We use them every day, but do we appreciate their etymologies? Hopefully this entry will help.
The word spoon originated in Proto-Germanic as spaenuz, which initially referred to a wooden chip or shaving. It entered Old English as spon. By the 1300s, spon began to mean wooden spoon, though its German cousin (also spelled spon), meant cooking spatula.
Fork came to the language before the 1300s in the form of forca, & meant a forked instrument used by torturers. This word came from the Latin word, furca, which meant both pitchfork, & fork used in cooking. Since English folk didn’t start eating with forks until the 1400s, the English apparently found unsavory things to do with forks.
Knife has a somewhat two-pronged entry into English (har har). Knife may have entered Old English as cnif from the Old Norse word, cnifr, which came from the Old German word knibaz. These words all referred to some sort of blade. The Dutch word knijp, German, kneip, or French canif, all referring to a small blade like a penknife, may have also spawned the English word, knife. Hardworking linguists are still puzzling over which came first, the knife or the, well, the knife.
Here are some utensil-inspired idioms:
1799 spoon (meaning simpleton)
1801 to be born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth
1831 fork up / fork out / fork over
I’ve intentionally left out several utensil-inspired idioms in hopes that you might suggest some in the comments section. After all, I wouldn’t want to spoonfeed you.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik,, Etymonline,
Awesome has not always been cool waves, stunning sunsets & killer concerts. Its root, awe, started out on the dark side.
Awe came from the Proto-Indo-European word agh-es, which grew into the Gothic word agis, fear or anguish, & its German cousin agiso, fright or terror. Awe entered Old English as ege, simply meaning fear. By the 1300s it had become aghe. Three centuries later, the gents who pulled together the King James Bible used awe to mean fear mixed with veneration, & it is those gents we can thank for awesome’s positive makeover.
Kevin Lawver, founder of Day of Awesmoness, tells us “People are awesome every day, but they frequently don't realize it, and their feats of awesomeness are rarely recognized.”
Join in on the fun. Go out into the world & be awesome.
But before you engage in your own brand of awesomnosity, please visit the comment section, & indulge me by explaining one positive action you’ll take this week to increase the general level of awesomeness in the world.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik,, Etymonline, & Day of Awesomeness
I’ve always had a somewhat twisted fondness for author, poet & critic, Dorothy Parker (1893-1967). Generally, I try to see the silver lining, take the high road, and all that. However, when it comes to searingly mean wit of Dorothy Parker, I throw silver linings & half-full glasses to the winds & revel in her wickedness. Below are some of my favorite Dorothy Parkerisms.
“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
“Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”
“She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
“By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing.
And he vows his passion is,
Lady make note of this --
One of you is lying.”
“That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can't say 'No' in any of them.”
“If all the girls attending [the Yale prom] were laid end to end, I wouldn't be at all surprised.”
“That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”
She’s the best (or would that be the worst?) I hope you’ll leave a comment or three.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources Women’s History, GoodReads & DorothyParker.com
The Sanskrit word smarati, or remember, is the grandmother of many words. Here are a few.
The word memory came to English in the 1300s, from the French word memoire, which came from the Latin word memoria, all meaning pretty much the same thing. And memoria came about after the Sanskrit word, smarati made its convoluted way across a continent, through Proto-Indo-European, losing its last two syllables, shifting a vowel from a to e, to become smer, then losing its initial consonant to become mer.
It’s pretty easy to see the resemblance between memory, memoir & remember, but smarati also managed to be the impetus for the word mourn, which - through early Germanic languages - meant to remember sorrowfully.
Though not all etymologists agree, it’s very likely smarati is the unlikely root for tirade. It seems tirade, which appeared in English in the early 1800s, from French, initially meant a volley of words, which comes from the Old French, martirer, to endure martyrdom. Isn’t it delicious that putting up with a verbal tirade is etymologically equated with being burned at the stake?
Of course, the word martyr also originated with the Sanskrit smarati, as did the even more unlikely word, retire. It seems reasonable that retire would have something to do with being tired, however, there appears to be no etymological support for that. Instead, retire entered English in the 1530s as a military term, to withdraw to some place for the sake of seclusion, which came from the Old French tirer, which has its roots in that wonderful grandmother of a Sanskrit word, smarati, who, let’s hope – after all that good work – has finally withdrawn somewhere for the sake of seclusion.
Followers – have any of you felt martyred to someone’s tirade? Do any of you take heart that the root of mourn is more fundamentally about remembering than it is about sadness? Any other thoughts about smarati & its offspring?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources Merriam Webster, the OED & Etymonline
How is it that getting socked can be such a bad thing, but getting socks can be pretty great (as long as Aunt Tildy didn’t pick them out).
The verb of the violent nature showed up in English in 1700, meaning to beat or hit. Nobody seems to know its source, but 1700s documents are rife with the word. By 1877 the term sock it to someone had caught on, which appears to be the beginnings of the 1970s phrase, sock it to me.
