There are some great words out there for those moments when one feels as though death is dragging its bony finger up one’s spine. Here are a few.
Comments like, “that man gives me the willies,” were favorites of my great grandmother, Sally Rather King. This usage of willies (unlike other forms which beg for another post) came about in 1896 (a decade or two after my great grandmother was born) & is believed to have come from an earlier idiom, to give one the woolies, which was most likely a reference to the feeling of itchy wool on the skin.
The Middle English word chittern, to chitter or chatter, gave birth to the modern term the jitters, which is defined as extreme nervousness. This particular form of the word jitter didn’t enter English until 1925.
Whimwham (or wimwam) most likely came from the Old Norse term hvima, to let the eyes wander, or the related Norwegian word kvima, to flutter. In modern usage, whimwham means both a fanciful object & the jitters. The second meaning generally occurs within the phrase a case of the whimwhams.
Those of us who regularly experience the jitters, whimwhams, or willies might be labeled lily-livered, a term born in 1625 in the play Macbeth, by the ultimate coiner of words, William Shakespeare.
Then, of course, there are the heebie-jeebies. Many modern speakers of English assume that beneath the heebie-jeebies lurks anti-Semitism. This assumption is unfounded. The term heebie-jeebies was coined in 1923 by Bill De Beck, cartoonist of the comic strip “Barney Google,” and when it comes to that particular prejudice, De Beck’s work seems squeaky clean.
So folks, do all these drag-a-finger-up-the-spine words give you the heebie-jeebies, or would you rather leave a comment noting experiences you’ve had which inspire a raging case of the whimwhams?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik, The Word Detective, & Etymonline,
Boondocks came to English in 1910 from the Tagalog word bundok, meaning mountain. American soldiers (who were occupying the Philippines at the time), brought it home to America, though in the process, the meaning morphed from mountain to any remote & wild place. By 1964, we had shortened boondocks to boonies.
Hinterland (or hinterlands) showed up in English in 1890 from German, -land meaning, well, land, & hinter- meaning behind (as in hind, behind, & hindmost). Interestingly, as far back as the 1300s, hinder had made its way into Middle English. One of the hinder-related words we’ve lost over time is the word hinderling, meaning a person who has fallen from moral or social respectability,
Though stick (in the form of stician) has been a part of the language since folks spoke Old English, the boondocks meaning of the sticks didn’t show up until 1905.
Those Old English speakers also used the word wildnis, which has changed over the centuries to wilderness. It was initially an adjective meaning wildness & savageness, though along the way it took on a nounly mantle.
Another modern synonym is the idiom the middle of nowhere. I’ve been unsuccessful at finding when this idiom entered the language, but along the way I learned that nowhere had some siblings who didn’t last as long. Nowhat made a stab at existing in the 1520s & nowhen fought for its life unsuccessfully in 1764.
As a kid I was flummoxed at the term desert island because it seemed to me it always meant something closer to deserted island. Mystery solved: the word desert entered English from French in the early 1200s, meaning wasteland or wilderness. It wasn’t until a century later that desert started meaning treeless, waterless region, which, arguably, could also be a wasteland, or the sticks, or the boondocks, or…
What other terms do you know that refer to distant, remote places? Or might you have something to say about all this? I hope you’ll leave a comment.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Merriam Webster, Wordnik & Etymonline,
Most of us do it every day, but do we think about the word? Here's a gander at the verb chew.
Not surprisingly, our modern word chew started out meaning to bite, gnaw or chew when it made its way from one of the Germanic languages into Old English, where it was spelled ceowan.
Both chow (1500s) & chaw (1520) are variants of the word chew. It’s also very likely that jaw (1300s), jowl (1570) and cheek (825) were born of that Old English word ceowan.
In other chew-related news, the Proto-Indo-European word mendh- which became the Latin word mandele, meaning to chew, gave birth to mandible, munch, mastic, masticate, mustache, paper maché & mange (a tiny bit of mildly disturbing imagination will help connect those dots).
Ruminate entered English in the 1530s, from Latin, meaning to chew the cud or turn over in the mind.
Champ, which came to English in 1905, meaning to chew noisily, is probably onomatopoeic in origin.
English is rife with chew-inspired idioms, including:
Chew someone out
Chew the fat
Chew something over
Chew something up
Bite off more than one can chew
Chew away at something
Chew one’s cud
Chew one’s tobacco
Mad enough to chew nails (in my neighborhood, we spat nails in lieu of chewing them)
I hope this post has given you something on which to chew. If so, please let me know what you’re thinking in the comment section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Free Dictionary, Collins Dictionary, Merriam Webster, & Etymonline,
We walk on them all the time, but do we ever take the time to think of their etymologies?
