which means "over," as opposed to *upo, which means "under." By 1895 its slang usage had extended to a general term of approval, which went away for a while and was revived in the 1960's. Super-duper is first attested in 1940. The first Super Bowl was in 1967.

Happy Super Bowl! Go Giants!

Friday, February 3, 2012


Gymnasium \jim-NEY-zee-uhm\ , noun;
1. A building or room designed and equipped for indoor sports, exercise, or physical education
2. A place where Greek youths met for exercise and discussion

The surprising thing about this word is not that it comes from Greek (via Latin gymnasium). No, the thing that gets me about gymnasium is what it means in Greek. The word is gymnazein which literally means "to train naked" from gymnos ("naked").

Remember that next time you're in a gym.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

P's and Q's

The origin of p's and q's is unknown, but that doesn't mean people don't have theories about it.
I've always heard that it is because in the days of the printing press it was easy for typesetters to confuse p and q since you have to set letters backwards. Similarly, it has been suggested that it is because children learning to read may get the letters mixed up. This idea is backed up in the Oxford English Dictionary's citations of p's and q's, but there are older attestations so it's probably not the source.

Another theory is that it refers to a sailor's pea-coat and queue (a tarred pig-tail hairdo), as in, "Don't dirty your pea-coat with your pig-tail." This is unlikely only because queue is attested in 1724, which is later than p's and q's by 122 years.

It is also unlikely that it's a shortening of pleases and thank yous because that phrase is not attested until the 20th century

The only suggestion that the OED offers that can't be proven or dismissed is the idea that landlords may have confused pints and quarts of beer on a customer's account.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Knight \nahyt\
The origin of knight is Old English cniht ("boy, youth; servant, attendant"), which derives from a common West Germanic source of unknown origin. The military meaning is attested from 1100, though it wasn't a specific military position until the Hundred Years War and didn't become a noble rank until the 16th century.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Wite \wahyt\ , noun;
1. Anglo-Saxon Law: A fine imposed by a king or lord on a subject who committed a serious crime
2. Anglo-Saxon Law: A fee demanded for granting a special privilege
3. Scottish: Responsibility for a crime, fault, or misfortune; blame
1. Scottish: To blame for; declare guilty of

Wite comes from Old English wita and gewita ("witness"), which derives from Proto-Germanic *witon-. Wite is related to the verb wit, meaning "to know." Wit is part of a family of Germanic words that, along with *witon-, ultimately derive from Proto-Indo-European woid- ("to see").

Monday, January 30, 2012


Lazy day posting. Copied and pasted directly from here, which is a great source for correcting common English word errors.
There are five distinct words here. When “affect” is accented on the final syllable (a-FECT), it is usually a verb meaning “have an influence on”: “The million-dollar donation from the industrialist did not affect my vote against the Clean Air Act.”

Occasionally a pretentious person is said to affect an artificial air of sophistication. Speaking with a borrowed French accent or ostentatiously wearing a large diamond ear stud might be an affectation. In this sort of context, “affect” means “to make a display of or deliberately cultivate.”

Another unusual meaning is indicated when the word is accented on the first syllable (AFF-ect), meaning “emotion.” In this case the word is used mostly by psychiatrists and social scientists—people who normally know how to spell it.

The real problem arises when people confuse the first spelling with the second: “effect.” This too can be two different words. The more common one is a noun: “When I left the stove on, the effect was that the house filled with smoke.” When you affect a situation, you have an effect on it.

Less common is a verb meaning “to create”: “I’m trying to effect a change in the way we purchase widgets.” No wonder people are confused. Note especially that the proper expression is not “take affect” but “take effect”—become effective. Hey, nobody ever said English was logical: just memorize it and get on with your life.

The stuff in your purse? Your personal effects.

The stuff in movies? Sound effects and special effects.

“Affective” is a technical term having to do with emotions; the vast majority of the time the spelling you want is “effective.”

Sunday, January 29, 2012


Pot \pot\ , noun;
Campfire dinner in a pot (source)
Pot comes from Old English pott ("vessel") and Old French pot, which both come from a general Low Germanic and Romanic taken from Vulgar Latin  *pottus, which is of uncertain origin.

One of the funny things about language is that two words can be very similar or exactly the same in form and be unrelated. Female and male are unrelated. As are pot the cooking vessel and this pot:
Pot meaning marijuana dates to 1938 and is probably a shortening of Mexican Spanish potiguaya ("marajuana leaves").

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Hotchpot \HOCH-pot\ , noun;
1. The bringing together of shares of properties in order to divide them equally

Kind of reminds me of when your mom makes you pool Halloween candy so everyone gets the same amount. Nobody wins.

This word dates to the late 14th century from Anglo-Norman and Middle French hochepot, which was both a legal term similar to the above definition and a word for "a dish containing a mixture of many ingredients," usually referring to a kind of stew made with minced beef or goose and a bunch of veggies. It's a combination of hoche + pot ("to shake" + "a cooking pot"). Hoche and pot were borrowed into French via Anglo-French from a Germanic source.