Our Sponsors

Technical Translation
Website TranslationClip Art

Archive for the 'Word Origins' Category

Origins of Silly Words

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Roger Bullard recently commented on my entry Silly Words in English, writing, “I sometimes use the word sticktoitiveness because for some weird reason, I just can’t think of the word perseverance. It doesn’t come to me when I need it.

I’ve decided to respond in a separate entry because it speaks to an issue that has intrigued me for decades. I had always thought that there was enough for some useful research, but never could gather enough data. Still, I think there is something here worth pursuing.

What do we do when we can’t think of a word? Speech is fast, which is why speaking is the most difficult of the four language proficiencies (reading, writing, comprehension, and speaking). We inevitably come upon words we know we know but can’t retrieve them fast enough to plug into the sentence we are uttering. We have to create a word on the spur of the moment, but how?

I noticed several words that seemed to be “near misses” and thought them the result of such moments. Two words originally caught my attention: hassle and (to) harry, as in harried. Their meanings are almost identical and identical with a far less often heard word, harass. I suspect that the two more common words are words someone uttered when they either could not remember harass, or could not decide which syllable of this word to emphasize, a problem associated with it.

I have a few other words in my files: embroil for embroglio, huffy for haughty, get in someone’s good graces for ingratiate, and kulacks for culottes.

As I say, I have never been able to gather a sufficient corpus of examples or find a way to prove my hypothesis. If it is true, however, it offers an explanation of folk etymology, since most of these examples seem to associate the meaning of the original word with words that are more common, more ‘Englishy’, the definition of folk etymology. Someone (or many) cannot remember how to write French m’aider “help me”, so they write what they remember: may day.

We do make errors when we speak, usually corrected quickly. But what if we simply can’t find the word but must continue speaking? Wouldn’t we try to utter a word with a similar sound that suggests the meaning we are getting at? Failing that, we would resort to something more desperate, like creating a word from a phrase like sticktoitiveness, as Roger claims to have done. No final conclusion here, but the issue is intriguing.

Lame Ducks of Washington

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Now that we have a few lame ducks down in Washington, I thought this peculiar phrase worth tracking down. So here is what I found.

First, referring to Congress as a whole as a “lame duck congress” is a misuse of the word, since those congressmen who were reelected are not lame ducks. In this context, the expression has taken on a slightly different meaning, a congress controlled by a party that loses that control at the end of the year. In this sense we have a lame duck House but not a lame duck senate.

The word more generally refers to people finishing their last term at some position, knowing they will soon be replaced. But this expression probably originates on the high seas as British naval slang referring to a disabled ship or a ship damaged at 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.

From the stock market the word then migrated to politics where it is used mostly 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.”

Noise about ‘Noisome’

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Rob Nollan wrote today:

“First, let me tell you that I love your Dr. Goodword’s daily e-mail. Even when I’m too busy to read it, if I click on the mail and begin reading, I get sucked in and can’t escape. Your writing and wit make lexical discovery so much fun!”

“So…you state that noisome should not be confused with noise. But it isn’t too much of a stretch to recognize that noise comes from the Latin nausea which has nothing to do with sound, either.”

“Tracking the actual origin of words through historical usage is beyond my ability, but it seems to me that noise and noisome share identical meanings, other than the fact that one usually refers to sound and the other is an adjective.”

“Therefore, my question is this: how do you trace these words to know that noise and noisome really aren’t related? Just curious. Thanks for the great work!”

Here is, in a nutshell, how we do it. We follow the spelling of the word in historical documents as far as they go. Some languages have been preserved in many documents over long periods of time, some in few over only short periods, and yet others, in none. So that process is often limited.

Greek survives today, as does Latin (in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian). The same is true of the languages that developed from Sanskrit (Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, etc.) So, it is fairly easy to trace words back to these languages.

