The word(s) Christmas showed up in Old English in 1123 as Cristes mæsse. It’s no surprise that the first bit heralds from the word Christ, while the second comes from the celebration of mass. More intriguing to me are the arrival dates of the following:
Father Christmas, late 1400s
Christmas box, 1611
Christmas tree 1835
Christmas card 1843
Xmas, which I’ve always assumed is a tacky invention of modern Americans, actually showed up in 1551 in England, the X coming from the first letter of Christos in Greek. Before that, examples of Xrmas (beginning with the first two letters of Christos in Greek) occurred as early as 1100. It turns out we tacky Americans don’t hold responsibility for this one. That 1551 citing comes from the arguably erudite E. Lodge, British historian.
And who knew that yule & jolly are kissing cousins? Both appear to come from a pre-Christian winter feast known in Old Norse as jol. Jolly showed up in English in 1300 after jol made its way through French, becoming jolif, meaning festive, pretty, merry, or amorous, whereas yule (also born of jol) made its way through the Old English word geola, which meant Christmas day or Christmastide. Here’s hoping those amorous Old Norsefolk who gave us these words experienced many a jolly jol in doing so.
Please leave a comment, & whether you celebrate Christmas or some other wintry holiday with friends, with family, or all by your lonesome, may your Christmas mass, your time around the Yule log, or your general jolliness be downright glorious.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, Collins Dictionary, Ginger Williams (image) & Etymonline.
As the holidays approach, we're all more likely than usual to be indulging in favorite dishes. So here's a look into the word dish.
Dish occupies about one full page of the print version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Dish first appeared in Old English as early as 700 AD, meaning disk, plate or table. The disk or plate meaning came from Vulgar Latin, while the table meaning came through an early Italian or French dialect.
By the mid-1400s dish could refer to a type of food served, as in “Elton brought the most peculiar dish to Gliselda’s holiday bash.”
Around that same time the verb form appeared, meaning to serve food. We see vestiges of this form in the modern idiom to dish up.
By the 1940s, the idiom dish it out was born, meaning to administer punishment.
Somewhere around 1900 the noun dish picked up the meaning what one likes, as in “Who would’ve guessed that juggling live squid would become little Balthazar’s dish?”
By 1920 the noun dish acquired the meaning attractive woman, as in “That Myrtle Mae is one serious dish!” About this same time the adjective dishy was born, applying to both male and female attractiveness.
And in 1978 the term satellite dish was born.
Dish’s closest relations include disk, disc, discus, dais & desk.
Some additional dish idioms include:
To dish on someone
To do the dishes
To dish the dirt
Revenge is a dish best served cold
Some lost meanings for dish include:
A specific measure of corn
In tin-mining, a gallon of ore ready for smelting
In the game of quoits, a quoit
To cheat, defeat completely or circumvent
In celebration of one of the many meanings of dish, please leave a note in the comments section regarding a favorite family dish of the edible variety).
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, Merriam Webster, & Etymonline.
This year, folks will celebrate Chanukkah December 22 to December 30, so in preparation, let’s take an etymological glance at Chanukkah & a few Chanukkah-related words that have made their way into English.
I’ll start by noting that the spellings I’ve chosen for this post are those favored by Balashon– the Hebrew Language Detective. Do others prefer other spellings? Yes. Any time English steals from elsewhere (which is most of the time), spellings get funky. There you go.
Not surprisingly, Chanukkah, means consecration. It entered English at the late date of 1891 (linguistic anti Semitism at work, perchance?). Interestingly, Chanukkah was the proper name of Cain’s oldest son, the father of Methusaleh.
Menorah entered English about the same time (1886), meaning candlestick, from a Semitic term meaning to shine or give light. This word came from the Arabic word manarah or manarat, meaning fire. The word minaret comes from the same root, which means there’s hardly an etymological degree of separation between minarets all over the world, from which Muslims are called to prayer, & the countless menorahs lit for Chanukkah.
Dreidel comes to English through Yiddish, & came to Yiddish through German. Dreidel's German root drehen means to spin. Its relatives include throw, torque, twist, & torment. This may shed new light on the idiom “she’s got her knickers in a twist,” though I’m not sure exactly what we can learn from that.
