Welcome to the third of three posts on synonyms for child. The first & second posts can be found here & here.
In 1725 the Scottish word tot, little child, became an English word. It appears to have come from either the word totter, OR an Old Norse term for dwarf, OR a Danish term of endearment that translates to thumb-child.
In early Renaissance Western England and the northern Midlands there was a word for ragged garment. It was related to the word for cloak. This word morphed by about 1500 to mean beggar’s child. The word? Brat.
Back in the 1300s, urchin meant hedgehog (it still does in Shropshire, Yorkshire & Cumbria). Apparently the word urchin was used pejoratively to refer to those who looked different. Etymonline tells us these unfortunates ranged “from hunchbacks to goblins to bad girls.” By the 1500s, we English speakers landed on a new meaning for urchin: raggedly clothed youngster.
Along similar lines, the word nipper appeared in 1530s to refer to a pickpocket. One can imagine how the chaos, poverty, & 16-hour work days of parents during the industrial revolution might have inspired nipper to shift its meaning to small boy (by 1859).
Friend Bruce West asked about the terms of affection sometimes applied to children, punkin & punkinhead. These spellings, considered to be “vulgar American English,” appeared in 1806 & seem to have come from the 1780s term pumpkinhead, which referred to a person whose hair was “cut short all around.” Pumpkin, as in squash, showed up in English in 1640 from Middle French.
Bambino came to English in 1761 from the Italian word for baby, the diminutive form of bambo, the Italian word for simple. Interestingly, in 1919 the word bambino gave birth to another English word that originally meant simple fellow, the word bimbo. Only one year later, bimbo picked up the additional meaning, floozy.
Any thoughts about all these childish words? Please say so in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.
Last week’s post on synonyms for child was just a start. Here are some ways we might refer to young folk older than babies, but still quite young.
In 1793 the word toddler came to English. Its source was the English verb toddle, which showed up in 1600. Toddle may have come from totter, or from another English verb from the 1500s meaning to toy or play.
Lass came to English in 1300 from a Scandinavian source, though etymologists can’t decide which one. Some suggest the source was an Old Swedish word meaning unmarried woman, some posit lass came from a West Frisian source meaning light & thin, and some suggest a Norse source for lass – a word meaning idle & weak. Though I hold nothing against the Norse, it would be nice to hear some future word historians disprove that possibility.
Though many of us might assume the English word lad had its source in the Scottish words lad & laddie, the Scots borrowed those words from English in the 1540s, more than two centuries after ladde appeared in English. In 1300 it meant both foot solider & young male servant. Like lass, lad’s source has etymologists’ collective knickers in a twist. Some suggest lad comes from a Middle English word meaning one who is led. Other word sleuths argue for a Norwegian word meaning young man, while those aforesaid Norse provide the most unlikely & intriguing possibility. There was a time when associating someone with shoes, socks or stockings was an egregious putdown (I’m not making this up). The Old Norse word for woolen stockings or hose was ladd, and may have been the source for our modern word lad, though if so, it came through a somewhat negative view of boys. And how does that explain lass?
Of course, there are the deliciously negative terms born in 1960s, rugrat & anklebiter.
Any thoughts about all these childish words? Please say so in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.
After last week’s look at terms referring to parents, we’ll take a couple of weeks considering some of the words we use to refer to children.
The Old English word cild had a broader meaning than our modern word child. It meant infant, newly born person, unborn person, & fetus. It came from a Proto-Germanic word whose descendants from various languages include words meaning womb, pregnant, children of the same marriage, & litter. It wasn’t until later Old English that cild/child came to mean young person before the onset of puberty. Our modern plural children (born in the 1100s) was predated by the 975 AD plural of child, cildru.
Both baby & babe, meaning infant, showed up in the 1300s from the Old English word baban, most likely a term imitating an infant’s babble. Baby also came to mean childish adult person about 1600, & in or around 1915 babe came to mean attractive young woman. Interestingly, the French word bébé came from the English word baby.
The Old English word geoguð meant junior warriors, the young of cattle, & young people, & morphed in time into our modern word youth. Related words include geong, which became the word young, & geongling which morphed first into youngling, & by 1580 into youngster.
The Old Norse word kið, meaning the young of a goat, gave English speakers the word kid as early as 1200. It took until the 1590s for kid to refer to the offspring of humans. Kid was not always a term of endearment, as our friends at Etymonline.com tell us it was “applied to skillfull young thieves and pugilists since at least 1812.” The more endearing word kiddo showed up in 1893.
