Who wouldn't 't be intrigued by words like tidbit & morsel?
Tidbit showed up in English in the 1630s, made up of tid, meaning fond, solicitous or tender, and bit, which appeared in English in the 1200s, meaning a piece bitten off.
The English got morsel from the French word morceau, meaning small bite, portion or helping, some time around 1200. Interestingly, the word mordant, meaning caustic (a figurative sense of biting), shares the same roots.
Smidgen came from smitch, a Scottish word meaning a very small amount, or an insignificant person. Smidgen entered English in the 1800s.
Dollop made its way into English in the 1570s, from the East Anglian word, dallop, meaning a tuft or clump of grass. It wasn’t until 1812 that the meaning morphed to a lump, serving or blob.
Both jot & iota came to English in the 1630s from Greek. Iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet, & (in Greek) also denotes anything small. An alternate spelling was jota, thus the word jot. The Greeks got the root word from a Semitic language we’re not entirely sure of, but the original root was probably something like the modern Hebrew word yodh.
In the early 1950s, Korean War veterans brought home to America the word skosh, their version of the Japanese word sukoshi, meaning few, little, or some.
In 1877, a small child might have been referred to as a tad. Etymologists are moderately sure tad was a shortened form of tadpole, which was born of the word tadde, an alternate form of toad. Toad came to English in the 1300s from nobody-knows-where, & was added to the Middle German word poll, meaning head to make tadpole. It wasn’t until 1915 that tad began to mean a small bit.
Which of these morsels intrigues you most? Please leave a comment.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Collins Dictionary, OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik
The English word head has its unlikely origins in the Proto-Indo-European word kaput. Somehow, as kaput made its centuries-long voyage through German, Dutch, Saxon and/or Frisian to Old English, it morphed to heafod. From Old English it moved into Middle & Modern English, where it managed to drop a syllable & become head.
Along the way it collected dozens of idioms, including:
1200s – head count (applied to people)
1300s – headwaters
1300s – headstrong
1500s – head count (applied to cattle)
1680s – head of a coin
1680s – head on a mug of bear
1748 – head on a ship (toilet)
1911 – hophead, which became in time, pothead
1952 – heads up
1972 – head game
1984 – headbanger
& dozens more.
Because head has changed so much since it started out as kaput, it has a steaming heap of unlikely cousins, all from that same Proto-Indo-European root. Here is a sampling:
capital caput madcap
cabbage capo chief
scalp cap capsize
chef captain cob
achieve capillary cadet
decapitate cape cephalic
mischief precipice handkerchief
corporal chieftain capitulate
Many connections to the head are obvious. Others, not so much. Might any of you have a hare-brained theory as to how some of these words are related to the head? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & Wordnik
Food words we may need
As Noam Chomsky and countless other linguists & psychologists point out, our thinking is limited by our language. This post is dedicated to some food-related words from other languages that we might consider adding to English, if only to expand our thinking (& have fun with pronunciations).
In Micronesia the people of the Gilbert Islands sometimes enjoy kamatuao, a meal one eats upon waking in the middle of the night.
Fulumizya is a Mambwe word from Zambia meaning to prepare food quickly for someone who is very hungry.
And why don’t we have a word for what all of us do to an avocado, peach, or tomato before buying it? The Tamil people have the word athukkugirathu, meaning to press fruit softly with the fingers.
The Italians perceive a difference between the average picnic & those particularly stellar picnics enjoyed in October. Those perfect October picnic outings are known as ottobrata.
The Mandinka people of West Africa label the first meal cooked by a newly married bride bulunenekinoo.
When the people of Finland feel that particular hunger for salty food they experience hiukaista, while folks who speak Malay call that ravenous hunger we experience as we chase away an illness kemarok.
In the Easter Islands a person who can’t afford a meal but shows up at someone else’s table expecting to eat is a pakiroki.
And in the Czech Republic, an individual who loiters near a restaurant to eat the leftovers is a bufetak.
Do we need any of these words/ideas, or is English fine without them? Please leave a comment.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Hugh Rawson’s Toujours Tingo, the OED, WordSense EU, & The Telegraph.