For as long as I remember I’ve had a fondness for the term Mazel tov. It came into English in 1826 from the Modern Hebrew term mazzel tob, which means good luck. This came from another Hebrew word mazzaloth, which refers to constellations, a connection to the understanding that one’s luck might be in the stars.
So, this Chanukkah, may menorahs burn brightly, dreidels spin nimbly, minarets do their good work, & may nobody’s knickers get in a twist over any of it.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, Etymonline. & Balashon –Hebrew Language Detective
Anagrams are the sort of sick fascination we word nerds embrace. For those who haven’t previously played with anagrams, an anagram can be made by using all the letters in a given word, phrase or sentence & re-arranging them into something new.
For instance, here are two anagrams of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:
Deep northern lurid horse deed
Horror: deep tennis hurdle deed
Below please find some anagrams. Each group can be translated into a phrase we’re likely to hear this time of year.
Festive Anagram 1
Ahoy, hippy lads
Holy yap aphids
Ashy hippo lady
Soy aphid phyla
Popish lady hay
Aphid hay ploys
Festive Anagram 2
Hydro jot towel
Jowly red tooth
Do lower thy jot
Throw, pot, yodel
Festive Anagram 3
Reenact a hope
Prehost a cone
A coherent ape
Create a phone
A threep canoe
Please translate the three festive anagrams into their original forms & leave your translations in the comments section, OR play around with a festive anagram of your own & enter your list of translations in the comments section for others to ponder (old schoolers prefer to create anagrams with pen, pencil & grey matter, however this online anagram tool is speedier.
My thanks go out to this week’s source: Andy’s Anagram Solver
Whether one finds the OK Boomer idiom to be hysterical, true, ageist or tacky, it's not new. Granted, OK, Boomer has a very specific usage, however we English speakers have had negative things to say about older people for quite some time.
Curmudgeon entered the English language in the 1570s, & nobody really knows where it came from. Some have posited that the first syllable may come from the word cur, meaning a dog of either vicious or cowardly demeanor, combined with the Gaelic word, muigean, meaning disagreeable person. Sadly, no data supports this. Whether we know its parentage or not, the word curmudgeon is marvelously descriptive. Those of you who appreciate vicious, nasty, or biting quotes should definitely consider The Portable Curmudgeon, by Jon Winokur, which features quotes from notable curmudgeons like Fran Lebowitz, HL Menken, WC Fields, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Levant & others.
More recently, the term geezer has been the word of choice to refer to cranky, old-fashioned people. Geezer entered English in 1885 from the Cockney term guiser, which meant a silent, muttering, or grumbling person.
In the 1580s, the term malcontent entered the language from French. Though the word has no association with old-fashionedness, it did refer (& still does) to a rebellious or complaining person and seems to live in the same grumpworthy category.
A killjoy – another term with no age-association - is a personwho kills joy. This word came to English in 1772, simply by connecting two words that were already in use.
Though the world’s most famous (or infamous) misanthrope was a curmudgeonly chap featured in Moliere’s play, The Misanthrope, the word itself has no direct connection to old ways or old age. It simply means one who hates people (landing it in my generally grumpworthy category). Misanthrope came to the language in the 1560s from Greek.
In 1780 the Scots loaned English their word foggie, which we English–speakers have held onto ever since as the word fogey. The original Scottish word referred to old veterans or pensioners, & may or may not have an association with various root terms for moss, old-fashioned, or bloatedness.
Codger entered the language in 1756, most likely coming from cadger, which means beggar. Cadger’s root, cadge, is of unknown origin.
Americans added fuddy-duddy to English in 1871. Nobody is quite certain of its roots. It meant then – as it does now – old fashioned.
Another American term most of us have lost came from the Carolinas in the 1860s. The term is mossback, & it meant conservative, reactionary, & old fashioned, which referred directly to southerners who refused to join the Confederate army, & instead of joining the cause, hid in the woods “till moss grew on their backs.”
