As noted three posts ago, recent DNA findings have placed some very unlikely animals under the ungulate (hoofed mammals) umbrella: whales, dolphins & porpoises. Most closely related to the hippopotamus, whales, dolphins & porpoises (also known as cetaceans) no longer have an order of their own. Scientists haven’t quite settled over whether cetaceans are a suborder or infra-order of ungulates.
The word cetacean entered English in 1830 from Modern Latin, meaning any large sea creature. The Latin term was derived from the Greek word ketos, whale or sea monster. No one knows the source of ketos.
The Old English word hwæl, which meant both whale & walrus, gave us the word whale. Our modern idiom whale of a/n _______, meaning big or excellent showed up in 1900.
One of many whales is the killer whale. The word killer showed up in the 1400s from the English word kill (which first appeared in the 1200s), & meant one who strikes, beats or knocks. Though we’re not 100% sure, kill may have come from the Old English word cwellan, to kill. Cwellan is also the most likely suspect for the source of qualm & quell. Our idiom to kill time kicked in about 1728. The figurative meaning of killer, impressive person or thing appeared in 1900, and the term killer instinct showed up in the world of boxing in 1931. And getting back to cetaceans, the killer whale was first called that in 1725.
In the early 1300s the word porpas appeared in English, from the Old French word porpais, which translates ingloriously to pork fish. Interestingly, the German word for porpoise translates literally to sea hog. It’s likely the somewhat pig-like snout of the porpoise may be responsible for both words, though a modern etymologist might wonder whether those long-ago French & German porpoise-namers may have sensed a deeper connection to the porpoise’s distant ungulate cousin, the pig.
Our word dolphin came from French in the mid-1300s. We can trace dolphin back through Old French, Medieval Latin, Latin & Greek to the word delphinos, meaning dolphin. This Greek root is closely related to delphys, meaning womb. Etymologists suggest Ancient Greeks found it remarkable that instead of coming from eggs, the progeny of this “fish” arrive through live birth.
Dear readers. If you’ve got anything to say about these water-bound “hoofed mammals,” please do so in the comments section.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Science Direct, Ultimate Ungulate,Etymonline, & the OED.
Thanks for tuning into the third of three posts on up, a brief list of a few more idioms that employ the word up.
1700s – to cheer up or become happier
1700s – bottoms up or cheers!
1809 – toss-up or an even matter
1818 – to turn up one’s nose or show disdain
1823 – to upend or turn over
1844 – to buck up or cheer up
1860 – to jack up or hoist or raise
1881 – to whoop it up or make a joyful disturbance
1896 – all choked up or overcome with emotion
1903 – to live it up or live extravagantly
1904 – to jack up or raise a price
1926 - to wrap up or put an end to
1933 – to mess up or make a mess of
1935 – to shack up or cohabit
1960 – upchuck or vomit
Please use the comments section to remark on any of these terms or the dates they appeared.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Go English, Albert Jack, Etymonline, & the OED.
The versatile two-letter word up can function in English as an adverb, noun, verb, or adjective. Up plays a role in countless idioms & compound words. I hope you enjoy the few that follow.
1400 – shut up - This idiom’s original meaning was to keep from view or use. It wasn’t until 1814 that it applied to shutting one’s mouth.
1530s – grow up -- This idiom may have come from the late 1300s term grown-up, which was originally an adjective meaning mature, & added its noun meaning an adult in 1813. The directive, grow up, meaning be sensible, showed up in 1951.
1550s – start-up – This verb, meaning rise up, came from the term upstart, which appeared back in 1200. By the 1590s start-up added to its meanings, come suddenly into being.
1811 - up to snuff - This idiom appeared some 160 years after the practice of inhaling powdered tobacco into the nose became all the rage in England. Its original meaning was sharp, wide awake, not easy to deceive, & most likely reflects the somewhat caffeine-like effects of snorting powdered tobacco.
1830 – seven-up – A children’s game that added a new & carbonated meaning in 1928.
1841 – smash up – A collision.
1897 – dustup – This term means a fight. It probably grew out of the 1680s ironic idiom to dust someone’s coat, which meant to beat someone soundly.
1977 - upload – A word we hear & understand constantly these days, yet just a few decades ago it would have left us all with wrinkled brows.
