Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Word Origins' Category

The Migration of “out of pocket”

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

George Kovac down in Miami, Florida, wrote today about an interesting shift in meaning that I thought any word nerd would be interested in. He writes:

“As you remind us often, language is not logic, and words take on slightly unpredictable nuance or even meaning as they work their way through culture and history. An example I observed happening in my lifetime is the phrase ‘out of pocket’. It originally meant money spent on purchases from third parties. For example, if you break something and pay someone to fix it, you are out of pocket for the cost of the repair. But if you fix it yourself, you are not out of pocket—you have spent your own time and resources.”

“Some time in my adult life the phrase ‘out of pocket’ also came to mean ‘unavailable’ as in ‘I can’t schedule a meeting that week because I will be out of pocket at a conference.’ That usage I find jarring and lacking in any metaphorical grounding. Unless you imagine we inhabit pockets, but that’s just dumb. In that case a more apt metaphor would be “I will be out of burrow.” But that is just a cranky observation on my part, because language moves on its own without fixed or consistent rules, and that is as it should be. Words trope.”

My reply to him was as follows:

“We mostly have pockets with devoted uses. I always keep my wallet in my left rear pocket, my change in my left front, my keys in my right front, and my handkerchief in my right rear pocket. I can understand the connection between pocket and “proper place for”. So, if I’m out of pocket without the my, I am clearly speaking metaphorically of ‘out of my proper place’.”

“On the other hand, ‘out of the pocket’ is common enough football jargon referring to a quarterback, who should remain (as long as possible) ‘in the (quarterback) pocket’, i.e. his proper place, where he should be. Maybe the connection passes through football jargon.”

Tsundoku: A Perfect Sniglet

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Here is a new word, tsundoku, that has crept into Wikipedia (only), but no dictionaries. It occurs over 100,000 times over the World Wide Web, including Spanish, Croatian, Thai and many other websites throughout the world.

“Tsundoku” (n.) is the constant act of buying books, but never reading them. Specifically, it is letting books pile up in one’s room so much that the owner never gets a chance to read all of them. This is done by the owners of the books, not by the booksellers. The origin of “Tsundoku” is a Japanese slang (積ん読) “tsun-doku”. 「積ん読」 came from 「積んでおく」 “tsunde-oku” (to pile things up ready for later and leave) and 「読書」 “dokusho” (reading books). 「積んどく」 “tsundoku” is a euphonic change of 「積んでおく」.

English borrows precious few Japanese words, especially words easily confused with tsunami. However, here is a word that we need but occurs in no dictionary–just the definition of a sniglet. So, I thought I would toss it out for a ‘sniglet’ contest.

Since I am currently divesting myself of most of my library, I can offer as a prize some of my best books. For sure the “Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms” and the “New York Times Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused & Mispronounced Words”. Substitutions will be possible.

Loo-Loo’s Back in Town

Friday, December 19th, 2014

I just received a third guess about the origin of loo from Chris Stewart, an old e-friend in South Africa. Here is what he proposes:

I am surprised to find that this word first came to print in 1932. I do not know where I came across the following conjecture (or, if you prefer, urban legend), but it was probably my (British) dad.

The Brits & the French have an inextricably entwined history, and the language shows it. The Brits also like to make fun of things, especially the distasteful—and particularly love to parody the airs & graces of the high & mighty.

They thus have a habit of adopting French phrases and (mis)applying them, deliberately or not. In an earlier time (though for all I know, it still happens), when the joys of waterborne sewage were virtually nonexistent, one of the first tasks of the day was to get rid of the “night soil” from the chamberpot under the bed.

One expedient was to simply throw it out of the window. Where land is scarce and thus expensive, it is normal to build up, instead of out. In Europe & England, the result is multi-story dwellings; bedrooms tend not to be on the ground floor. And often in the city there is no front yard; the building is right on the street front.

To spare innocent passers-by the noisome prospects of being showered by night soil disposal, one would call out a warning. One such would be ironic use of the French, Garde de l’eau! “Look out for the water!” The phrase drifted in time from the original high court pronunciation to the common vernacular “gardyloo“.

Once flush toilets became the norm, the loo part persisted by association without the need to retain the warning part.

This all makes sense to me—even if it is a crock of, um, night soil.