Any opinions about all these curmudgeonly words? Let me know in the comments section whether you feel these words are synonyms for OK, Boomer, or whether it belongs in its very own category.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline.
What's up with the words carrion, carry on & carry-on?
Today, the term carry-on (referring to luggage) is probably used thousands of times more per day than the terms carry on or carrion, yet only a couple of decades ago, the opposite would have been true.
To my complete surprise, the earliest printed use I can find of the luggage variety carry-on is 2006. Even more surprisingly, I can find no reliable information regarding when the term entered the language.
Carry on, on the other hand (ooh, sorry about that) showed up as early as 1606 & has a variety of meanings:
-to continue or advance
-to prevent from stopping
-to practice habitually
-to behave in a conspicuous way
-to conduct, manage or prosecute
All this can be found buried in the nearly three full pages the Oxford English Dictionary dedicates to the word carry, which came to English through Old French from Late Latin, where it meant to convey in a vehicle. This sheds light on carry’s relationships with car, cart, cargo, chariot, & carpenter.
On the other hand, carrion came to English through French from the Vulgar Latin word caronia, meaning carcass. If we follow caronia back far enough we find the Latin word caro, or meat. Carrion’s relatives include carnivore, carnal, carnival, carnage, incarnation, & reincarnation. Even the meaning of the word crone refers back to the idea of being carcass-like. Also, though etymologists haven’t finished arm-wrestling over it just yet, some argue that the word crow also comes from caro, presumably because crows include carrion in their diets.
And from the Truly Unlikely Department, some etymologists argue that carbine started with caro, though this takes more explanation. It seems that during the years of the plague, people speaking Old French referred to those who bore the corpses as escarrabin, meaning carrion beetle, which morphed into a nasty epithet used to refer to attacking archers, who in time swapped in their archery equipment for small rifles, yet still got called names because they were after all, attacking. In time the epithet for the attackers became associated with their weapon of choice, the carbine.
Dear readers, this week, please join me in some word play. Leave a goofy sentence in the comments box that primarily employs words addressed in this post.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline,
Check out these two unlikely sentences & the unlikely etymologies of the words therein.
The vicar’s Ouija board turned out to be a red herring.
A vicar’s job is to interpret scripture for the masses, substituting for Jesus, which is why vicar is based on the Latin word vicarious, or substitute (1300s).
A Ouija board functions due to the “agreement” of the two people whose fingers rest on the planchette, thus, its name was derived from a marriage of the French & German words for yes: oui + ja = Ouija (1910).
A red herring in a mystery throws the reader/viewer off the trail. This term comes from fox hunting as early as the 1680s, as nefarious characters (or members of the Save the Beleaguered Fox Brigade, I presume) might drag a red herring across the fox’s trail, causing the hounds to veer off in the wrong direction (apparently the reek of the red herring is infamous).
Our second unlikely sentence using words with unlikely etymolgies includes a word once quite acceptable, but now considered offensive:
A moron moseyed through the bedlam in the nick of time.
The now-offensive term moron reflects Dr. Henry H. Goddard’s impression of the mental capacity of pre-teens. In 1910 he defined his term as meaning dull, stupid, silly or foolish, and introduced the word moron to apply to adults whose mental aptitude coincided with the abilities of 8-12 year olds. I'm not inclined to use this idiom, but I find the etymology intriguing.
The word mosey is the flipside of the word vamoose – the former meaning to leave in a languid fashion & the latter meaning to leave speedily.
Bedlam was born as the nickname for a London-based priory, St. Mary of Bethlehem, which became a home for the mentally unstable, famous during part of its tenure for the screams of its inmates (1418).
Though nick of time wasn’t recorded until the 1640s, the story is that some Medieval churches and colleges recorded attendance by notching a stick. When a parishioner or student arrived, a nick was cut into the stick. The last one to arrive on time would receive the nick of time.
This week’s unlikely etymologies were inspired by Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins (Carol Publishing Group, 1999) - backed up by the OED, Merriam Webster, & Etymonline,
Last week, upon joking with my wife that I was “plying her with wine,” I found myself wondering about that usage of the word ply. What I discovered was far more rich and robust than the inexpensive swill we were sharing for dinner. One might even argue that the word ply has an “intriguing bouquet, a delightful aftertaste & a remarkable finish.”