The word tyke probably came from Old Norse & made its English debut in the 1300s, meaning mongrel or cur. Tyke didn’t start meaning child until 1902.
I’m planning on investigating more childish words next week. Any you’d like to know about? Leave a request in the comments.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & the OED (baby image by Nicole Zeug).
Some time ago, fellow writer and friend Angela Russell asked where we get the words we use to label our parents. Since this is a family-friendly blog, I’ve stuck with traditional words, leaving out those terms of non-endearment that might be used by children under duress.
Mother comes from the Old English word, modor, which comes from Proto-Germanic. Chances are good mother was born of ma, that first sound many babies make (many etymologists associate ma with suckling), paired with –ther, known as a kinship suffix (sometimes showing up as –ter).
That ma sound gave us most our words for mother. It seems almost all Indo-European languages have some form of ma or mamma:
Persian, Russian, Lithuanian & others: mama
In 1844 in American English the word mommy grew out of mamma. And in 1867 mom was born of mommy. In Britain it seems mamma morphed first in to mummy in 1815, and then into mum by 1823.
And on to the dads.
In the 1200s the word sire appeared in English, meaning lord or liege. Within fifty years it came to also mean father.
The OId English word fæder came from Proto-Germanic and gave us our modern word father. Fæder ‘s original meanings included he who begets a child, nearest male relative, & supreme being. Other words that share father’s etymological lineage include:
Dutch: vader (the surname of the chap who said, "Luke, I am your father.")
Old Irish: athir
Old Persian: pita
Greek & Latin: pater
In multiple sources I find commentary that the word dad is thought to be “prehistoric” – far older than written records could possibly show. I am astounded to find no similar claims for mama, which forces me to question whether this mostly reflects solid research, or mostly reflects sexism. Hmmm. My musings notwithstanding, about 1500 the word daddy appeared.
The Old French word papa made its way into English in the 1680s. By 1838, Americans had shortened papa to pop.
Back in 1200 the term old man came to mean boss, father or husband, though it took until 1775 for old lady to come to mean mother or wife.
It was no surprise that I was unable to find the terms of endearment my sister & I used for our parents, Muz & Puz. This causes me to wonder whether other offspring labeled their parents in a similarly odd or unique fashion. Good readers, I’m hoping you’ll address these wonderings in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Dictionary.com, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.
After three previous craziness posts (March 25, April 1, & April 8), we've finally reached the last one.
Good friend and fellow writer Bruce West wrote in & submitted these:
Dinky dau, a term Bruce & his fellow Viet Nam vets brought home with them. The direct translation is crazy head, though dinky dau is used as a synonym for crazy.
The universal sign language of the index finger spinning at the temple, which Bruce points out was first reported in 1885 by Captain “White Hat” Clark of the US Cavalry when documenting the sign language of Native Americans.
Plus a pile more. Due to the abundant number, I’m skipping the word histories (& dozens more crazy synonyms)..
Late 1600s – to be half-baked
1810 – to have a screw loose
1850s – to be off one’s chump
Late 1800s – to be off one’s base
Late 1800s - to be off one’s kadoova
Late 1800s -To not have all one’s buttons
Late 1800s – To slip a cog
Late 1800s – to be out of touch
1870 – to be off one’s conk
1890 – to be off one’s onion
Early 1900s - to be off one’s kazip
Early 1900s - to be off one’s bean
1929 – To be round the bend (or around the bend)
1940s - to be off one’s nana
1950s - to be off one’s nob
Having so many ways to say crazy is, well, crazy! In the comments section, I’m hoping some of you might note the term above that most took you by surprise.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: The Sixties Project, WP Clark’s The Indian Sign Language, Dictionary.com, English Language & Usage, Word Wizard, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.
It’s sad social commentary that we English speakers have nearly an infinite number of ways to tell someone he or she is unbalanced. We looked at some in the March 25 post, then a few more in the April 1 post. And we continue...
The literal meaning of batty (full of bats) appeared in English in the 1580s. It took until 1903 for its figurative meaning to take hold. Batty, meaning nuts or crazy grew from the idiom to have bats in one’s belfry, an American phrase born just a decade before batty.
