This week, we’ll look at huff, then consider a few more words of imitative origin that refer to something annoying.
Huff made its way into English in the mid-1400s, as an imitation of an exhalation. By the 1590s huff picked up the meaning bluster with indignation. The idiom to leave in a huff, showed up in 1778.
In 1727 the word tiff came to English, meaning an outburst of temper, also based on the imitative sound of an exhalation, or slight puff of air. By 1754 tiff picked up the meaning, a small quarrel.
Another word imitating a puff of air is guff, which arrived in 1825. By 1888 it picked up its modern meaning, empty talk or nonsense, as in that’s a lot of guff.
In 1765, ugh showed up, imitating another sort of exhalation, a cough. By 1837 ugh morphed to become an interjection of disgust.
Squib, a short piece of sarcastic writing, showed up in English in the 1520s. Though etymologists haven’t determined that it has its origin in the firework of the same name, if it indeed does, then it is imitative of the sound of that particular firework, which hisses (as might the unfortunate targets of sarcastic writing).
In the 1620s, the imitative word squelch was born. It meant to fall, drop or stomp on something soft with a crushing force (imagine the sound of collapsing onto a sofa fashioned of marshmallow crème). Squelch picked up a second meaning in 1764, to suppress completely.
The final imitative annoyance for this post took me by complete surprise. The Sanskrit word mu referred to a gnat or fly, & was imitative of the sound of such insects. In time, mu made its way into Latin, where it became the noun, musca, fly. By the time it reached English, it referred to a particularly annoying little fly, so it picked up a diminutive ending to become mosquito.
It’s enough to make one exhale a puff of air, isn’t it?
So, did anyone out there already know that mosquito is imitative in origin? Or that nearly all these words relate to a n exhalation? Come on, fess up.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Collins Dictionary, the OED, Wordnik & 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.