Faux etymologies about food
People can be as creative with their stories about the origins of words as they can with various ways to prepare food. Here are just a few examples.
Because asparagus has also been called sparrow-grass, the false notion has arisen that sparrows used to loiter in the asparagus bed, thus the name. Actually, the word came to English in the 1500s from Greek (asparagos), & within the next two centuries it was eclipsed in popular usage by two colloquialisms: sparrow-grass & sparagrass. During this whole time, botanists held onto the original word. Darned if those botanists didn’t win out in the end, when Victorian England’s fascination for properness found sparrow-grass to be unpleasantly common-sounding, so asparagus was reborn. Interestingly, some die-hard British cookbook authors continue to refer to asparagus as grass.
Marmalade’s true ancestry starts in Greece, where a melimelon was the fruit that occurred when an apple was grafted onto a quince tree. The term translates to honey apple. Melimelon made its way through Portuguese and French to become marmalade in English, referring to preserves made from boiling fruit(s). Even though the term entered English in 1524, nearly 20 years before Mary Queen of Scots’ birth, some insist that the word marmalade was born as servants scuttled about trying to answer the ill Queen Mary’s demands for fruit preserves, whispering to one another, Marie malade (Mary sick).
Word had it back in the 1970s that gorp (a trail mix of peanuts, raisins, dried fruits and such) stood for Good Old Raisins & Peanuts. I remember hearing this explanation myself while, dwarfed by my CampTrails backpack, I plodded along some trail . Etymologists refer to this sort of invention as a backronym. In fact, gorp probably comes from some collection of gulp, gorge, gobble &/or gorge. There’s also the possibility that it came about as a back-formation of gorper, which was an American term used in the 1950s meaning glutton or gulper.
The name artichoke has inspired many a tale of choking caused by undercooked artichokes. These stories make some sense; after all, who came up with the idea that we could boil a thistle for 40 minutes & then eat it? In fact, the word artichoke entered English in the 1500s from the Italian term articiocco. The Italians got the word from Arabic, & simply couldn’t pronounce al-harshuf well enough for it to look or sound much like its former self.
Which of these faux etymologies had you previously heard? Please leave a comment.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Hugh Rawson’s Devious Derivations, OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik
Quotes about food
My two all-time favorite quotation books are Carolyn Warner’s The Words of Extraordinary Women, & Rosalie Maggio’s The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women. It fascinates & saddens me that the brilliant bits between these covers seldom appear in most books of quotations, or internet quotation sites. Here are some food-related quotes from these two fine resources:
Fran Lebowitz – Food is an important part of a balanced diet.
Patricia Hampl – When we eat / we are like / everyone else
Ayn Rand – Ah, there’s nothing like tea in the afternoon. When the British Empire collapses, historians will find that it had made but two invaluable contributions to civilization—this tea ritual and the detective novel.
Erica Jong – Eating is never so simple as hunger.
Fran Lebowitz – Cheese that is required by law to append the word food to its title does not go well with red wine or fruit.
Julia Child – Noodles are not only amusing but delicious.
Sarah J. Hale – There is small danger of being starved in our land of plenty; but the danger of being stuffed is imminent.
Sara Peretsky – All food starting with a p is comfort food . . . pasta, potato chips, pretzels, peanut butter, pastrami, pizza, pastry.
Peg Bracken – Molded salads are best served in situations where they have little or no competition.
Joan Gussow – As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists.
Isak Dinesen – Coffee, according to the women of Denmark, is to the body what the word of the Lord is to the soul.
Which quote hits closest to home? Which one coaxes a smile out of you? Please leave a comment.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: The Words of Extraordinary Women, & The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women.