In 1861 the British established one of many military outposts in India. It was called Deolali, a local word for which I can’t find a definition. The story goes that after their tours of duty, soldiers sitting around at Deolali got a bit stir-crazy. And thus, in 1917, the word doolally was born, meaning crazy or eccentric.
Kooky is an American term that showed up in 1959. Though etymologists aren’t certain, kooky most likely came from an American twist on the word cuckoo, which initially (mid-1200s) referred to a bird with an annoyingly repetitive call. In the 1580s a British figurative form of cuckoo was born, meaning stupid person, a reflection of the never-changing nature of the call. Then in America in 1918, the crazy, unbalanced meaning of cuckoo came to life.
In 1705, the crazy-meaning buggy was born before the automotive buggy, though by all reports, the erratic behavior of early automobile drivers certainly could have inspired the crazy meaning of buggy. Truth is, nobody knows why buggy means unbalanced.
In 1610 the meaning of unsound mind was added to the existing word crazy, a word which first showed up in the 1570s, meaning diseased or sickly, & in only another ten years began to mean full of cracks or flaws.
Some crazy-based meanings & idioms include:
-1873 – to drive someone crazy
-1877 – Crazy Horse – A moniker I’ve always incorrectly assumed slapped the craziness on the Oglala Lakota leader who bore the name. In fact, a more accurate translation of Tȟašúŋke Witkó’s name is “His Horse is Crazy”.
-1927 – crazy - cool or exciting, from the world of jazz
-1935 – crazy like a fox
I’m hoping you’ve got something to say about all this craziness. If so, please do so in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Thesaurus.com, The Phrase Finder, Etymonline,Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.
Though it shows poor form to question someone’s sanity, we English speakers have a steaming heap of ways to do just that. Last week’s post on synonyms for crazy didn’t even begin to plumb the depths, so here are some more.
In 1853 the American English word loony came to be. Though it was simply a shortening of the word lunatic, it may have been influenced by the wild, cackling call of the loon &/or its unlikely and mysterious manner of escaping danger. Loons can dive to depths of 200 feet & can stay underwater for up to three minutes – a crazy feat indeed.
In the 1300s the word daffe was used to mean half-witted. Daffe is the likely parent of daffy, which showed up in 1884. Daffy might alternatively have come from the word daft, which initially meant gentle & becoming, mild, well-mannered, & came from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to fit together. We can see this older meaning in the modern meaning of daft’s sister-word deft. Over the course of 300 years the well-mannered meaning of daft morphed to mean dull & awkward, then foolish, & then crazy.
Barmy comes from the alehouse. Barm is an Old English word meaning yeast, leaven or the head on a beer. In the 1530s the literal adjective barmy was born, meaning frothy. 1600 saw the birth of the figurative barmy, bubbling with excitement, & in 1892, a second figurative barmy began to mean foolish or crazy.
Mad made its way into English in the later 1200s, meaning out of one’s mind. It came through Proto-Germanic from the Proto-Indo European moito-, meaning to change. The angry meaning of mad showed up in the 1300s. Some mad idioms include: mad as a march hare (1520s), mad as a wet hen (1823), mad as a hatter (1829), & mad scientist (1891).
I’m hoping you’ve got something to say about all this madness. If so, please do so in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, Wisconsin Natural Resources, & the OED.
There are conversations occurring these days regarding the appropriateness of using words like crazy in reference to our fellow human beings, however, with the pandemic & isolation & politics & all that's going on, it seems the world itself is a bit crazy. So here’s a look at a small percentage of the many words and idioms referring to craziness.
The word loop came from a Celtic word meaning bend. Its related adjective, loopy, entered the language in 1825. Loopy's literal meaning was full of loops & its figurative meaning was cunning & deceitful. In 1923 loopy picked up a second figurative meaning, crazy.
The Old English word hnutu, meaning hard seed, gave us the word nut. Its adjective form, nutty meant nut-like back in the 1400s, but by the 1800s nutty began meaning crazy. This started at a time when nut was a synonym for head. We still see that meaning in the idiom off one’s nut, which brings us back to ways of saying crazy.
Wacky, or whacky, was born in 1935 of the idea that anyone who’d been whacked in the head might get a little, well, loopy. Also from the notion of being whacked in the head, the word bonkers, meaning crazy, showed up in 1957. It seems to have sprung forth from its 1948 definition, a bit drunk.
