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
"You are dust, and to dust you shall return" Genesis 3:19 (credit)
Ash 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.