Intriguing political etymologies
Here are just a few etymologies of words we use when it comes to politics.
When someone (in particular a politician) can’t seem to make up his/her mind on an important topic, s/he is said to be a waffler. Though it’s reasonable to assume this has something to do with a waffle having two sides, the can’t—make-up-one’s-mind sort of waffle & the tasty-with-butter-&-syrup waffle have completely different origins. The latter showed up in English in 1744 from German through Dutch, with its grandmother Proto-Germanic word wabila meaning web or honeycomb. It’s related to the word weave. Political waffling, though, is probably imitative of a dog’s bark & showed up in English in the 1600s, meaning to yelp or bark like a puppy. In time, the term grew to mean to speak foolishly, & in 1803 landed on today’s meaning, to vacillate or equivocate.
Books, plays, movies, speeches, & politicians can all be said to have laid an egg. Etymologists are presently duking it out over two posited sources for this one. Theory one: in cricket or other games, when a team scores nothing, the zero resembles an egg, thus, the team that falls flat has laid an egg. Theory two: when a hen lays an egg, she makes a big fuss, clucking with pride at her accomplishment, but none of her compadres are impressed. I’ll be sure to keep an eye on the battle & will report immediately with breaking news on this front.
An incorrect, though clever, folk etymology suggests that the word news is an acronym standing for all the information from the north, east, west, & south. Actually, the word news came through French from the Latin word nova, new, arriving in English in the 1300s & meaning new things.
A person who is compelled to share his/her opinions is a kibitzer. This word showed up in English in 1927 & came from German through Yiddish. The Yiddish word, kibitsen, meant to offer gratuitous advice as an outsider, while the German word meant to look on at cards. The German meaning was inspired by folktales involving a small shorebird, the kiebitz, whose fictional habit involved interfering in card games by sitting on a card player’s shoulder & muttering unwanted instructions. The German word kiebitz appears to be an imitation of the call of the kiebitz, or lapwing.
I’m hoping some of you might be willing to share some kibitzing regarding all this. If so, please do so in the comments below.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline, Hugh Rawson’s Devious Derivations, Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins, & the OED.
Laughter - we all need it
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
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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