One could say the history of the word unhinged is a bit unhinged. The earliest use of the term came from 1612 & oddly, was the figurative meaning, a disordered mind. It wasn’t until 1616 that someone wrote down unhinge in its literal sense, to remove a door from its hinges. Odder still, it took until 1758 for someone to write down the verb hinge.
Any thoughts on all this craziness? If so, please express yourself in the comments section. Also, feel free to suggest your favorite colorful synonyms for crazy. There are a bunch I haven’t yet covered.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & the OED.
I had enough fun with last week’s post to go a second week with food-related terms. Here’s hoping you’re having a good time with them, too.
The word giblets appears to have been constructed as a euphemism so people eating giblets wouldn’t be reminded they were eating the organs of a game bird, also known as offal (though we never see offal on the menu, do we?). Giblets comes from a French term that meant game stew, a word that has its roots in falcon-hunting.
And continuing in the world of euphemisms, who would sit down at an expensive restaurant and order swollen goose liver? There’s a reason restaurateurs embraced the French term pâté de foie gras.
Another food euphemism is sweetbread. This euphemism showed up in the 1560s. Isn’t it amazing diners are more likely to savor sweetbreads than the literal alternative – calf or lamb pancreas?
When something is sentimental or sappy, we might call it corny. This idiom made its debut in American English in 1932. It was preceded by the short-lived idiom corn-fed, which appears to have been – in part – a way for cityfolk to slander those who lived in the country.
In Britain in 1858 the word cheesy came to mean fine & showy, but forty years later in America the cheap or inferior meaning of cheesy was born. At the time, American university students were using the word cheese to label an ignorant person. Etymologists are pretty sure the American idiom cheesy was born of this put-down.
When our goose is cooked, our hopes are gone; we are finished. This idiom entered English in 1845. The story appears to be that any farmer scrabbling for a living would likely have a number of chickens, but only one goose. As times got harder & harder, the farmer might eat his chickens one by one. But it was a sure sign all hope was lost when he cooked his goose.
Any chance any of you want to add a food idiom or euphemism to the heap? If so, please do so in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, Ralph Keyes’s Euphemania (2010 – Little Brown), & Webb Garrison’s Why You Say It (1992 - Thomas Nelson)
Here’s a brief collection of English idioms based on foods.
You don’t know beans!
This idiom seems to have shown up in the 1850s. Linguists pose two differing arguments for its source. One school suggests that because beans are both small & a basic food source, to not know beans is to not understand the simple basics of life. The second school cites a rural American riddle: How many blue beans does it take to make seven white beans? The answer is, (for those of you who don’t know beans) seven. To make blue beans white you simply peel off the skin. Apparently this was seen as common knowledge. Anyone who couldn’t answer the riddle didn’t know beans.
This is a tricky one because though it appears to a food-based-idiom, it isn’t.
It comes from the steamy kitchens of the American frontier. Those who did the laundry typically used lye soap (which wasn’t as effective as it might have been). When the clothes got too dingy, launderers of the day boiled them for an extended time with starch. Pieces of clothing that had received this treatment tended to be uncomfortably stiff, & were referred to as hard-boiled. At some point the term morphed to describe a person who was likely wearing over-starched clothing & shared that clothing’s characteristics of being unyielding and emotionless.
Fishing for information
This idiom was introduced by none other than Geoffrey Chaucer in Canterbury Tales. Historians tell us Chaucer was quite the fisherman (in the literal sense). The intimate nature of Canterbury Tales shows us he was apparently also gifted at fishing for information.
In 1934, Time magazine appears to have coined this idiom, & defined it to mean, “leg-pictures of sporty females.” Like many idioms, this one reflects its times. The “sporty females” photographed in Time magazine all had skin the color of cheesecake. Modern cheesecake shots do not discriminate in terms of skin color & generally involve exposure of more than the legs.
If it takes a little digging to see racist attitudes or flat-out racism reflected in the birth of the idiom cheesecake, seeing racism in the origins of the idiom ham takes no digging at all. The minstrel shows of the 1800s that often featured white actors in “black face” are responsible. Often, the makeup was removed by use of ham fat. It seems the use of ham fat in concert with the horrible acting based on racist stereotypes gave birth to the idiom.
Nothing like a food-based idiom, eh? I’m hoping you’ll have something to say about it all in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster,Dictionary.com, & Webb Garrison’s Why You Say It (1992 - Thomas Nelson)
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.