Cooking & eating idioms
When reading through a list of idioms I can’t keep myself from chuckling. Here’s a list cooking- or eating- related idioms with no notes regarding definitions or origins. I have hopes it will inspire a chuckle or two:
spill the beans
not worth a hill of beans
full of beans
to not know beans
too many cooks spoil the broth
out of the frying pan & into the fire
cry over spilt milk
not one’s cup of tea
done to a T
cook up a storm
cook to perfection
burn to a crisp
grist for the mill
the pot calling the kettle black
to bite off more than one can chew
to bite that hand that feeds one
eat humble pie
eat like a bird
eat like a horse
eat high on the hog
eat one’s hat
eat one’s heart out
eat one’s words
easy as pie
that takes the cake
a piece of cake
icing on the cake
have one’s cake & eat it too
Dear readers – any chuckling? If so, what idiom(s) got you going?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline, & The Idiom Connection
The meals we eat
If the foods we eat have fascinating etymological tales to tell, shouldn’t the labels we give our meals be similarly intriguing?
The noun breakfast showed up in English in the 1400s & is a simple combination of the verb break & the noun fast. It hasn’t changed in meaning over the years, & for centuries has referred to a time when we break our nightlong fast. Breakfast happens to be a tosspot word.
We all know that brunch is a combination of breakfast & lunch, but who knew it was a portmanteau word created by British college students in 1896? Words combined to make a new word are called portmanteau words, a term stolen from a piece of luggage designed with two compartments (apparently one for each of the two contributing words).
Lunch started out as luncheon (originally spelled lunching) in the 1650s, meaning a light repast between mealtimes. Though nobody knows for sure, lunch may have come from:
1. An earlier English term meaning thick piece or hunk
2. A northern English word meaning hunk of bread or cheese
3. A Middle English term, nonechenche which translates to noon drink
The word snack entered English in the 1400s meaning the snap of a dog’s jaw. By the 1550s snack meant a snappish remark. The 1680s brought a new meaning for snack: a share, portion or part. By 1807 snack morphed to mean a mere bite or morsel to eat.
In the 1300s the English borrowed disner from the French in the form of the word dinner. Interestingly, dinner originally meant the first meal of the day, then moved later to mean the noonday meal, & eventually came to timelessly mean the main meal of the day. The lower & middle classes ate this meal near midday, but over time the upper classes commandeered the term dinner to refer to the meal they enjoyed after sunset.
Back in the 1200s the English also borrowed soper (now spelled supper) from the French. This word referred to the last meal of the day, a meal that was seen as lighter & less formal than the midday dinner. Interestingly, the verb sup developed independently on two separate trunks of the etymological tree. From French soper came the verb sup, to eat the evening meal. At the same time the Old High German word sufen, to drink alcohol, grew to become the German supen & Dutch zuipen, meaning to tipple. This term ended up in Old English meaning to take into the mouth with the lips, giving us parallel growth of two completely different roots to end up with surprisingly similar meaning.
In the 1600s dessert showed up in English from the French word desservire, meaning clear the table. So when we indulge in dessert we’re etymologically celebrating the clearing of the previous course from the table.
I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in which we all ate dinner. We shared the understanding that people who mistakenly called dinner supper had their snoots in the air. Followers, how did you look upon these terms in your youth?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, the OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik
Things we eat
The stories behind the names of the things we eat can often be as delicious as the items themselves. Here’s a random sampling from words that made their way into English during the 1700s:
Pumpernickel – this dense, tasty bread is of German origin, as is its name. Oddly, the name pumpernickel referred originally to a coarse, dark, brutish fellow. Etymologists argue over whether the first part is pumper, meaning the noise of a heavy fall, or pumpern, meaning to break wind. The second part is a nickname for the name Nicholas, which interestingly is also equated with goblins, louts & rascals. Etymologists can’t piece together exactly how pumpernickel moved from labeling the louts or farts to labeling the bread, but given the fact that the paler flours tended to be reserved for the wealthy, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine how any generally negative term got applied to a distinctively dark bread.
The sandwich, as many have heard, was named for John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. Some claim the Earl was very fond of gambling – so fond, he often wasn’t willing to put down his cards for events as mundane as meals, so he simply wrapped a hunk of meat in a slice of bread and ate without slowing the game(s). Other historians claim that the inaugural sandwich was most likely eaten at the Earl’s desk as he addressed his many responsibilities in business and politics.