Please use the comments section to tell me what’s up.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline, & the OED.
Idioms. You gotta love ‘em. This one has a particularly interesting history.
The word starkers showed up in English in 1923, meaning completely naked. Its roots appear in the term stark naked, which English speakers were using as early as 1520. At this point in the family roots, there’s an unexpected fork.
One would expect stark naked & starkers’ origins to be stark, which came from the Old English word stearc, which meant obstinate, severe, rigid, stiff, stern, strong or violent. By the 1400s, the idiom stark dead came about. Though stark actually referred to the rigidity of a corpse, popular understanding led to the belief that stark was intensifying dead, much like saying truly dead or very dead. It appears this caused the meaning of stark to shift to mean utter, sheer or complete. By the 1640s, that newly established meaning contributed to the Idiom stark raving, possibly translatable today as totally psycho. By the 1830s, likely due to the idiom stark naked, stark added a new meaning, bare or barren.
Some other words that were born into Old English of the stiff meaning of stearc include stork, thorn (who would’ve thunk?) & possibly stretch. A century or more later, starch, stereo, & sterile all came from the stiff or rigid meaning of stark.
But wait. What about that previously mentioned “unexpected fork” in the family roots? The two words or terms above that didn’t come from stearc are stark naked & starkers. They came from another Old English word, steort, which is also the root of the name of a bird called a redstart, a colorful critter named for its red derriere. All this because steort meant rear end, rump or buttocks, which leads to the realization that stark naked actually translates to ... butt naked.
Idioms. You gotta love ‘em.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline, & the OED.
The following idioms don’t follow a theme or tell a story. They simply have individual elements I find fascinating. I hope you’ll agree.
The term blubbermouth, a crybaby or weepy person, has been around since 1400. Originally, blubber (spelled blober) referred to the bubbling, foaming sound & product of the tide. By the 1500s the term picked up the meaning whale oil, and a century later the meaning whale fat. Some weeping-related synonyms that have since fizzled out include blubberguts, blubberhead, & blubbercheeks.
Our figurative term can’t hold a candle to has wonderfully literal beginnings. Back when candles were first created, if a task needed to be completed after sunset, the most able person performed the task while a less able person held the candle. The term is a double whammy insult, as it suggests someone who's deemed incompetent to do the work turns out to be unable to manage the menial task of holding the candle while the work's being done.
A goody-two-shoes is an obnoxiously good individual. The term was born in the 1700s in John Newbery’s children’s collection, Mother Goose’s Melody: or Sonnets for the Cradle. One of the stories featured a painfully poor girl who was fortunate enough to be given a pair of shoes. She was so pleased, she started most interactions by pointing at them & exclaiming, “Two shoes!” It’s not entirely clear how an eternally grateful individual morphed into an obnoxiously good individual, but we’ll let that mystery be.
Contrary to popular assumptions, the idiom out of sight, meaning excellent, has been in existence since 1896.
The term whipper-snapper, or small, cheeky person, appeared first in the 1670s. A century before that, the term snipper-snapper held a similar meaning, which is cited by some sources as whipper-snapper’s origin, though other sources claim whip-snapper, person in charge, is the origin of whipper-snapper.
The term narrow-minded, meaning small-minded & bigoted, was born in 1625. Interestingly, its sister-word narrow-hearted, meaning mean, ungenerous & ignoble, has not survived.
So, did anything in that somewhat arbitrary list pique your interest? If so, please leave a comment.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Hugh Rawson’s book Wicked Words, Merriam Webster, Etymonline, & the OED.
