English boasts some wonderful words having to do with complaints.
The word whine has been with us since English became English. In Old English it had two uses: to refer to arrows as they hissed or whistled through the air, & to refer to a dog’s whines (an imitative word). In 1520 whine added the meaning to complain in a feeble or annoying fashion.
The same Old English roots gave us the word whinge, to complain peevishly. A British dialectical term born in the 1500s, whinge has made its way across the Pond. I hope others appreciate its trans-Atlantic voyage as much as I do.
Beginning in 1888 in England a complaint could be referred to as a beef. Etymologists suggest this probably came from British soldiers’ complaints regarding the mystery meat their superiors were claiming was beef.
The term belly-ache, meaning stomach pain, appeared in the 1590s. It picked up the figurative meaning to complain in 1888. Interestingly, the first recorded uses of belly-ache in America reflected the figurative meaning of the term.
In 1825 an English word meaning to gnaw came into use. Within only three years it picked up the meaning to complain. This word is nag, which appears to have come from a Scandinavian source. It seems to have no etymological relationship to the word nag meaning old horse, which came from Dutch.
The English verb kvetch, to complain, made its way to us in 1953 (the noun, meaning a chronic complainer arrived before that in 1936). The original literal Yiddish verb’s meaning was to squeeze or press.
I’m hoping you’ve got something to say about all these kvetch-worthy words. If so, please leave a note in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster & the OED
Humbug & countless words in the language come from who-knows-where. And it seems many of them have to do with the actions of difficult people. Here are a few words that fit in both categories.
Humbug, meaning trick, jest, hoax or deception, appeared in English in the 1750s & became instantly popular – nearly as popular as the numerous wild theories as to humbug’s origin. It continues to vex etymologists, as the puzzle remains unanswered, though speculation has been going on since the word’s arrival in the language,
The verb, to carp, entered English in the early 1200s probably from an Old Norse word meaning to brag. Though its present meaning may have been influenced centuries ago by the Latin word carpere, to slander, this hasn’t been proven just yet, so our modern verb carp is officially of unknown origin.
Another verb to crab, meaning to vex or irritate, showed up in English in the 1400s. Though it may have its roots in the Swedish word scrab, meaning bad-tempered, the origin of scrab is a mystery to etymologists.
The verb, to beef, showed up in the 1880s, meaning to complain, from the noun beef, meaning a complaint, which appeared in that same decade. Though the hypothesis has been floated that both these meanings stem from soldiers lodging complaints about the quality of the beef they were served, it remains a hypothesis, & nobody knows for sure.
Tantrum entered the language in 1714. Its source is almost universally considered unknown, though a contributor at English Language & Usage suggests possible connections to the prankish capering involved in something called the tarantula dance. This same contributor also dug up a 1675 usage (not recognized in most etymological sources) in which tantrum clearly refers to the male organ. All this goes to prove that day and night, hard-working etymologists are mining the circuitous & oddly fascinating depths of word history.
What other words do we use to describe the actions or nature of difficult people? Leave some suggestions in the comments section.
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.
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