The socks we wear on our feet entered Old English from Latin through Germanic languages. In Old English a socc was a light slipper. Though medieval royalty wore woven silk socks, it wasn’t until the 1400s when William Lee invented the knitting machine that knitted socks worn inside of shoes became popular for the less-than-royal.
Socks figure highly in any number of idioms & terms:
Bless his/her cotton socks (1800s)
To knock the socks off someone (1845)
To stuff a sock in it / put a sock in it (1919) (though not proven, some believe this idiom came about because there were no volume controls on early Victrolas)
The windsock (1929)
To be socked in (1940s)
To sock money away (1942)
The sock hop (1950)
Also, in 1830 some unrecognized American combined sock with the essence of finality suggested by a doxology, creating the word sockdology, a decisive & final blow. Ironically, the word sockdolagising, from Tom Taylor’s play, Our American Cousin may have been one of the last words heard by Abraham Lincoln. Just as the line was spoken, Booth’s shot rang out. A decisive & final blow indeed.
Dear followers, are there any of these idioms you hadn’t previously heard? Any thoughts about socks, whether Aunt Tildy chose them out or not?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Phrase Finder, The Lonely Sock, Sima Lixia, & Etymonline
Fellow word nerds will understand the following introduction. I apologize to those who can’t possibly imagine using one’s time & effort in such a manner.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve “known” that the wonderful word fastidious had to be closely related to the word tidy.
To my complete astonishment, these two words aren’t even kissing cousins.
Fastidious came into English in the 1500s from the Latin word, fastidiosus, which meant disdainful, squeamish & exacting. This appears to have come from the Latin term, fastu-taidiom,which is constructed of fastus, contempt or arrogance, and taedium, aversion or disgust. By the 1600s, the squeamish part of the word’s meaning took over & the word shifted to mean squeamish, overly nice, & difficult to please when it comes to matters of taste. From there, it morphed to its modern meaning, concerned about matters of cleanliness, accuracy & detail. Who knew?
Tidy, on the other hand, is constructed of tide + y. It entered English in the 1300s, meaning timely, opportune, in-season, or excellent (we see its relatives in the term yuletide). By the 1700s tidy’s meaning had become more focused, meaning neat & in order. By the early 1800s, tidy earned a sibling verb, to titivate, which we modern speakers supplant with terms like tidy up.
Other tidy-like words include natty, which entered English in 1785, meaning neat, smart & tidy, from the Middle English word, net, meaning pure, fine or elegant. Then there’s neatnik, which showed up around 1959, based on the word neat, which came to English in the 1540s, meaning clean or free from dirt. Neat came through French from the Latin word, nitidus, meaning well-favored, elegant, trim, & gleaming.
Are you a neatnik, a tidy person, or possibly fastidious (in its modern sense, of course)? Or are you a complete non-neatnik? And how many of you word nerds out there also mistakenly assumed a relationship between tidy & fastidious? Come on, I’ve ‘fessed up. You can, too.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.
Lois Lowry’s The Giver is a fantastic teen/middle grade read, & has been since it showed up in 1994. In 2013, the final book in The Giver Quartet appeared, titled Son. This fourth book offers an intriguing look into the wonders & challenges of love.
For this week’s post, we’ll take a look at the etymologies of the words Lowry used for her titles in The Giver Quartet books: The Giver, Gathering Blue, The Messenger, & Son.
The word give came to Old English as giefan, to give, bestow, allot, grant, commit, devote or entrust. It has close relatives in Old Frisian, Dutch, German & Gothic, & all those find their roots in the Proto-Indo-European word ghabh-, to take hold, have, or give. That same root spawned the word habit.
The word gathering entered English in the 1100s, as gaderung & meant meeting. It came from the Old English verb, gaedrian, to unite, agree, gather, collect, or store up. It’s related to German, Dutch, Old Frisian & Gothic words with these meanings: unite, husband, spouse, fellow, & join.
Messenger came to English as messager from Old French about 1200, meaning envoy, ambassador or messenger. Linguists call the n that showed up two centuries later parasitic, as it showed up “for no apparent reason except that people liked to say it that way.” Interestingly, the noun message was derived from the verb messager, appearing in the 1300s, meaning communication transferred via a messenger. Messenger is related through its French grandmother & Latin great grandmother to transmit, mission, emissary, & submit.
Had Lowry’s fourth book, Son, been published in Old English, it would have been titled Sunu, meaning – what a surprise – son. Other Germanic language brothers of son include sonr, zoon, sone, sunuz, sohn & sunus. All of these words herald from the Sanskrit verb su, to give birth.
Fellow writers, what can you pull out of these etymologies that you would hope for your own work? Fellow readers, what do you find in these etymologies that you look for in your Next Great Read? Please let us all know in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, Merriam-Webster, & Etymonline.
These days there's a steaming heap of reasons to be pondering the word justice, so here's a justice-related comment to ponder from Dr. King.
