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,
Last week, upon joking with my wife that I was “plying her with wine,” I found myself wondering about that usage of the word ply. What I discovered was far more rich and robust than the inexpensive swill we were sharing for dinner. One might even argue that the word ply has an “intriguing bouquet, a delightful aftertaste & a remarkable finish.”
The Oxford English Dictionary devotes about a half page to the word ply, which initially meant to apply, employ, or work busily at, and entered English in the late 1300s from Middle French. Before that, it spent some time in Latin, & before that it resided in a hazily defined tongue etymologists call “Proto-Indo-European.”
The meaning I was using at the dinner table, to press one to take, appeared first in 1676, but ply also has all these meanings:
-to bend, bow, fold, or double
-to bend in will or disposition
-to adapt or accommodate
-to yield or be pliable
-to bend in reverence
-to bend, twist or writhe forcibly
-to comply or consent
-to cover with something bent or folded
-to draw out by bending or twisting
-to occupy oneself busily
-to use, handle or wield vigorously
-to practice or work at
-to solicit with importunity
-to beat against the wind
-to traverse by rowing or sailing
This modest three-letter word (or word part) plays a role in these words & more:
plywood, pliant, comply, compliance, compliant, apply, appliance, application, multiply, multiplication, reply, complex, plectrum, pliers, & (believe it or not) flax.
This week, please ply me with a question. What word have you heard or used recently that caused you to think, “Hmmm. Where’d that one come from?”
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, the OED, Wordnik & Etymonline.
In tribute to the public servants putting themselves in harm's way through exposing the truth during the impeachment hearings, how about a look into the roots of the words public & service?
Public showed up in English in the 1300s as an adjective through Old French from the Latin word publicus, meaning of the state, of the people, general, ordinary, or vulgar (oops – someone’s elitism is showing). By the 1600s public was also being used as a noun, meaning commonwealth, or public property. It is related to the words people, populace, popular, publicity, publican, puberty, & pub. Its medieval English synonym, folclic, sadly, never made it out of the Middle Ages.
The word public first aligned itself with the word service in 1893, giving us public service.
Service also came through Old French from Latin, though it appeared in English two centuries before public. The Latin donor word was servitium, which meant slavery or servitude, and came directly from the Latin word for slave, servus. Within a century, service’s meaning had generalized to simply mean the act of serving (not necessarily due to enslavement). By the late 1400s tea service was born and by the 1500s service picked up its military meaning. In 1941 service & industry found one another & service industry was born.
But back to the public servants testifying in the impeachment hearings. Most of us don't have the skinny on people in power, but w can still provide a l little public service:
Moving a grocery cart so it won’t whack into someone’s car,
Recommending a great book,
Offering a hand to someone who could use it,
Contributing time or resources to a social or environmental cause...
Maybe afterward we could all meet somewhere where we can enjoy being served – like maybe the pub.
Please leave a note in the comments section about some public service you’re aware of that warms the cockles of your heart (there’s a future Wordmonger post, eh?) or a public service you’re likely to engage in this week.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Collins Dictionary, the OED, United Nations, & Etymonline,
I’ve always been fond of the word ilk. It’s just far enough outside the everyday words of my suburban American life that hearing it sparks that unexpected thrill of baklava or pointilism or mariachi music – just rare enough to make me smile.
In Old English, ilk was spelled ilca & meant same. It could be used as both a noun & adjective. It came from the Proto-Germanic word, ij-lik, which also spawned the recently beleaguered word, like.
I’ll admit it, I am among those annoying teachers & adults who frown upon the use of the word like as a filler:
Like, the word ilk just makes me smile.
It also curdles my cheese when like is used as a discourse particle -- I’m like, “Dude, I love the word ilk.”
Though many assume that Moon Unit Zappa & all those Valley Girls are responsible for both twisted usages, the discourse particle usage predates Moon Unit’s birth (1967) & the first written instance of like as a filler appeared in1886 in Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson: “’What’s like wrong with him?’ said she at last.”
Interestingly, some other earlier forms of the adjective like didn’t make it to the modern vernacular, but instead, faded out in the 1700s. Consider the words liker & likest:
The moon is liker the earth than the sun.
Osbaldo is the person likest me in my family.
My wonderful 1959 Webster’s new World Dictionary suggests that like can function as all these parts of speech, though I find the asterisked ones hard to swallow:
a verb -
Phoebe likes figs smothered in melted brie.
an adjective –
After Garcon’s outburst, Consuela responded in like manner.
a noun -
Like attracts like.
an adverb -
Due to his old Anglo-Saxon work ethic, Yalmer works like mad.
a pronoun* -
Ahmed was like a man possessed.
a conjunction* -
It was just like Ludwiga said, Terence simply had no sense.
a preposition* -
Quimby is like a walking encyclopedia.
and as a suffix -
When he pouts like that, Umberto can be so childlike.
Dear followers, what do you have to say about the usage (or misusage) of like, or about the sheer beauty of ilk?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Merriam Webster, The Hot Word, Denise Winterman’s BBC article, & Etymonline,
As the holiday season approaches, it’s likely we’ll all soon be enjoying some beverages. So, here’s to all that:
Sip comes from a Low German word, sippen, meaning to sip. It entered English as supan in the 1400s.
Gulp also entered the language in the 1400s & appears to be onomatopoeic, meaning to gush, pour forth, guzzle or swallow. Gulp most likely came from the Flemish word gulpe, which meant stream of water or large draught.
Slurp is most likely another onomatopoeic word. It came from the Dutch word slurpen & entered English in its verb form in the 1640s, but took until 1949 to become a noun.
Glug is also onomatopoeic & showed up in the language in 1768 from some unspecified source.
Slug was first recorded meaning take a drink in 1756. It may have come from the Irish word slog, to swallow, or from a colorful English idiom meaning to take a drink, to take a slug.
In the 1540s, the noun swig meant a big or hearty drink of liquor. A century later, swig graduated into use as a verb.
By 1889, the idiom to take a snort entered English, meaning to have a drink of liquor, especially whiskey.
Whether you’re gulping, slurping, demurely sipping or letting down your hair & taking a snort, may the season's liquid refreshments bring you joy.
Oh, & please feel free to leave a comment.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Wordnik, 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.