I find it fascinating that the Latin word humus, meaning of the earth, is the root of human. Though I suppose it’s reasonable to expect Mother Earth would be pretty darned good at giving birth, not only the humans, but to words.
In the early 1400s the Latin word humare (a verb form of humus meaning to bury), linked with the prefix ex- made its way into English as exhume, meaning to unearth. I’ll leave it to the sociologists to explain why modern usage continues to embrace the grisly word exhume, but has - for the most part - forgotten the kinder, gentler term, inhume, to put into the ground (which entered English two centuries later).
Though Genesis I couldn’t possibly lead to this, it’s no surprise – given the Genesis II telling of creation – that the Hebrew equivalent of humus, adamu, became the name Adam. Humus & adamu admittedly aren’t cognates, but they both mean of the earth, & both have many offspring.
Camomile has its roots in humus & means apple of the earth. Camomile entered English in the late 1300s through French & Latin, originating in Greek chamaimelon.
Also from humus, chameleon came to English in the mid-1300s, through French & Latin, originating in the Greek term khamaileon, meaning lion of the earth, which most likely comes from a species of chameleon whose crest resembled a lion’s mane.
Another Latin offspring of humus was the word humilis, meaning lowly or humble, giving us images of the lowly folk prostrating themselves before the mighty, literally on the ground. In the 1300s, humilis gave us the English words humble & humility. By the 1530s, these words gave birth to the noun humiliation, which in turn, gave us the verb, humiliate.
Good readers, please comment on all of this humus-ness, or possibly on Oscar Levant’s commentary on humility:
“What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left.”
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, The Quotation’s Page, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, & Etymonline.
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.
Etymology is all about sleuthing back to the origin of words. Sadly, even the most hardworking teams of etymologists reach the end of the sleuthing line still asking the word history equivalent of, “Who’s your daddy?” When a word’s parentage is in question, it's in the dictionary is listed as “origin unknown.” This week’s post will cover just a few of the many orphans in the world of words.
Pooch was first recorded in 1924. Though a few word historians believe pooch may have some relationship to the word pouch, this American-born synonym for dog has never been officially nailed down.
In 1809 the word hike showed up in English (spelled hyke). It meant to walk vigorously. Hike has no known origin, though at the time the similarly parentless word yike carried the same meaning.
Pokey, meaning jail or prison was first recorded in 1919. Some etymologists have suggested it may have come from pogie – an 1891 term meaning poorhouse, but like pokey, pogie is of unknown origin.
Hanker – as in “I’ve got a hankerin’ for possum stew” – first showed up around 1600, & though it probably came from the Dutch word hunkeren (to hanker), hunkeren is also of unknown origin.
Arbor, arboreal, arboretum & arborist all originate in the Latin word arbor, meaning tree, & showed up in English in the 1500s, but the Latin word arbor is an etymological mystery.
Squeamish showed up in English in the mid-1400s, meaning disdainful or fastidious. Its Anglo-French parent word escoymous is of unknown origin.
Scare showed up in English in the 1590s meaning to frighten. It came from the Norse word skirra, to frighten, shy from, shun, prevent or avert. Skirra is a form of the Norse word skjarr, meaning timid, shy or afraid of. Skjarr has no known parent.
About 1600 the verb rant showed up in English, meaning both to be jovial & boisterous, & to talk bombastically. It comes from randten, a Dutch word of unknown origin meaning to talk foolishly or to rave.
I find the nearly opposite original meanings of the last two words remarkable. Fellow word-folks, were any of these word orphans worthy of your remark?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Collins Dictionary, the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.
What’s Etymosheeple, you ask? It’s explained here.
After our last exciting round of Etymosheeple, ending on the word adolescent Rachel6 of Sesquipedalian Dreamer contacted me, noting that she’s always associated the words adolescent & nascent, so nascent will be our next stop this round (thanks, Rachel6).
Nascent arrived in English in 1620 from the Latin word nascentum, meaning immature, arising, or young. Nascentum comes from the Latin word nasci, or to be born.
What other words also come from nasci? A smoking heap of them.
Obvious ones associated with birth include:
natal (late 1300s)
Renaissance (1840s – I would’ve guessed earlier)
Not-so-obvious ones include:
cognate, meaning of common descent. Though the words springing from nasci in this list are broadly related cognates, cognates are typically more closely related (like the French nuit, German nacht & English night).
But wait, there are more...
nee, as in Jacqueline Kennedy, nee Onassis)
innate, as in innate talents
Noel, as in Christmas
native, nation & nature
And my favorite of the bunch, puny, which entered English in the 1570s, meaning inferior in rank, from the Middle French word, puisné, which came from Latin that I’ll simplify as post-nasci, meaning after being born.