“Power at its best is love implementing
the demands of justice,
and justice at its best is power correcting
that stands against love.”
In my humble opinion, a measure of the elegance of that thought is the focus on assessing the best of both attributes, but I digress.
The word justice appeared in English in the 1100s. It came through Old French, from the Latin noun iustitia, meaning, righteousness or equity. Most early English uses of the word applied to a person playing the role of judge, much as we might use the term today to refer to members of the Supreme Court. It wasn’t until the late 1300s that the meaning equity became popular.
The word justice has relations in Old French, Latin & English in the words juste, iustus & just. Some of their shades of meaning include:
righteous in the eyes of God,
Ponder justice a tad, then please leave a thought in the comments section. Comment on the quote, or mention some injustice that needs addressing in this world of ours, or better yet, explain some actions you are involved in which promote justice.
My thanks go out to Sharif Ezzat for the image of Dr. King & to this week’s sources The OED, Write Spirit & Etymonline.
So when did things get funky, cool & groovy?
Cool entered English as col, some time before 1100, referring to temperatures that were neither cold nor warm as well as unperturbed or undemonstrative individuals. By 1728 English speakers began to apply cool to large sums of money, & by 1825 cool also meant calmly audacious. That meaning took another century to ooze into meaning fashionable. By the 1940s, jazz musicians got hold of cool. After a bit of time referring to a particular sort of jazz, cool simply became a general term of approval.
Similarly, groovy started out with a literal meaning. Groovy was used in the mid-1800s to mean pertaining to a groove. Like cool, groovy got into the hands of those 1930s jazz musicians, morphing from in the groove, which referred to a musician playing expertly without grandstanding, to groovy. By the 1940s it began to mean wonderful. Our friends at the OED tell us that some time during the 1980s the word groovy went “out of currency.”
Funky has a more complicated history than either cool or groovy. It may have started in several different manners. Evidence suggests that one usage stems from the French word for smoke, funkiere, which may have entered English as early as the 1620s. It also seems funky may have originated at Oxford University in the 1600s, meaning agitation, perturbation or distress, from the Flemish word fonck. Another possible origin is the Old French word funicle, meaning wild or mad. Whether all three strands somehow braided themselves together, or whether only one is the true origin, funky gained general use in English during the 1700s, meaning depressed. This meaning still exists in the phrase he’s in a funk. And, just to confuse things, more etymological evidence shows a fourth strand of funky showing up in 1784 in reference to stinky cheese, & a fifth strand from Kikongo, a language of Zaire & its environs. This word, lu-fuki referred to bad body odor. By the early 1900s, all this funkiness managed to get itself a more positive flavor, thanks to – you guessed it – jazz musicians, who applied it to music that seemed earthy, strong & deeply felt.
Think of all we owe to jazz musicians.
Has groovy truly died & gone to word heaven, or is it still alive? Will cool & funky live long lives, or are they soon to go “out of currency”? And for what else should we be thanking jazz musicians?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, English Language & Usage, & Etymonline.
Though nifty, swell & spiffy sound like words from the last century or so, it appears they've been around for a while.
Swell in its noun form came into English in the 1200s. Though it appears to have Germanic roots, no direct line can be found. Swell’s origin is a mystery. Initially, swell meant a morbid swelling. Swell showed up just in time to get lots of use during the Black Death. By the 1600s, swell also referred to a rise in the sea, and by the 1780s it picked up the meaning, an elegant, wealthy person, due to perceived “puffed up, pompous behavior” of the elegant & wealthy. A brief fifty years later the noun slid sideways into the world of adjectives & began to mean fashionably dressed. In the late 1700s, that “puffed up” flavor of swell began applying itself to writing or speaking, & came to mean an inflated style of language. By the time the century turned, swell shifted again to mean good or excellent. In 1930s America it took another sideways slide into the world of interjections, becoming understandable all by itself in a sentence as a “stand alone expression of satisfaction.”
Nifty made its way into English in 1868, with two posited, yet questionable origins. Some etymologists believe nifty came from the theater crowd, but have little evidence to support this. Most etymologists also doubt the origin story offered by Bret Harte when asked about nifty’s appearance in his writing. He claimed nifty was an abbreviation of magnificat. Still, nobody knows.
In 1853 spiffy appeared in English, also with no known origin, though it appeared about the same time as another word with no apparent source, spiff, a well-dressed gentleman. By the 1870s, the term spiffing became popular, meaning excellent. To confuse matters, there’s no apparent relationship to the noun spiff, a term used in the draper’s trade, meaning the percentage owed a salesman who sells outdated or undesirable stock. The same is said of the verb to spiflicate, which means to confound, & may just be a word we need to bring back to popular usage.
Followers, please leave a comment. In this modern age are we suffering from the confusion that anything swelled up is a good thing? On another note, why do you suppose spiffy, swell & nifty all have questionable beginnings? More importantly, are spiffy, swell & nifty still alive & thriving, or do they only spiflicate modern English listeners?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, English Language & Usage, & 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.