Snicklefritzes and Spizzerincta

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

I received this query from a long-time subscriber to the Good Word, David Lloyd-Jones:

“Seeing snickersnee made me wonder whether schnicklefritz had crossed over from German into English yet.”

“I searched on it, and was referred to shnicklefritz and shnickelfritz, and was appalled to find it in the Urban Dictionary (which I assume means black English), [defined as] a snob or a pretentious person.”

“In my experience it’s what my ver-ree conservative father-in-law called his grand-daughters, and snobbishness was far from his mind. It migtht have overtones of mischief to it, but cuteness is surely the dominant theme.”

My response to him is as follows.

Yet another reason why not to trust the completely unedited Urban Dictionary. You should see the entry for Pennsylvania Dutch (Dutch as in Deutsch = German) written by someone who is not only ignorant of their culture, but who bears a major grudge against them. They are predominantly Amish or Mennonite and in my Pennsylvania county (Union) with a large population of these people, no crime committed by a Mennonite or Amish has ever been recorded.

Now, let’s get down to business. Schnickel is a real German surname and Fritz is just short for Friedrich. Put them together backwards and you get a pretty amusing appellation.

Schnicklefritz started out in English around here; it comes from Pennsylvania Dutch. The Pennsylvania Dutch brought it over from the Neckar Valley in Germany in the 18th century. Schnicklefritz is an affectionate name for a mischievous, overly talkative, or otherwise bothersome child.

In North Carolina in my day my father called his children spizzerinctum for similar reasons, to amuse by befuddling the child and in a gentle way to dissuade them from mischief.


Saturday, June 28th, 2014

• binky •

Pronunciation: bing-kee • Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: Love my binky1. Security blanked or a favorite stuffed animal that soothes and offers comfort to a baby. Something babies must cling to in order to get to sleep. 2. A pacifier (US &: Canada), dummy (UK), soother (elsewhere). 3. A bunny pronk, a high hop of joy for a rabbit.

Notes: Today’s Good Word may be two words: one referring to a pacifier, the other referring to a security toy or blanket. You’ll have to read the Word History to find out why. Remember to change the Y to an I in the plural: binkies.

In Play: Because the word is used as a commercial name for a popular pacifier, many people know only this meaning: “What happened to the baby’s binky? He didn’t swallow it, did he?” We needn’t stretch the sense of this word far to apply it more broadly: “Martin must have his coffee in his favorite cup, his ‘binky’. I would be surprised if he didn’t sleep with it.”

Word History: Two sources have been proposed for Binky: (1) the commercial name for a pacifier manufactured by Playtex® and (2) a baby’s pronunciation of blanket. According to Paul Ogden’s research, binky first appeared in print in 1944 and Playtex came into existence only in 1947, so we can’t give Playtex® the credit. We simply don’t know how binky came to be associated with pacifiers. Blanket is from Old French blanchet “white flannel cloth”, a diminutive of blanc “white”. Old French apparently borrowed this word from a Germanic language. Proto-Germanic had a word blangkaz “shine, dazzle”, which came to be German blank “shining, clean”. This same word turned out in English as bleachblanch and blank. (We now offer a blanket ‘thank you’ to Eric Berntson, who proposed today’s Good Word in the Alpha Agora.)

Tables of Differences

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Prof. ir. Max Peeters recently brought up the following question:

I noticed that the word for butterfly is very different in almost all languages, but for table very similar (see table below), even Gaelic, Turkish, etc. Can you explain this?

 English  butterfly  table
 French  papillon  table
 German  Schmetterling  Tafel
 Dutch  vlinder  tafel
 Spanish  mariposa  tabla
 Italian  farfalla  tavolo
 Czech  motýl  tabulka
 Turkish  kelebek  tablo
 Polish  motyl  tabela
 Hungarian  pillangó  táblázat
 Irish  féileacán  tábla
 Latin  papilio  tabula

It is a matter of (1)  borrowing and (2) the two senses of table: one that you eat and work on and a presentation of data in a publication. Usually languages borrow table in the latter sense, since by the time people got around to data, they already had a word for table in the first sense. This is why the words for table in the second sense are so similar: they are all borrowed from Latin, the language of science in so many European languages.

So, the word in German for the first sense of table is Tisch, in Czech it is stůl, and in Spanish it is mesa—just as different as the words for “butterfly”.