Thinking Etymosheepishly, the word puny leads me to wonder about other words meaning small (teeny, tiny, teensy), & whether they owe their –y endings to nasci, (as puny does) or to the more traditional diminutive –y ending we find in puppy orbaby.
And the answer is….maybe. It turns out both teensy (1899) & teeny (1825) are alternative forms of tiny (1400), which appears to have come from the word tine, (as in the tines of a fork), and may have been formed by adding the diminutive-making –y to the word tine, but nobody knows for sure.
Thanks for joining me for this particularly directionless round of Etymosheeple.
This week in the comments section, I’d love to see words with unlikely spellings. Mention one, mention two, mention a dozen…
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik, & Etymonline.
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.
Since the holidays usually involve a lot of food and a bit of a mess, here we go.
The word mess comes from the Latin word, mittere, to send away or put, & simply suggests that someone has put the food on the table. It appeared in our language in the late 1300s. Interestingly, mass in the religious sense comes from the same source. So, the word mess isn’t really a mess at all, but these food words are:
Hash comes from the French word hacher, to hack or chop into small pieces. It entered English in the 1660s.The French word came from the Old French word for ax, hache. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that hash & hatchet are related. Here’s hoping nobody’s hash was hacked or chopped into small pieceswith a hatchet (a messy process at best). By 1735, hash acquired the more generalized meaning, a mix or mess.
Shambles showed up in English in the late 1400s, meaning meat or fish market, and came from the Old English word scomul (orscaemul), meaning stool or table for vending. By the 1540s, shambles meant slaughterhouse. This meaning became generalized by 1590 to mean place of butchery, & it wasn’t until 1901 that the meaning of shambles became generalized enough to mean confusion or mess.
Hodgepodge entered English in the late 1300s as hotchpotch, a kind of stew. It appears that the word is a hodgepodge itself, the first bit coming from Old French, meaning to shake, and the second part coming from German, probably derived from Late Latin, meaning cooking vessel (related to our modern day cooking vessel, the pot). Though multiple sources list possible ingredients for this kind of stew, each source seems to provide a different list. It seems for a few centuries, whatever one shook into the pot on the British Isles gave cause to refer to the meal as hodgepodge.
In 1894 a variant of bologna was born – baloney! The term referred to a sausage made of odds & ends. By 1922, possibly through association with the term blarney, baloney came to mean nonsense, which isn’t quite a synonym for mess, though one could argue that the odds & ends that went into bologna/baloney might qualify as such.
Anyone who has ever bussed a table or eaten in the vicinity of a two-year old is familiar with the equation food = mess. Might these etymologies simply reflect that reality?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Hugh Rawson’s Devious Derivations (Castle Books, 2002), 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.
Whether one finds the OK Boomer idiom to be hysterical, true, ageist or tacky, it's not new. Granted, OK, Boomer has a very specific usage, however we English speakers have had negative things to say about older people for quite some time.
Curmudgeon entered the English language in the 1570s, & nobody really knows where it came from. Some have posited that the first syllable may come from the word cur, meaning a dog of either vicious or cowardly demeanor, combined with the Gaelic word, muigean, meaning disagreeable person. Sadly, no data supports this. Whether we know its parentage or not, the word curmudgeon is marvelously descriptive. Those of you who appreciate vicious, nasty, or biting quotes should definitely consider The Portable Curmudgeon, by Jon Winokur, which features quotes from notable curmudgeons like Fran Lebowitz, HL Menken, WC Fields, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Levant & others.
More recently, the term geezer has been the word of choice to refer to cranky, old-fashioned people. Geezer entered English in 1885 from the Cockney term guiser, which meant a silent, muttering, or grumbling person.
In the 1580s, the term malcontent entered the language from French. Though the word has no association with old-fashionedness, it did refer (& still does) to a rebellious or complaining person and seems to live in the same grumpworthy category.
A killjoy – another term with no age-association - is a personwho kills joy. This word came to English in 1772, simply by connecting two words that were already in use.
Though the world’s most famous (or infamous) misanthrope was a curmudgeonly chap featured in Moliere’s play, The Misanthrope, the word itself has no direct connection to old ways or old age. It simply means one who hates people (landing it in my generally grumpworthy category). Misanthrope came to the language in the 1560s from Greek.
In 1780 the Scots loaned English their word foggie, which we English–speakers have held onto ever since as the word fogey. The original Scottish word referred to old veterans or pensioners, & may or may not have an association with various root terms for moss, old-fashioned, or bloatedness.