Doing that, we find that noisome unquestionably goes back to ‘in odium’ in Latin. Noise may come from nausea. Nausea is a Latin word based on the Greek word naus “ship” that we see in nautical and navigate. However, it may just as well originate in noxia “harm, damage”; we just aren’t sure. Either way, noise and noisome are probably two different words that are coincidentally  spelled similarly today.

Why aren’t we sure of the origin of noise? Even if there are written documents available, when talking about a span of 2000 years, there will be gaps of hundreds of years in which no written evidence has survived but the spoken language continued to change.

For those gaps etymologists apply rules learned from examining thousands of similar words without gaps over the same time period. That usually works, but not always. What we can’t predict are changes caused by the influence of other languages, people playing with their language, confusion of one word with another, and similar accidental phenomena.

It is fun, as you have discovered, but it is also revealing. I devote so much space in the daily Good Words to their histories  because words express us as surely as we express them. They express our ideas and attitudes. Their histories often provide insights into our cultures and especially the changes in our attitudes and thought over the centuries.

Talking Monetization

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

A Facebook friend, Liza Kendall Christian, wrote Monday to express her curiosity about monetize:

“Bob, Do you knew the origin of the word monetize among all the other fun things you seem to dissect about language. Just a minor curiosity of when and in what venue/sphere it came into existence. Thank you, Bob!”

This word first began to appear in print in the second half of the 19th century in the sense of “to establish as the standard of currency”, a meaning which slowly evolved into “realize as or express in terms of money.”

In 1867 it was used several times in a book by J. A. Ferris called “The financial Economy of the United States”, e.g. “This would monetize gold again.” In 1903 it was being used widely throughout the English-speaking world. The British journal “The Speaker” was even using new words derived from it, e.g. “He demonetised silver in Germany and monetised gold.”

Money, money, money!The word was borrowed from French monétiser, which emerged some time before 1818. The French didn’t inherit it from Latin but created it from Latin moneta “money” plus the Greek suffix -iz-. The British still spell this suffix the French way -ise (monetise) while we long ago changed the spelling to -ize. The US spelling is, however, in the process of being adopted in the UK.

Incentive: An Incendiary Word?

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

I’m having to adjust the Word History of a recent Good Word, incentive, as a result of a note from Monika Freund of Germany. My word history went thus:

“Incentive comes from Late Latin incentivus “singing a tune, inciting”, from incinere “to sound off”. This verb is made up of in-, an intensifier prefix + canere “to sing”. The Latin stem can- also underlies the noun, carmen “song, poem” which, after French worked its magic on it, emerged as charme, a word we borrowed less the silent [e]. In the Germanic languages the same root came up as Hahn, still the German word for that fowl singer, the rooster. The feminine of this word, Henne, shares the same ancestor as English hen.”

Monika wrote: “I don’t think incentive has anything to do with incincere “to sing”. It must be derived from incendere, which means “to set on fire to, to encourage”. In German you also say “Man feuert jemanden an “You set someone on fire (with a special treat etc).” Indeed, in English we say “to set a fire under him/her” in the sense of incentivizing them.

I should have mentioned that the meaning of the word was probably influenced by incendere “to set afire” but my etymology is correct. The English word comes from Latin incentivus “setting to music”; the correlate adjective from incendere is incensivus, also borrowed by English as insensive “fiery, tending to inflame, inciting”.

The metaphor in the case of incentive was by analogy of setting passive words to music to make them move. However, many etymologists do believe the shift in meaning was influenced by the sense of incendere, a note I should have added to my Word History.

Limning the History of Limnology

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Kim Churchman responded to my treatment of limn with the following comment. I’ll bet it occurred to others, as well:

“About limn: doesn’t limnology mean the study of lakes? How does that fit with your definition of limn?

The answer is straightforward: in no way at all. Yes, the word limne means “lake” in Greek and, I think, Latin, too. But English limn comes from Latin lumen “light”, after good working over down through the ages.

