The word big appears in many idioms. Here are a few.
Back in the 1600s, Louis XIII went bald. Bummer for him, as folks of the time believed a hirsute man was a powerful man. His answer to his problem was to wear a wig. Soon, wigs became tres cool in court. They grew and grew in importance & sheer mass. In time, the most glorious wigs required internal scaffolding (I don’t make these things up). Of course, only the wealthiest & most powerful could afford the most absurdly tall wigs. By the time the 1700s came along, the high & mighty became known as big wigs or bigwigs.
The big cheese didn’t get big until it crossed the pond in 1910. Previous to that (in merry old England), the word cheese was used to mean the best or first rate, (though in recent times cheese & cheesy have come to mean the opposite) But the idiom meant first rate when it arrived in the USA. By the 1920s, the big cheese shifted to mean the boss or the important person.
On a related note, a person who thinks highly of him/herself is said to have a big head. This idiom meaning conceited appeared in 1850.
The idiom big band came about in 1926 and doesn’t refer to the size of the band as much as the sort of music the band in question plays. Typically, a big band consists of one to two dozen instrumentalists (& sometimes a vocalist or two) playing swing music of the 1930s and 1940s.
Since the 1800s, important issues have been big deals & it's been possible to feel like a big fish in a small pond. People who talk a lot have been big mouths since 1889, and big business is a term we’ve been using since 1905. Since 1909 we’ve called New York the Big Apple, though it took until 1970 for New Orleans to become the Big Easy. People have been able to mess up big time or make the big time since 1910, a prison or jail has been the big house since 1915, & we’ve had big shots since 1929. The idiom Big Brother was born in 1949, big bang came about in 1950, & big ticket showed up in 1956.
It’s a big world out there, folks! Here’s hoping you’ve got something to say about all this bigness. If so, please do so in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: phrase finder, etymonline.com, the OED, & wordnik.com.
It's the holiday season, so here are a few Yule-related etymologies.
The word yule showed up in Old English from Old Norse long before anyone was writing down English or Norse. Yule originally referred to a two-month spate of Pre-Christian winter festivities some might refer to as heathen or pagan. Interestingly, nobody’s sure where the Old Norse got the word yule, but we do know it’s related to another winter-associated word, jolly.
The word egg-nog appeared in American English in the 1770s, a combination of egg & nog, the latter showing up in the 1690s & referring initially to a strong, old beer brewed in Norfolk. Then there is egg. The chicken-duck-or-goose sort of egg first entered the language in the mid-1300s from an Old Norse word that probably referred to birds &/or bird eggs. However, earlier than that, back in the 1200s, the Old Norse verb, egg, entered the English language, meaning to goad or incite. This fact poses the question of whether egg-nog was originally more about whipping eggs into beer or goading one’s compatriots into drinking more.
When the word wreath came to Old English it originally translated to that which is wound around. Wreath has some intriguing linguistic brethren: an Old High German word meaning twisted, a Frisian & an Old Norse word meaning angry, & a Dutch word meaning rough, harsh & cruel. All these came from a Proto-Indo European word meaning to twist or bend. It wasn’t until the 1560s that wreath meant a garland of flowers or greenery.
The Proto-Germanic word for basil or mistletoe (as if basil is anything like mistletoe) made its way into Old English, where it was combined with a word meaning twig to become our modern word mistletoe. Druids were big fans of hanging mistletoe in celebration of their winter rites, & as Christianity spread, the practice continued. We typically don’t discuss the Druids’ activities under the mistletoe, but the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe appears to have established itself sometime in the 1800s.
The word menorah entered the English language in 1886. It came from a Hebrew verb meaning to give light, to shine. Menorah shares a Semitic root with minaret, which appeared in English in the 1680s from Arabic through Turkish & French.
And two yule-related words we don’t typically associate with eating came from words referring to either the act of eating or the food itself. Creche made its way into English in 1892 from Old High German through Old French. In Old French, creche meant a crib, manger, or stall, but creche’s source word (the Old High German one) referred to the fodder the critters ate while in a crib, stall or manger — their food. Speaking of manger, in the 1300s the French word mangier, meaning to eat, gave birth to the English word manger in much the same way. Once more, critters in a manger eat.
And though most of us would rather not think about it, when truly little critters of the mite variety munch away on the larger critters in the manger, we employ another word based on the French verb to eat — mange!