Welsh rabbit is actually a snub directed at the good people of Wales. Typically, Welsh rabbit is melted cheese or cream over toast or crackers. It seems the Welsh were perceived as living on the wrong side of the tracks. The snub suggests that melted cheese over toast was the nearest thing to rabbit the Welsh could afford.
The word chowder has etymologists duking it out. Some claim it heralds from Brittany, where a form of the French word chaud, meaning hot, gave birth to the name for the pot one puts over the fire, the chaudiere, or cauldron. These etymologists claim the “housewives of Brittany” used the term chowder for both the pot & for what they cooked in the pot. Other etymologists stick with the same French roots for the word, but place the word’s birth in Newfoundland in the early Americas.
When we toast someone, we typically don’t raise a piece of heated bread to do so, but to some degree, our ancestors did. In a classy establishment of the 1700s, a tiny piece of spiced toast was placed in the bottom of a glass filled with ale or another beverage. When the glass was raised in honor of someone, the drinker did, indeed, raise the toast.
What food names do you wonder about? Or what might you have to say about the origins noted above? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline, Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins & Wordnik
Never say cold
This week’s post is in honor of my loving wife, Ellen, who introduced my temperature-insensitive self nearly 30 years ago to her unique take on words used to label cooler temperatures.
Nippy she sees as a non-threatening coolishness, one that inspires rosy cheeks & connotes fun & frivolity, yet still requires a sweater. Nippy entered the English language in 1898, & has a vague association with the idiom, “a biting chill in the air.” Nippy comes from the word nip, which came to the language in the 1300s from Germanic sources, meaning to pinch sharply or bite suddenly.
Just down the thermometer on Ellen’s scale of coolness is chilly, a level of coolness that calls for serious layering. Chilly showed up in the 1560s from the noun chill, which came from a Proto-Indo European word meaning cold, through the Old English word ciele or cele. Interestingly, for two centuries, from the 1400s through the 1600s the word chill eclipsed the word cold in English usage. Since the 1600s, cold is most English speakers’ go-to word when the temperature drops.
Next on Ellen’s scale of coolness is brisk, which connotes consistent discomfort & very little hope in sight for warming. Ellen tries to reserve brisk for truly uncomfortable situations. Brisk came to English through Scottish (bruisk) in the 1550s. The Scots got it from the French word brusque which meant lively, fierce, sharp, & tart.
In Ellen’s scale of coolness, the word cold is to be avoided at all costs, as it suggests all hope is lost. For academic purposes, I have included this ever-so-sad & hope-sucking word. Read on if you are strong. Cold comes from Germanic sources (cald, ceald, kalt, kaldr, kalds, & more) and appeared in English in the 900s. These words came from the Proto-Indo-European word gel- or gol-, which through other branches of the etymological tree gave birth to gelatin, glass & glacier.
Some cold idioms include:
Catch cold - 1200s
Cold-blooded - 1590s
Cold-hearted - 1600
Cold shoulder - 1816
Cold feet - 1893
Cold turkey - 1910
Cold war - 1945
Also of interest, the word cool once had the form coolth. For reasons unknown, though warm held onto the alternate form warmth, cool lost its alternate form coolth.
What have you to say about Ellen’s scale of coolness? Or about any of the words above?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, the OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik
Though William Shakespeare often gets credit for coining the word tosspot, its first recorded use was in 1568, when Shakespeare was a mere four years old. The word means a lush, a drunkard or fool & hearkens back to the day when folk drank their ale or mead from pots. It seems a tosspot tossed back his or her pot, and was known for doing so a little too often.
A more delicious usage of tosspot is discussed in the comments section of Anu Garg’s amazing AWAD (A Word A Day) listserv, in which Gregory M. Harris mentions the phenomenon of the tosspot word.
Tosspot words are compound words built of a verb, then a noun, in that order. Some examples include:
Big thanks to Gregory M. Harris who made the AWAD comment that got me interested in this phenomenon & inspired some happy pondering.
In the comments section, please propose other tosspot words to lengthen the list, or argue for why a word on the list doesn’t belong there, or...
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Librarian’s Muse, Etymonline. Sign Specialist, & A Word A Day
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.
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