The word carpet made its way into English in the 1200s, meaning coarse cloth, tablecloth or bedspread. It entered English from the Old French word carpite, which referred to heavy, decorated cloth. This came from the Medieval Latin word carpite, which began with the word carpere, to card or to pluck. This most likely had to do with the fact that wool, cotton, and other weaving materials required some sort of plucking before they could be wrassled into threads or yarn, and then woven into cloth.
It wasn’t until the 1400s that carpets clearly belonged on floors.
Oddly, rugs didn’t start on the floor either. The word rug entered English in the 1550s, from Norwegian rugga, meaning coarse fabric or coverlet to drape over furniture. It took until the 1800s for rugs to land soundly on the floor.
Some rug & carpet tidbits:
Though nobody’s sure when the term roll out the red carpetbecame popular, the custom of rolling out a red carpet to celebrate royalty or popularity appears to have begun in ancient Greek myth when Clytaemnestra rolled one out for Agamemnon.
1769 to be snug as a bug in a rug
1823 to be called on the carpet
1940 theatre slang labeled a toupee a rug
1942 to cut a rug
1953 to sweep something under the carpet
1968 the word rugrat was born
So, good followers, what rug- or carpet-related thoughts do you have?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline,
For years now I’ve been laughingly referring to myself as a minion. I'm a minion at the local Food Bank, a minion at the Central Coast Writing Conference, & a minion for the Central/Coastal California Region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
In my California baby-boomer upbringing, I understood that a minion was a devoted helper – usually of some nefarious villain. Nefarious villains aside, I’ve always had an affinity for the word. Imagine my surprise upon discovering that minion has a myriad of deliciously disparate meanings.
The OED devotes two thirds of a page to minion, which appeared first in English about the year 1500. Though most etymologists believe it came from the Old High German word minnja or minna, meaning love, others put its source in the Celtic combining form, min- or small, which was borrowed from Latin. The OED’s definitions (slightly abbreviated) for minion include:
a. a beloved object, darling or favorite
b. a lover, lady-love, mistress or paramour
c. a dearest friend or favorite child, servant or animal
d. one who owes everything to his patron’s favor & is ready to purchase its continuance by base compliances
e. a form of address, meaning darling or dear one
f. a hussy, jade, servile creature or slave
g. a gallant, an exquisite
h. an adjective meaning dainty, fine, elegant, pretty or neat
The last few OED meanings are really out there.
a. a small kind of ordnance
b. a type of peach
c. a type of lettuce
d. a typesetter’s term identifying a medium-size font
Some non-OED definitions compiled by the wonderful folks at Wordnik include:
a. an obsequious follower or sycophant
b. a pert or saucy girl or woman
c. a loyal servant of a powerful being
Good followers, I will keep my theories to myself in hopes that you will spout forth your own. How did this one simple word end up being its own antonym in multiple ways? And what’s up with the lettuce, anyway?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, Etymonline,
Who knew the unassuming word napkin was part of such a large, disparate family?
Napkin entered English in the 1400s from the Old French word nape, cloth cover, towel, or tablecloth, combined with the Middle English suffix –kin, meaning little. The French got the root from the Latin word mappa, short for the Medieval Latin term mappa mundi, map of the world. The somewhat unlikely connection apparently derives from the fact that at that time maps were often drawn on tablecloths (I find no connection to the word divorce, though I imagine this map-on-a-tablecloth practice led to some robust interspousal arguments).
So, napkin is related to map.
In the late 1400s, mappa’s brother-word mappe made its way into English, meaning bundle of yarn tied to a stick for cleaning tar from a ship’s deck. Over the years this word morphed into mop.
Another unlikely sibling of napkin is moppet, which came to English about the same time in the form of moppe, meaning little child, or baby doll, which, in time picked up the diminutive suffix, -et. When it first entered English it also meant simpleton or fool. This other meaning dropped out within a century or two. Etymologists are pretty sure the little child or baby doll meaning came through the use of recycling napkins & tablecloths into rag dolls (no doubt after some unthinking spouse had drawn maps all over them).
Another napkin relative comes from the Latin word mappa, through the Old French word, naperon, or small table cloth. It entered English in the 1300s as Napron, though today we know it as apron. Over the course of three centuries, napron lost its initial n due to confusion around the use of the English article an: “a napron” sounds about the same as “an apron.” Voila! The mystery of the disappearing n is solved.
Another relative of napkin is probably due to an early 1700s London dry-goods dealer by the name of Doiley. Apparently s/he produced a wool product known as a doily-napkin. Over time, the doily-napkin shed its surname and became simply, the doily.
Good followers, I challenge you to come up with a ridiculous sentence using as many napkin-related words as possible. Leave your sentence in the comments section & we’ll all get a good laugh.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, 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.