Remember that English has been hauling words out of Latin for centuries. The words borrowed in earlier centuries underwent all the changes English has gone through since Old English. Limnology is a recent addition, only since lakes became a focus of scientific study.

Maths, Aftermaths, and Foremaths

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Donald Schark discovered a new word recently and wrote in about it. Words are “discovered” in other words, and this one is quite a surprise to me. Donald wrote:

“I am reading an author who wrote of people facing the math and aftermath of their decisions. I have never heard math used before without the prefix, so I checked Webster. Math is from the AS “mowing.” Why is such a useful word in disuse? It certainly applies to those who are currently suffering the math of war or the latest earthquake.”

Indeed, the sense of “mowing” has shifted to “a disasterous event”, since this is what is implied today by aftermath. It implies another compound, too, namely foremath, as the foremath of an earthquake or sunami. Much is being written about that now as we try to forecast these events. The foremath of hurricanes, we now know, is long, tumultuous, and filled with evidence about the storm itself.

I will run this word as a Good Word soon no matter what the research turns up simply because of the excitement at discovering a new word. I felt the same way when I found ease in disease and busy in business., and at one in atonement. Finding words inside words we take for granted everyday is an exciting experience—whether those around me realize it or not.

Idyl, Idyll, and the Ideal

Monday, October 12th, 2009

I received this note from Rebecca Casper today:

“The word that came up in the debate tonight was idyll or idyl. Some believe it is related to ideal. Others said, “No.” In any event, its full meaning is not altogether clear from a simple dictionary. Have you ever featured this word so that you could share your research? It is of Greek derivation, but I thought it was also an allusion to some Greek myth or legend. (But I can’t find anything.) Tennyson wrote ‘Idylls of the King,’ but that doesn’t give us a good etymology. Can you?”

First of all, how do we spell this word: Idyll or idyl? The US dictionaries don’t seem to care how many Ls we use but idyll is the original spelling. Idyl is a later misspelling that has become acceptable.

This word is unrelated to ideal though the latter may have informed the meaning of the former. Ideal is the adjective for idea under the assumption that the idea of an object is always a perfect representation of that object.

Idyll comes, via Latin idyllium, from eidyllion, a diminutive of Greek eidos “form, that which is seen, a person’s beauty”, from the verb meaning “to see”, the one that also went into the making of English video. The diminutive of this word came to refer to a type of short idealized poem, usually a bucolic one, which is to say, a romantic poem about the countryside.

An idyll today still retains a bucolic aroma but today it means ”a simple, tranquil state of affairs”. It can also refer to a peaceful interlude that is absolutely perfect, a vacation or affair in a place we normally only dream about.

Look for this word as a Good Word toward the end of October.

Last Word on the Origin of ‘Dixie’

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

Land of CottonSeveral people who read my recent Good Word Dixie, wrote in to remind me of an alternative explanation which most etymologists think little of. Tom Arfsten even backed his claim up with a quotation:
“In Stuart Berg Flexner’s book, I Hear America Talking (1976 Touchstone Books), this explanation is listed:

‘However, scholars know that Dixie comes from the ten-dollar notes issued by the Citizens’ Bank in bilingual Louisiana before the Civil War and bearing the French word dix “ten”, on the reverse side. Soon New Orleans, then Louisiana and the entire South were called The Land of Dixie, and later Dixieland and Dixie.’”

Citizens Bank $10 noteThis story on its surface simply doesn’t seem to make sense, which has led many (including me in the past) to reject it. Why would Scottish and Irish settlers on the East coast use a French word for ten from a small Lousiana bank (Banque Des Citoyens de la Louisiana) to name their region? Only a small minority of Louisianians spoke French and they probably pronounced the word correctly (dees). Why would English-speakers choose the word for ten, rather than the word for one (Unitie), or five (Sangsie), or 100 (Centsie)?

