The word dirt came to English through Middle English (drit or drytt, which meant mud, dirt or dung) originating in the Norse word, drit. Back in the 1300s it was also used figuratively to make fun of people. The word dirty was born some two centuries later (originally dritty to match its Middle English kin). Though dirty originally meant muddy, dirty or dung-covered, by the 1590s it had grown to also mean smutty or morally unclean.
When compared with its synonym soil, dirt is one of the myriad words that reflects a prejudice against Germanic, Anglo-Saxon & Norse terms in favor of Latin and Greek (due in part to the events following the Battle of Hastings). We English speakers generally consider soil (from the Latin word solium or solum) to be a classier person’s term for that lowly, horrible word dirt. I have a fascination with this prejudice & expound on it here.
But, back to dirt.
In the 1670s, English speakers could pull dirty tricks on one another.
By 1764, we could ask someone to do our dirty work.
By 1821 the term dirt cheap was born.
In the 1850s the mining trade gave us the literal term paydirt. By 1873 that term had become figurative, meaning profit or success.
It wasn’t until 1926 that dirt picked up the meaning gossip, This usage was introduced by none other than Ernest Hemingway.
Though dirty looks have been going on for centuries, we didn’t call them that until 1926.
And in 1932 the term dirty old man was born, to be artfully portrayed by Arte Johnson as Tyrone F. Horneigh a mere 40 years later.
Please, good followers, leave a thought regarding Tyrone F. Horneigh & his unrequited love for Gladys Ormphby, or maybe say something about dirt.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Collins Dictionary, the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.
As the holidays approach, we're all more likely than usual to be indulging in favorite dishes. So here's a look into the word dish.
Dish occupies about one full page of the print version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Dish first appeared in Old English as early as 700 AD, meaning disk, plate or table. The disk or plate meaning came from Vulgar Latin, while the table meaning came through an early Italian or French dialect.
By the mid-1400s dish could refer to a type of food served, as in “Elton brought the most peculiar dish to Gliselda’s holiday bash.”
Around that same time the verb form appeared, meaning to serve food. We see vestiges of this form in the modern idiom to dish up.
By the 1940s, the idiom dish it out was born, meaning to administer punishment.
Somewhere around 1900 the noun dish picked up the meaning what one likes, as in “Who would’ve guessed that juggling live squid would become little Balthazar’s dish?”
By 1920 the noun dish acquired the meaning attractive woman, as in “That Myrtle Mae is one serious dish!” About this same time the adjective dishy was born, applying to both male and female attractiveness.
And in 1978 the term satellite dish was born.
Dish’s closest relations include disk, disc, discus, dais & desk.
Some additional dish idioms include:
To dish on someone
To do the dishes
To dish the dirt
Revenge is a dish best served cold
Some lost meanings for dish include:
A specific measure of corn
In tin-mining, a gallon of ore ready for smelting
In the game of quoits, a quoit
To cheat, defeat completely or circumvent
In celebration of one of the many meanings of dish, please leave a note in the comments section regarding a favorite family dish of the edible variety).
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, Merriam Webster, & Etymonline.
English is rife with idioms involving walking. Most have pretty shakily documented origins, but here are a few verifiable ones:
In the 1570s the idiom walking stick was born.
In 1769 the first written usage of walk the plank occurred.
In 1846 the idiom walking sickness was coined. Oddly, the term walking pneumonia has unclear beginnings, though the particular strain (mycoplasmal pneumonia) was named “atypical pneumonia” in 1938.
In 1848 the idiom worship the ground s/he walks on entered the language.
A walk in the park was born in 1937, and sometime thereafter, the term no walk in the park was conceived.
And imagine my surprise. The term walking bass didn't start with stride piano and musicians like the inimitable Fats Waller. The walking bass was created over two centuries earlier by Johann Sebastian Bach & his baroque pals. My musical ignorance is showing.
In a similar vein, though most people of my generation might assume the idiom a walk on the wild side was conceived in 1972 by songwriter Lou Reed, the earliest usage of the phrase was actually Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side.
The idiom walk the green mile comes from the death row of an infamous Louisiana prison, in which the condemned took their final walk down a hallway of green linoleum.
World War I gave us many idioms, among them (sadly) the walking wounded.
The walk a mile in someone’s shoes idiom comes from the Cherokee. Interesting that the original walked-in shoes were moccasins. What do you bet nobody paid for the idiom?
Please add a comment, or a walking idiom I haven’t included.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik, The Word Detective, & Etymonline,
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,
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,
The last post covered idioms featuring the word fish. Now we're on to skin. The English language employs a good number of idioms that include the word skin. Being a bit of a word nerd, I can hardly keep from laughing when simply reading a page in an idioms dictionary. I hope this “page” I’ve compiled spreads a bit of mirth:
-be comfortable in one’s own skin
-by the skin of the teeth
-get under one’s skin
-give one some skin
-jump out of one’s skin
-makes one’s skin crawl
-more than one way to skin a cat
-no skin off one’s nose
-play out of one’s skin
-save one’s skin
-skin & bones
-skin someone alive
-soaked to the skin
-won’t pull the skin off a rice pudding
Okay valiant followers who recognized every last skin idiom in the list, let me know. On the other hand, let me know if one or two caused you to think, “What the heck does that mean?”
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Barron’s Handbook of Commonly Used American Idioms, Idiom Connection, Using English & the OED.
This week it’s time for idioms based around the word fish, a word that takes up nearly three full pages of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Big fish in a small pond is an idiom started in America in the early 1880s. Many people prefer being the big fish in a small pond, although escaping into the larger sea can have its advantages.
Though Chaucer included the term “a fish that is waterless” in Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s, the first time the term a fish out of water appeared in print seems to be three centuries later. You might say it’s the rare bird who enjoys feeling like a fish out of water, though I have appreciated that situation many times – a year in American Samoa as one of the few palagi on the island, a couple of years as the only Anglo in the Cal State Northridge Pan African Studies Gospel Choir, the list goes on…
There is, of course, the possibility that the fish in the water think of the fish out of water as queer fish, a British idiom that appeared in 1919, applied to anyone who might appear odd or eccentric.
Etymologists argue about the origins of fine kettle of fish (& its sibling, pretty kettle of fish). Some etymologists are moderately certain the idiom was born of a Scottish term kettle of fish, which referred to a picnic of sorts, in which the local landholder invited his minions to enjoy a day off work. This event called for the minions to light a fire on the riverbank, suspend a giant kettle over it, catch fresh fish, cook them in the kettle, and serve them to the visiting nobles. No one is certain how the theoretically positive experience could have collected a negative connotation, but I do wonder about those “lucky” minions who were invited to do all the work. Other etymologists suggest a pretty kettle of fish may have originated as a pretty kiddle of fish. Kiddle was a word used to refer to nets thrown across a river to catch the fish. Perhaps when the catch was particularly successful (or pretty), hauling in a bunch of flapping, unhappy fish made a bit of a mess? The jury is out & sparring etymologists continue to duke it out.
In 1660, John Evelyn first penned the idiom bigger fish to fry, which may be the sort of thing that leads a big fish in a small pond to venture into the larger sea, where he may feel like a queer fish, or a fish out of water, or might discover that life out of his little pond is a pretty kettle of fish.
What other fish idioms can you add to the list? Please leave a comment suggesting an idiom or two.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline. Barron’s Handbook of Commonly Used American Idioms, Literary Exchange, Phrases.org, Wordvia.com, The Hindu.com, Wise Geek, Phrases.org, & Wordnik
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.