The Oxford English Dictionary devotes about a half page to the word ply, which initially meant to apply, employ, or work busily at, and entered English in the late 1300s from Middle French. Before that, it spent some time in Latin, & before that it resided in a hazily defined tongue etymologists call “Proto-Indo-European.”
The meaning I was using at the dinner table, to press one to take, appeared first in 1676, but ply also has all these meanings:
-to bend, bow, fold, or double
-to bend in will or disposition
-to adapt or accommodate
-to yield or be pliable
-to bend in reverence
-to bend, twist or writhe forcibly
-to comply or consent
-to cover with something bent or folded
-to draw out by bending or twisting
-to occupy oneself busily
-to use, handle or wield vigorously
-to practice or work at
-to solicit with importunity
-to beat against the wind
-to traverse by rowing or sailing
This modest three-letter word (or word part) plays a role in these words & more:
plywood, pliant, comply, compliance, compliant, apply, appliance, application, multiply, multiplication, reply, complex, plectrum, pliers, & (believe it or not) flax.
This week, please ply me with a question. What word have you heard or used recently that caused you to think, “Hmmm. Where’d that one come from?”
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline.
Lazing about doing nothing useful.
Nothing like it.
Some good folks published an entire dictionary about it in 2011. Sloth - A Dictionary for the Lazy, is a part of Adams Media’s The Deadly Dictionaries series. This particular volume defines 154 pages worth of lazy-related words, interspersed with sloth-related quotations. Here are some highlights:
aposiopesis – noun – (1570s) the state one is in when one stops speaking mid-sentence, either due to the inability to finish the thought, or sheer stubbornness.
fainéant – noun – (1610) a lazy person or slacker. Also an adjective to describe such a person.
hebetude – noun – (1620s) state of laziness or indolence.
looby – noun – (1377) an awkward, lazy person or lout.
shilly-shally – verb – (1703) to vacillate or be indecisive, to dawdle or waste time.
somniferous – adjective – (1600) having the ability to cause sleepiness.
sponger – noun – (1670s) one who allows others to provide all his/her needs, a freeloader.
weltschmerz – noun – (1875) the state of being world-weary, pessimistic or apathetic.
Followers, what slothful words do you appreciate? Let me know in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Sloth – A Dictionary for the Lazy, & Etymonline (image from BetterColoring.com).
In tribute to the public servants putting themselves in harm's way through exposing the truth during the impeachment hearings, how about a look into the roots of the words public & service?
Public showed up in English in the 1300s as an adjective through Old French from the Latin word publicus, meaning of the state, of the people, general, ordinary, or vulgar (oops – someone’s elitism is showing). By the 1600s public was also being used as a noun, meaning commonwealth, or public property. It is related to the words people, populace, popular, publicity, publican, puberty, & pub. Its medieval English synonym, folclic, sadly, never made it out of the Middle Ages.
The word public first aligned itself with the word service in 1893, giving us public service.
Service also came through Old French from Latin, though it appeared in English two centuries before public. The Latin donor word was servitium, which meant slavery or servitude, and came directly from the Latin word for slave, servus. Within a century, service’s meaning had generalized to simply mean the act of serving (not necessarily due to enslavement). By the late 1400s tea service was born and by the 1500s service picked up its military meaning. In 1941 service & industry found one another & service industry was born.
But back to the public servants testifying in the impeachment hearings. Most of us don't have the skinny on people in power, but w can still provide a l little public service:
Moving a grocery cart so it won’t whack into someone’s car,
Recommending a great book,
Offering a hand to someone who could use it,
Contributing time or resources to a social or environmental cause...
Maybe afterward we could all meet somewhere where we can enjoy being served – like maybe the pub.
Please leave a note in the comments section about some public service you’re aware of that warms the cockles of your heart (there’s a future Wordmonger post, eh?) or a public service you’re likely to engage in this week.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Collins Dictionary, the OED, United Nations, & Etymonline,
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.