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Archive for the 'Word Origins' Category

The Lame Ducks of Washington

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

We now have quite a few lame ducks walking about Washington. I thought that a peculiar phrase, worth tracking down. So here is what I found.

First, referring to Congress as a whole as a “lame duck congress” was a misuse of the word, since those congressmen who were reelected are not lame ducks. So, this expression has taken on a slightly different meaning: a congress controlled by a party that loses control at the end of the year. This year neither house is a lame duck in this sense.

Recently this word’s meaning has expanded even more to the congress after elections but before the new congress is sworn in, whether its ducks are lame or not.

The term probably originates out on the high seas where it originally referred to a disabled ship or a ship damaged on the sea. The term duck makes more sense in this context.

If this is correct, then the term migrated from naval slang to financial slang, referring to a bankrupt investor or an investor in default of his debt at the exchange. At the stock exchange there are bulls, bears, and lame ducks, people who can not raise the liquidity to invest in any market. The carry-over sense is a financially wounded person who can’t keep up with the people who have their ducks in a row.

From the stock market the word then migrated to politics, where it is mostly used today. It is available outside politics, though, in reference to any thing or person who is disabled in any way. The American Heritage Dictionary says that it may refer to “an ineffective person; a weakling”.

The Origin of ‘Aryan’

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

Lena Åseth raises an interesting question I’ll bet many of the readers of this blog would be interested in. It has to do with the first word in the name of a racist organization called “The Aryan Brotherhood”.

“I need your expertise on the word aryan. Where does this word come from, and is it still in use? I know that it was used during the Nazi-war, under Hitler, but it’s a bit older than that, right?”

—Lena Åseth, Oslo, Norway

Although the word is still around, it is now used only in its racist sense. It comes from the Sanskrit word arya “noble, of a good, high-ranking family”. The word originally referred to the Proto-Indo-Europeans, but the inherent elitism of the word’s etymology led to its demise as a technical term.

The word was then picked up by the Nazis, who thought the Indo-Europeans must have been a race of exclusively white people (excluding Jews, of course). They attached this word to that mythical race. The elitism of the word’s etymology aligned itself quite nicely with the new meaning.

Most intellectuals now use Indo-European, while police departments and laymen use the more nearly descriptive term Caucasian, in referring to the original sense of Aryan. The Indo-Europeans, of course, did not originate in the Caucasus, but in an area now occupied by eastern Poland, Ukraine, and southern Russia. So, even this term is misleading.

How did Turf Come to be ‘to Turf’?

Friday, February 24th, 2012

A old verb is currently being tossed about the networks, to turf. It seems to mean “throw or kick someone forcibly out of some organization or office”. In these days of artificial turf, how did this noun turn up as a verb meaning this?

The verb derived from the noun was first recorded in 1598. It meant “to place or lay under the turf; to cover with turf”. By the 18th century it had metaphorized to “bury”, which is a kind of cover-up with turf.

It was only in the late 19th century that to turf turned up with the meaning it has today. What happened between the 18th and 20th centuries?

In the late 19th century the phrase on the turf came to mean “on the street(s)” in the sense prostitutes are “on the street”. So this sense of turf influenced the meaning of the verb, which became “to put out on the street”.

Now, since we use the verbal particles out when we say kick out, it was natural to use turf out as a slang replacement.

Short Shrift for ‘Short Shrift’

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Brad Stafford from Down Under raised this question ages ago:

Any chance of finding out where the phrase short shrift derives from?

Indeed, that is no great secret. Shrift means “confession, penitence”. Shrifts usually require long penances, sometimes up to a year or even a life-time. Short shrift was a brief penance given to a person condemned to death so that absolution could be granted before execution. Presumably, any shrift would be too, too short in that situation.

The verb that this noun is derived from is shrive, shrove, shriven “to listen to confession and render absolution”. It comes from Latin scribere “to write” and shrift from Latin scriptus “writing”.

The Odd Origin of the Word ‘Twerp’

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Brett Davis has written in with the following question:

Someone just called me a twerp and, while I know what it means, I’d like
to know more about just what makes it tick.

We only know what J. R. R. Tolkien tells us in a letter written to a friend in 1944 (published in 1981): “He lived in O[xford] at the time when we lived in Pusey Street (rooming with Walton, the composer, and going about with T. W. Earp, the original twerp).” He was referring to the poet T. W. Earp then at Exeter College, Oxford.

Tripping the Light Fantastic

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

To trip the light fantastic is a playful expression of “to dance”. It originates in several other idiomatic expressions referring to dancing in our not too distant past. A passage in Milton’s poem L’Allegro (1632) goes like this:

“Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it as you go,
On the light fantastick toe.”

