Lately I've been pondering whether nearly everyone in the news is a fool, or whether I'm the fool for spending my timer reading about them.
Fool has been around in English for a long time. The noun form of fool showed up in the 1200s & the verb form appeared about a century later. It came from fol, an Old French term for idiot, rogue, jester, or madman. The French got it from the Latin term follis, literally meaning leather bag or bellows & figuratively meaning empty-headed person or windbag. Though one might imagine the antics of court jesters inspired the word, centuries of jesters gave their collective all before the English term fool was applied to their ilk in the late 1300s.
In 1680 the term April fool was born. On All Fool’s Day people were sent on “false errands” (did those Brits have a crazy sense of humor or what?). Interestingly, the Norse had a similar celebration known as April Gowk (gowk meant cuckoo in Norse).
Some words that share fool's root include:
bold (no fooling)
Though most of the following words have multiple meanings, they are all also synonyms for fool:
What have you to say about all this etymological tomfoolery?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik
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
Who wouldn't 't be intrigued by words like tidbit & morsel?
Tidbit showed up in English in the 1630s, made up of tid, meaning fond, solicitous or tender, and bit, which appeared in English in the 1200s, meaning a piece bitten off.
The English got morsel from the French word morceau, meaning small bite, portion or helping, some time around 1200. Interestingly, the word mordant, meaning caustic (a figurative sense of biting), shares the same roots.
Smidgen came from smitch, a Scottish word meaning a very small amount, or an insignificant person. Smidgen entered English in the 1800s.
Dollop made its way into English in the 1570s, from the East Anglian word, dallop, meaning a tuft or clump of grass. It wasn’t until 1812 that the meaning morphed to a lump, serving or blob.
Both jot & iota came to English in the 1630s from Greek. Iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet, & (in Greek) also denotes anything small. An alternate spelling was jota, thus the word jot. The Greeks got the root word from a Semitic language we’re not entirely sure of, but the original root was probably something like the modern Hebrew word yodh.
In the early 1950s, Korean War veterans brought home to America the word skosh, their version of the Japanese word sukoshi, meaning few, little, or some.
In 1877, a small child might have been referred to as a tad. Etymologists are moderately sure tad was a shortened form of tadpole, which was born of the word tadde, an alternate form of toad. Toad came to English in the 1300s from nobody-knows-where, & was added to the Middle German word poll, meaning head to make tadpole. It wasn’t until 1915 that tad began to mean a small bit.
Which of these morsels intrigues you most? Please leave a comment.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Collins Dictionary, OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik
The English word head has its unlikely origins in the Proto-Indo-European word kaput. Somehow, as kaput made its centuries-long voyage through German, Dutch, Saxon and/or Frisian to Old English, it morphed to heafod. From Old English it moved into Middle & Modern English, where it managed to drop a syllable & become head.
Along the way it collected dozens of idioms, including:
1200s – head count (applied to people)
1300s – headwaters
1300s – headstrong
1500s – head count (applied to cattle)
1680s – head of a coin
1680s – head on a mug of bear
1748 – head on a ship (toilet)
1911 – hophead, which became in time, pothead
1952 – heads up
1972 – head game
1984 – headbanger
& dozens more.
Because head has changed so much since it started out as kaput, it has a steaming heap of unlikely cousins, all from that same Proto-Indo-European root. Here is a sampling:
capital caput madcap
cabbage capo chief
scalp cap capsize
chef captain cob
achieve capillary cadet
decapitate cape cephalic
mischief precipice handkerchief
corporal chieftain capitulate
Many connections to the head are obvious. Others, not so much. Might any of you have a hare-brained theory as to how some of these words are related to the head? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & Wordnik
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.
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.