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)