Milton was, indeed, describing the highly nimble (fantastick) footwork of a jig or some other fast dance. For years after Milton the expression “the light fantastic toe” appeared frequently in literature.

Milton’s concept was apparently an extension of the phrase “tripping it on the toe”, an expression referring to dancing used as far back as Shakespeare himself. In Act IV, scene I of The Tempest, Ariel says:

“Before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go,’
And breathe twice and cry ‘so, so,’
Each one, tripping on his toe,
Will be here with mop and mow [moue].
Do you love me, master? No?

As the years ground by, “toe” was lost and the phrase was smoothed down to “tripping the light fantastic”.

The Mega Mickle Mess

Monday, November 21st, 2011

Eileen Opiolka wrote today:

“The reason I wanted to contact you today is the entry mega which refers to the word mickle and gives it as a Scottish word for “much”. Here in Scotland we say “many a mickle makes a muckle”, i.e. mickle means a small amount and muckle, a large amount. I’d be interested to find out what Dr. Goodword thinks.”

“Many thanks for your website, which is always interesting.”

Eileen, many thanks for your appreciation of the website and your interesting question. Here is what I think.

In Scotland today mickle is known mostly from the idiom you quote: “many a mickle makes a muckle”. The idiom was originally: “many a little (also pickle) makes a mickle”. The form “many a mickle makes a muckle” arises from a misapprehension that, rather than being variants of the same word, mickle and muckle have opposite meanings, the former representing a small amount and the latter a large amount. This is a false assumption.

It doesn’t matter mickle since both mickle and muckle are being shamelessly gobbled up by the hounds of history.

On the Origins of ‘Snob’

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Several readers have called me to task for my etymology of the word snob. It is purely speculative and I no doubt should have added a bit more to that point.

Barbara Kelly wrote in the Alpha Agora:

I had always understood that “snob” came from “sine nobilitate”, that is “without nobility”. The story I recall is that births were recorded with these abbreviations: “nob” for nobility and “s.nob” for non-nobles. A “snob” then was someone who had pretensions of nobility. I did not see this mentioned as a possibility.

Loek Hopstaken wrote to me directly:

Somehow I always thought that ‘snob’ was an abbreviation of ‘sine nobilitate’, or ‘without a noble title’. An ancient European habit: entered in a guest book when the person in question was no Lord, Duke, King or Count. Snob then would indicate a person who isn’t a registered nobleman but desperately wants to be one. [Someone who] belongs to this social class, has studied their behaviour yet doesn’t really know how to make it natural and comes across as a fake.

In fact, what we do know about this word is that it did arise in the 18th century and originally referred to shoemakers. No one has any idea why. Later, in Cambridge, it came to refer to shopkeepers in general and was a was used as a put-down used by students there in referring to the townspeople.

What happened after that is anybody’s guess; however, I find it hard to believe that it was not influenced by some word referring to the nose, given all the semantics relating noses and snootery in English: to stick one’s nose in the air, snotty, and the like. For that reason I played with these ostensible parallels.

Both readers are correct, of course, in implying that I should have made my speculation clearer and I will clear that up later today. Also, I am collecting false etymologies like the one Loek and Barbara came across. So far I have only the examples for posh (Port Out Starboard Homeward), golf (Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden), gaudy is an eponym of Antoni Gaudi, and this one. If you can think of any others, please let me know. I would like to have at least ten before posting them.

Campaigns and Scampaigns

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

A word that has been floating around for a few years caught my attention when it was applied to election campaigns. I don’t like to promote blends like scam + campaign as a means of expanding the vocabulary because they are not a part of the grammar of English. But this one works so well I can’t resist the temptation.

The word apparently originated in the advertising business and referred to fake advertising campaigns for nonexistent products that were submitted for ad-of-the-year awards.

Now the word seems to apply equally well to political campaigns like that of Donald Trump, campaigns with ostensibly ulterior motives, such as to promote a TV series, or to increase book sales, commercial visibility or income in general.

In politics the scampaign is very, very new, so it is difficult to separate the scampaigns from the campaigns. I suspect the distinction will become clearer as time passes.

Empretzeling Oneself

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

I just received a comment on self-empretzelment from Dr. Margie Sved:

“I would have thought self-empretzeltment meant something a contortionist would do!!”

In fact, her interpretation works for me. The current meaning should have come from the one she mentions as a metaphorical (figurative) usage and semantically it does.

It is not uncommon for a derived word to appear historically before its semantic predecessor, so it would be possible for a word like uninsightfulness, say, to be used before anyone uses uninsightful. The longer word would come directly from its stem, insightful, prior to uninsightful arising from the same stem.

Happens all the time.