Hope this helps.

Where does PIE ‘Nest’ Nest?

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

I received this very pleasant comment from Supriya Dey today:

“I absolutely enjoy the daily Dr Goodword feeds. Thank you.”

“For today’s word, I was wondering if nid in nidicolous is related to nir [neer]. which means “home” or “nest” in some Indian languages. The syllable col also means “lap” in Bengali, an Indian language. Any relations?”

I responded:

It depends on which Indian languages you are talking about. If they are Indo-European, like Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, and Oriya, the answer would be an unqualified “yes” for nir “nest”. They would not be included in the etymological sources that I use because little is known by Western European etymologists about Indo-Iranian languages. If you are talking about Dravidian languages, like Kanada, Telugu, Mayalayam, the answer would be “no”.

The word col “lap” presents more problems, however. Col- is the PIE root (if this is the root of Latin colere at all), which would have changed considerably in the past 5000 years. This root became carati, calati in Sanskrit and referred to movement. There are many questions surrounding this word even if it occurs in Bengali. As I say in the Good Word nidicolous: it takes some stretch of the imagination to take “rotate” to “inhabit”. The same would apply for “lap”. Taken together, the sound change problem and the semantic one, would probably exclude it from consideration.

I heard back from Supriya telling me that nir does, in fact, occur only in north Indian languages.

A Small Menu

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

I received this interesting note from Jean Perry this morning:

“I recently read in Barbara Ehrenrich’s book Dancing in the Streets, about public festivals, that menu peuple meant ‘simple people’. I couldn’t find the connection between menu as in ‘list’ and menu as in ‘simple’. Can you help me with this?”

This is a Middle French usage that came over when English borrowed the word. French menu then meant “unimportant” or “small”, because menu came to Old French from classical Latin minutus “minúte”. The earliest written evidence in Middle French was les menus = le menu peuple “the small, unimportant people”, plural of la gent menude “the small, unimportant person”. The usage of menu in this sense is now considered archaic.

Of Peckerwoods and Woodpeckers

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

I received an interesting inquiry from Jeanne Henry. Here is that inquiry and my response.

Peckerwood. That is what our Southern Baptist pastor called us kids when he got angry with us. I just attended a 40-year reunion of the youth church choir and we laughed about Dr. Jimmy Morgan getting mad at us in church and announcing from the pulpit, “You little peckerwoods better shut up!” Of course, that made us giggle and shake the church pews even more. Poor guy.”

“Anyway, what is the history of the word Peckerwood?”

It started out as simply a Southern variant of woodpecker. However, it is not always used that way and has naughty overtones due to a poem kids back in the 20s and 30s once recited:

Woodpecker pecking on the schoolhouse door.
He pecked and he pecked ‘til his pecker got sore.

When my mother heard me or my cousins reciting this rhyme—long before we knew the other meaning of pecker—she became clearly embarrassed and forbade its recitation. Of course, this only egged us on.

Since the word begins with pecker, it has become mildly profane as well as a mild insult. That word is covered up a bit in woodpecker.

The Names of Things

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Randy Bynder appealed to Dr. Goodword for help with a common problem facing parents: answering a child’s innocent question. Children are learning machines, sponges that absorb thousands of facts every day. Here is a questiona that stumped Randy:

“Lately my 8 year old daughter keeps asking where partcular words come from. For instance ‘Daddy why do they call it a couch? Why are we called people?’ etc.

“Question: can you help me to formulate an intelligent but easy to understand response to such questions? Thank you.”

The answer, according to Plato, is that there is no answer; the relation between sounds and meanings are purely arbitrary. We call a horse a “horse” while Russians call the same animal a loshad’, Germans call it a Pferd, Spaniards a caballo, and Serbs a kon. It is the same animal referred to by different sounds depending on which part of the world you are in, more specifically, the language you are speaking.

Historically speaking, is another question. The similarities between English sister, German Swester, Russian sestra are not coincidental. These languages belong to a known language family, called “Indo-European”. A language family is exactly what it sounds like, a group of related languages that descended (developed over time) from the same “proto” language. They have descended from one language that existed earlier.

So the best response is to take advantage of the question to make your daughter aware that people around the world speak 6,912 languages and dialects. People speaking a different language are not to be feared; they are just saying more or less the same things we say in a different way.