Codger entered the language in 1756, most likely coming from cadger, which means beggar. Cadger’s root, cadge, is of unknown origin.
Americans added fuddy-duddy to English in 1871. Nobody is quite certain of its roots. It meant then – as it does now – old fashioned.
Another American term most of us have lost came from the Carolinas in the 1860s. The term is mossback, & it meant conservative, reactionary, & old fashioned, which referred directly to southerners who refused to join the Confederate army, & instead of joining the cause, hid in the woods “till moss grew on their backs.”
Any opinions about all these curmudgeonly words? Let me know in the comments section whether you feel these words are synonyms for OK, Boomer, or whether it belongs in its very own category.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline.
What's up with the words carrion, carry on & carry-on?
Today, the term carry-on (referring to luggage) is probably used thousands of times more per day than the terms carry on or carrion, yet only a couple of decades ago, the opposite would have been true.
To my complete surprise, the earliest printed use I can find of the luggage variety carry-on is 2006. Even more surprisingly, I can find no reliable information regarding when the term entered the language.
Carry on, on the other hand (ooh, sorry about that) showed up as early as 1606 & has a variety of meanings:
-to continue or advance
-to prevent from stopping
-to practice habitually
-to behave in a conspicuous way
-to conduct, manage or prosecute
All this can be found buried in the nearly three full pages the Oxford English Dictionary dedicates to the word carry, which came to English through Old French from Late Latin, where it meant to convey in a vehicle. This sheds light on carry’s relationships with car, cart, cargo, chariot, & carpenter.
On the other hand, carrion came to English through French from the Vulgar Latin word caronia, meaning carcass. If we follow caronia back far enough we find the Latin word caro, or meat. Carrion’s relatives include carnivore, carnal, carnival, carnage, incarnation, & reincarnation. Even the meaning of the word crone refers back to the idea of being carcass-like. Also, though etymologists haven’t finished arm-wrestling over it just yet, some argue that the word crow also comes from caro, presumably because crows include carrion in their diets.
And from the Truly Unlikely Department, some etymologists argue that carbine started with caro, though this takes more explanation. It seems that during the years of the plague, people speaking Old French referred to those who bore the corpses as escarrabin, meaning carrion beetle, which morphed into a nasty epithet used to refer to attacking archers, who in time swapped in their archery equipment for small rifles, yet still got called names because they were after all, attacking. In time the epithet for the attackers became associated with their weapon of choice, the carbine.
Dear readers, this week, please join me in some word play. Leave a goofy sentence in the comments box that primarily employs words addressed in this post.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline,
Check out these two unlikely sentences & the unlikely etymologies of the words therein.
The vicar’s Ouija board turned out to be a red herring.
A vicar’s job is to interpret scripture for the masses, substituting for Jesus, which is why vicar is based on the Latin word vicarious, or substitute (1300s).
A Ouija board functions due to the “agreement” of the two people whose fingers rest on the planchette, thus, its name was derived from a marriage of the French & German words for yes: oui + ja = Ouija (1910).
A red herring in a mystery throws the reader/viewer off the trail. This term comes from fox hunting as early as the 1680s, as nefarious characters (or members of the Save the Beleaguered Fox Brigade, I presume) might drag a red herring across the fox’s trail, causing the hounds to veer off in the wrong direction (apparently the reek of the red herring is infamous).
Our second unlikely sentence using words with unlikely etymolgies includes a word once quite acceptable, but now considered offensive:
A moron moseyed through the bedlam in the nick of time.
The now-offensive term moron reflects Dr. Henry H. Goddard’s impression of the mental capacity of pre-teens. In 1910 he defined his term as meaning dull, stupid, silly or foolish, and introduced the word moron to apply to adults whose mental aptitude coincided with the abilities of 8-12 year olds. I'm not inclined to use this idiom, but I find the etymology intriguing.
The word mosey is the flipside of the word vamoose – the former meaning to leave in a languid fashion & the latter meaning to leave speedily.
Bedlam was born as the nickname for a London-based priory, St. Mary of Bethlehem, which became a home for the mentally unstable, famous during part of its tenure for the screams of its inmates (1418).
Though nick of time wasn’t recorded until the 1640s, the story is that some Medieval churches and colleges recorded attendance by notching a stick. When a parishioner or student arrived, a nick was cut into the stick. The last one to arrive on time would receive the nick of time.
This week’s unlikely etymologies were inspired by Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins (Carol Publishing Group, 1999) - backed up by the OED, Merriam Webster, & 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.