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.
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.
The word(s) Christmas showed up in Old English in 1123 as Cristes mæsse. It’s no surprise that the first bit heralds from the word Christ, while the second comes from the celebration of mass. More intriguing to me are the arrival dates of the following:
Father Christmas, late 1400s
Christmas box, 1611
Christmas tree 1835
Christmas card 1843
Xmas, which I’ve always assumed is a tacky invention of modern Americans, actually showed up in 1551 in England, the X coming from the first letter of Christos in Greek. Before that, examples of Xrmas (beginning with the first two letters of Christos in Greek) occurred as early as 1100. It turns out we tacky Americans don’t hold responsibility for this one. That 1551 citing comes from the arguably erudite E. Lodge, British historian.
And who knew that yule & jolly are kissing cousins? Both appear to come from a pre-Christian winter feast known in Old Norse as jol. Jolly showed up in English in 1300 after jol made its way through French, becoming jolif, meaning festive, pretty, merry, or amorous, whereas yule (also born of jol) made its way through the Old English word geola, which meant Christmas day or Christmastide. Here’s hoping those amorous Old Norsefolk who gave us these words experienced many a jolly jol in doing so.
Please leave a comment, & whether you celebrate Christmas or some other wintry holiday with friends, with family, or all by your lonesome, may your Christmas mass, your time around the Yule log, or your general jolliness be downright glorious.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, Collins Dictionary, Ginger Williams (image) & 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.
This year, folks will celebrate Chanukkah December 22 to December 30, so in preparation, let’s take an etymological glance at Chanukkah & a few Chanukkah-related words that have made their way into English.
I’ll start by noting that the spellings I’ve chosen for this post are those favored by Balashon– the Hebrew Language Detective. Do others prefer other spellings? Yes. Any time English steals from elsewhere (which is most of the time), spellings get funky. There you go.
Not surprisingly, Chanukkah, means consecration. It entered English at the late date of 1891 (linguistic anti Semitism at work, perchance?). Interestingly, Chanukkah was the proper name of Cain’s oldest son, the father of Methusaleh.
Menorah entered English about the same time (1886), meaning candlestick, from a Semitic term meaning to shine or give light. This word came from the Arabic word manarah or manarat, meaning fire. The word minaret comes from the same root, which means there’s hardly an etymological degree of separation between minarets all over the world, from which Muslims are called to prayer, & the countless menorahs lit for Chanukkah.
Dreidel comes to English through Yiddish, & came to Yiddish through German. Dreidel's German root drehen means to spin. Its relatives include throw, torque, twist, & torment. This may shed new light on the idiom “she’s got her knickers in a twist,” though I’m not sure exactly what we can learn from that.
For as long as I remember I’ve had a fondness for the term Mazel tov. It came into English in 1826 from the Modern Hebrew term mazzel tob, which means good luck. This came from another Hebrew word mazzaloth, which refers to constellations, a connection to the understanding that one’s luck might be in the stars.
So, this Chanukkah, may menorahs burn brightly, dreidels spin nimbly, minarets do their good work, & may nobody’s knickers get in a twist over any of it.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, Etymonline. & Balashon –Hebrew Language Detective
Anagrams are the sort of sick fascination we word nerds embrace. For those who haven’t previously played with anagrams, an anagram can be made by using all the letters in a given word, phrase or sentence & re-arranging them into something new.
For instance, here are two anagrams of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:
Deep northern lurid horse deed
Horror: deep tennis hurdle deed
Below please find some anagrams. Each group can be translated into a phrase we’re likely to hear this time of year.
Festive Anagram 1
Ahoy, hippy lads
Holy yap aphids
Ashy hippo lady
Soy aphid phyla
Popish lady hay
Aphid hay ploys
Festive Anagram 2
Hydro jot towel
Jowly red tooth
Do lower thy jot
Throw, pot, yodel
Festive Anagram 3
Reenact a hope
Prehost a cone
A coherent ape
Create a phone
A threep canoe
Please translate the three festive anagrams into their original forms & leave your translations in the comments section, OR play around with a festive anagram of your own & enter your list of translations in the comments section for others to ponder (old schoolers prefer to create anagrams with pen, pencil & grey matter, however this online anagram tool is speedier.
My thanks go out to this week’s source: Andy’s Anagram Solver
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.