Well, let’s begin with the last question. English-speaking Lousianians, in fact, chose dix because it looks more like an English word than the others (see Folk Etymology). Second, it is true that all currency issued by Banque de Citoyens was referred to as dixies and, moreover, steamboat owners preferred that currency because the bank was one of the most stable and dependable in the South and its currency was accepted in both the French and English sections of New Orleans.

Remember, this was the 1850s, before the Federal Government printed money. Money was printed by private banks, most of which went under during the Civil War. The most dependable printed money in Lousiana at the time was that printed by the Citizen’s Bank. This made it highly desirable up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries.

We also need to keep in mind that the Mississippi was the main thoroughfare between the North and South at the time, the cotton-tobacco highway in the heyday of cotton and tobacco. For this reason, when departing from the North, and asked where they were going, stemboat captains and members of their crews often responded, “To Dixie Land,” meaning to the place where they planned to make lots of dixies.

Dan EmmettThe reason Dixie came to apply to the entire South is because the word wasDan Emmett in Blackface popularized in a song written by a minstrel musician and performer named Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904; portrait left, in blackface right). Emmett was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, served in the Army briefly in his teens, then joined the Cincinatti Circus and traveled through Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, and Kentucky. No doubt from time to time he traveled by steamboat, where he would have certainly heard the word. While in the circus he began performing “Negro” songs on his banjo. 
In 1842 he moved to New York City, where his career began to grow rapidly. He performed in blackface under the name of “The Renowned Ethiopian Minstrel” in bars, restaurants, and billiard parlors with several other performers, just as minstrel shows were becoming popular. The songs he composed during his carreer included several other popular minstrel tunes still alive today, including as “Polly Wolly Doodle” and “Old Dan Tucker”.

His most famous composition was published in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War (1861-1866), “I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land“. The song was already very popular in New York and surrounding area but when the War started, it became the veritable theme-song of the South. The color of the presumed singer was lost in the mayhem of that war and European Americans sang it even more heartily than African Americans.

Emmett’s song was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln who said after the war ended: “I have always thought that ‘Dixie’ was one of the best tunes I ever heard. I had heard our adversaries had attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it.” So its appeal was general, throughout the nation. The meaning of the term “Dixie” had expanded to include the entire South, the Confederacy, as opposed to the North.


Riehl, Janet Grace, “Dixie: How a Ten-Dollar Bill Became a Song”, Riehl Life, Village of Wisdom for the 21st Century, September 18, 2009.

The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries, Vol. XX, 1915, pp. 1-4 (http://books.google.com/books?id=mPAOAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA6-IA1).

Plus the links in the text.

Huxion Stew, Anyone?

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Here is one from the weird and wonderful world of the world’s worst spellers. It was sent to me by Martha Hulshof.

“How about this one, huxion, found in an old 1956 cookbook from Downeast Yarmouth, Maine? My mother-in-law is from Holland and her mother used to cook like this, but she’s not sure what the word means. I looked on line and, remarkably enough, found refrence to the VERY SAME recipie but that author did not know the meaning of the word either! I wonder could you ascertain its origin and meaning.”

Hockshin stewI can’t prove this but I am so sure this is what happened. The stew is made from a hock (hough in Scotland, pronounced [hox]). The hock is that part of an animal’s hind leg just below the knee, thus located near the shin, so some people have used the word hockshin for a long time. It is still alive in parts of Northern England and Scotland, I believe; we have written documentation from as late as 1886. In some areas it has been reduced to ‘huxon’, only a letter away from huxion.

Now, what if we spelled hockshin by the Latin rules of spelling? Hoxion would certainly be a candidate and from hoxion to huxion is but a tiny skid. These types of spelling errors are common for words that are mostly heard and seldom seen in writing.

Further evidence is provided by preserved written examples of hox and huxen in the sense of “hamstring”. The examples are old and these words are clearly archaic but may well have been involved in the shift of CKS to X and the shift from O to U.

Bottom line, the spelling of the word hockshin has rambled all over the place in the past three centuries. That the spelling huxion was one of those places, doesn’t surprise me at all.