Often, idioms act as advice. It should be no surprise that multiple cultures might have the same things to say to future generations. This week’s post takes a look at one English idiom as stated in five other languages. The English idiom of the day is You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Below are three lists:
-each idiom loosely translated into English
-the languages from which each idiom hails, &
-each idiom in its original tongue
However, I’ve changed up the order in each list. Your task is to match each translated idiom with its original language & original wording:
A. You can’t turn a buzzard into a sparrowhawk.
B. A monkey in silk is still a monkey.
C. To celebrate a wedding with dried figs.
D. Even if the monkey wears a golden ring it remains ugly.
E. If you’re born to crawl you can’t fly.
I. fare le nozze con I fichi secchi
II. rozhdennyj polzat letat ne mozhet
III. aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda
IV. al draagt een aap een gouden ring, het is en blijft een
V. on ne peut faire d’une buse un épervier
Before checking the first comment in the comment section, make a list of your corresponding letter, Arabic number & Roman numeral. Then, in the comments section let us know how well you did & what you have to say about sow’s ears, or silk-wearing monkeys, or maybe even dried figs.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Translate.net, Adam Jacot de Boinod’s Toujours Tingo, & Learning English with Idioms
Idioms abound, yet they usually have shaky or completely untraceable origins. Hard-working word-sleuths have uncovered the origins of only a fraction of English idioms. Here are a few.
Point blank – the term appears to come from French, point blanc, a term in which the blanc refers to the white circle in the center of a target & point means exactly that.
Slush fund – The masts of sailing ships were once maintained by rubbing slush into the wood. This slush was the waste grease from the galley. After a ship’s masts were happily greased, the cook could sell the remaining grease, which put money in his pocket – money he could spend however he liked, his slush fund.
Dull as dishwater – Oddly, this is a fishing term. Fishing in a pond, river, lake or bay wasn’t dull at all, but fishing in a ditch rarely produced a fish, & was therefore, tedious. The idiom appears to originally have been dull as ditchwater, or dull as fishing in ditch water. In time, it changed to the idiom we know today.
Nick of time – During the Middle Ages, attendance at church and university was taken by carving tally marks, or nicks, in a piece of wood. Those who arrived on time received a nick. It’s intriguing that we don’t refer to those arriving late as nickless, nick-free, or unnicked.
Pillar to post – Criminals were once either pilloried or tied to a post and whipped. The even less fortunate were dragged from one of these two forms of torture to the other, sometimes multiple times. In time, from pillory to post morphed into from pillar to post.
Peeping Tom – apparently when the famous (or infamous) Lady Godiva rode through the streets without a stitch on, the one chap who ogled her & got caught doing so was named Tom. Some sources suggest that neither Tom’s peeping nor his punishment (going blind) was part of the original tale, but at least w ended up with this idiom.
Good readers, which of these idiom origins do you find most remarkable? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Phrase Finder, Etymonline, the OED, & Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
Idioms allow us to communicate clearly even while using words that have nothing to do with our meaning. My American Idioms Dictionary, for instance, lists twenty-one idioms beginning with the word leave, covering the better part of two pages. Oddly, most idioms’ origins are shaded in mystery. Three of the six idiom sources below are legitimate. Three are manufactured. See if you can determine the faux origins (answers are in the comments section).
Leave someone holding the bag (1700s) This idiom comes from a hazing game much like a snipe hunt, in which a gullible individual is sent up into the hills with a bag while his/her tormenters claim they’ll drive the elusive snipe out of the bushes & into the bag, but instead, have a good laugh at the expense of their innocent victim.
Leave someone high & dry (1700s) When a ship was run aground or caught on land due to a dropping tide, it was left high and dry.
Leave no stone unturned (1700s) Based on the behavior of a North American bird, the ruddy turnstone, which is surprisingly diligent in its efforts to turn over stones to find food.
Leave well enough alone (1400s) The old Scottish game Twibbits involved flipping discs, the goal being to place one’s disc as far from others’ discs as possible, yet near the goal. The winner was said to be left alone, but if two throws tied, the round was judged well enough alone, a term equal to our modern good enough.
Leave someone in the lurch (1500s) This idiom has its origins in a French cribbage-like game called lourche in which a player was said to be left in the lurch when s/he was put in a hopeless position.
Leave someone out in the cold (1500s) When the portcullis of a castle or other fortified building was lowered at dusk, members of the household were sometimes left out in the cold.
Please consider which three seem most authentic, then check answers in the comments section & let us all know how you did.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Phrase Finder, NTC’s American Idioms Dictionary, & Etymonline
In these troubled times, we could all use some laughter. So here's a look into words and idioms related to laughter.
What’s funnier than a pun? Entering the language in 1826, the funny-bone is exactly that. Not only does a good whack on the elbow make us feel funny, the elbow is positioned at the end of the humerus. Ha! And again I say Ha!