May your holiday festivities be grand. Please leave any comments int he comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, etymonline.com, the OED, & wordnik.com.
Words o' the season
Recently, controversy has erupted regarding the use of merry Christmas vs. happy holidays. Though the controversy is intriguing, I find myself etymologically interested in the difference between wishing someone a merry time vs. wishing that same someone a happy time.
Merry made its way into Old English before records of such things were kept. Merry meant agreeable, sweet, pleasant or melodious. Merry’s source was a Proto-Germanic word meaning brief. Yes, brief. Some argue the connection came through the idea that happiness is fleeting, therefore merriness is also fleeting. Others argue a connection to the thinking behind the idiom time flies when you’re having fun or the idea that one enjoys one’s pastime in brief jots between sessions of getting more important work done. During Middle English, merry broadened its meanings to include fine, handsome, pleasant-sounding, & pleasant-tasting.
Happy made its way into the language in the late 1300s. It originally meant lucky, favored by fortune, prosperous, or turning out well. These meanings morphed within the century to very glad, which grew in the following century to mean pleased & content.
Blessed is another adjective we hear over the holidays. The adjective form showed up in English in the 1200s, initially meaning both supremely happy & consecrated. Blessed came from the verb bless, which seems to have been a part of Old English from the start, initially meaning to consecrate, make holy or give thanks. The verb bless has what to the modern sensibility seems an undignified beginning. It came from a Proto-Germanic word, meaning to hallow or mark with blood. Those who first translated the English Bible appear to have chosen this word in an attempt to make the newly arriving Christian religion feel familiar.
Joy is another word we see & hear at the holidays. Joy appeared in English in the 1200s meaning a feeling of pleasure & delight. It came through the French word joie, which meant delight, bliss, joyfulness (& was also used to refer to erotic pleasure). The French word came from a Latin word meaning expressions of pleasure or sensual delight. The Latin word’s source — the grandmother word of all this joy -- was a Proto-Indo-European word meaning rejoice, which throws some light on how those Latin-&-French speaking folks might have been rejoicing.
Whether you wish your friends & family happiness or merriment may the season find you experiencing whatever sort of joy, blessedness, happiness or merriment appeals most to you.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, etymonline.com, the OED, & wordnik.com.
From sound to silence
Our modern word sound comes to us from three sources.
These first five meanings of the word sound started in Latin, then bounced around between Old French and Old English before finding themselves in Modern English.
As a noun, sound can mean:
-sensation sensed through the ear
As a verb, sound can mean:
-to be audible
-to cause an instrument to make sound
-to measure the depth of
The noun meaning a narrow channel or body of water didn't come from Latin at all. It came from the Old Norse word sund, which meant both swimming & strait.
The adjective form of sound meaning free from defect or injury came from an Old English word meaning safe, or having all faculties. This word was gesund, which, as you might have guessed, made its way into German to become gesundheit.
The term safe & sound showed up in the late 1400s. Sound-proof was born in 1853, ultrasound came about in 1911, sound barrier in 1939, sound effects in 1909, & sound check in 1977.
And the absence of sound is silence, a word that appeared in English in the 1200s from an unknown source through Latin & Old French.
Some silence-inspired meanings, words & idioms include:
-A Victorian idiom meaning the dead (1874)
-silencer - the mechanism that stifles the noise made by a firearm (1898)
-the strong silent type (1905)
-silent films (1914)
-the silent majority (1955)
And these two words together lead folks of a particular age to think of Paul Simon, whose “words like silent raindrops fell” in his 1965 hit song, “The Sound of Silence”.
As always, feel free to speak your mind in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline, biography.com, & the OED.
All from the bard
Recent events have inspired politicians, pundits, and folks on the street to speak – shall we say – idiomatically. Any number of the printable idioms I’m hearing recently have been borrowed from William Shakespeare. Here’s to appreciating a brief sample:
“In a pickle”
from The Tempest
“Set your teeth on edge”
from Henry IV & The Winter’s Tale
“Not slept one wink”
“Makes your hair stand on end”
“The world is my oyster”
(Actually, the original was, “The world’s mine oyster”)
“Brave new world”
From The Tempest
“What’s done is done”
May all your idioms be as well-tested.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: An English Muse, MIT’s Complete Works of Shakespeare.
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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