When we try a joke that doesn’t have the desired affect, we refer to this as laying an egg. This term was born in the late 1800s. Its origin is due to the fact that hens make a big deal of laying an egg, with much squawking & clucking, though their peers appear unimpressed.
In the 1570s the word corny came to English from the Sanskrit word jirna, which meant old & worn out. Corny can mean old fashioned, mawkish & sentimental, uncool due to a failed attempt at coolness, trite, or an attempt at humor that falls flat.
The word comedy entered English in the late 1300s, through French from the Greek komodios, meaning village singer. Though the village singer might have sung any sort of song, somehow the funny ones have lived on etymologically.
Centuries ago when Romans were doing what Romans did, that included plowing the fields. When a farmer was unable to plow in a straight line, his work was referred to as de lire, meaning off track, out of line. In the 1590s this Latin term made its way into English as delirious & delirium, as someone experiencing delirium is off-track and has a tough time returning the old plow to the furrow.
This next one isn’t really about a laughter-related word, but I’m including it because upon reading this etymology, I laughed. In the sport of horse-racing, skittish horses can often be calmed by placing a goat in their stall (who knew?). In the early 1900s, nefarious jockeys would steal their opponent’s horse’s calming goat in hopes of increasing the edginess of the opponent’s horse while increasing the likelihood the nefarious jockey might win. This practice gave birth to the idiom getting one’s goat.
In the 1630s, the term happy as a clam in the mud at high tide found its way to English. Our modern version has been truncated to happy as a clam, & has lost two salient bits, as the big idea of the idiom was that a clam in the mud at high tide could not be harvested & was therefore, happy.
In the 1630s, English speakers began using the term sardonic laughter to refer to laughter that wasn’t genuine and might seem a bit stretched. This comes from a Greek term that defined the twitchy, stretched-smile symptoms people displayed after eating a particular plant from Sardinia. The symptoms generally ended in death.
On a nearly lighter note, the idiom tickled to death comes from a myth regarding a method of torture said to have been used in China. Better than dying from eating a Sardinian plant, but still, not a great way to go.
Any giggles, titters or guffaws?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik, & Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins
This week we’ll bark up the tooth tree. Big thanks again to my dear friend River, who inspired last week’s eyetooth post in the first place.
Tooth gave birth to all sorts of great words & idioms.
Sweet-tooth showed up as early as the 1300s.
Bucktoothed showed up in the 1540s.
Snaggle-toothed appeared in the 1580s.
To be long in the tooth appeared in 1841.
The fabric we call houndstooth showed up in the early 1900s.
The word toothache has been in use since Old English, toothpick showed up in the 1400s, & toothbrush found its way into the language in the 1600s.
Tooth has been with us since Old English, It was born of the Proto-Indo-European word dent-. Yes, both dental & tooth have the same root, but along the way different languages & cultures heard the sounds differently & morphed them differently, ending up with words that don’t sound vaguely related. Given tooth’s roots (sorry about that), it should be no surprise that the following words are related to tooth:
trident (1400s) three teeth
indent (1400s) to give something a jagged or toothed appearance
dandelion (1400s) literally tooth of the lion
indenture (1400s) of the raggedy edge – when the practice of indentured servitude began, the contract between “employer” & “employee” would be ripped in half in a toothed or jagged fashion, each piece going to one of the parties. Years later, the two pieces were compared as proof of identity so that the contract’s agreement could be fulfilled.
dentist (1700s) tooth person
periodontal (1800s) around the teeth
orthodontia (1800s) straight & proper teeth
denture (1800s) set of teeth
mastodon (1800s) Okay, so we usually dig up bones & teeth of old critters, right? Apparently each mastodon molar was equipped with a central bump, & apparently our intrepid, lonely, mostly male paleontologists were a bit too lonely (& worked up) so voila! breast-teeth.
rodent (1800s) you don’t want to know the details, but they have to do with scraping, red, & teeth
al dente (1900s) to the tooth
Tusk appears to have made its way to Old English through Old Frisian, also from the Proto-Indo-European root dent-.
What toothsome etymology do you find most worth of biting into? Please leave a comment.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, OED, Etymonline, & 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.