Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Word-related etymologies

Word-related etymologies

Etymologies can be pretty fascinating. This week’s post considers three etymologies having to do with writing or words, but first…

…this just in from the Shameless Self Promotion Department:

If you’d like a free audiobook written by the inimitable Anne R. Allen & narrated by the talented Claire Vogel & yours truly, click here (instead of on the image). Why Grandma Bought That Car & Other Stories & Poems is a fun & thought-provoking collection. Claire & I had a grand time recording it.

And now back to word-related idioms.

The word magazine originally had nothing to do with words. Magazine came through Middle French & Italian from the Arabic word makhzan, or storehouse. Typically, a makhzan was used by armed forces to store weapons, but the editors of Gentleman’s Magazine, first published in 1731, chose to store words & stories in their magazine. And this new interpretation of the meaning stuck.

Our modern meaning of the word clerk, business assistant, showed up in the 1550s, but it’s the clerk’s ability to read & write that earned the clerk his/her moniker. The original English word clerk meant man ordained in the ministry. It came from Latin through Old French. The shift in meaning reflects the fact that in medieval times only clerics were able to read & write. 

The 1907 book, Are You a Bromide, written by Gelette Burgess inspired the modern understanding of the word blurb. On the back of the book a young woman was portrayed, labeled Miss Belinda Blurb. Her speech bubble read, “Yes, this is a blurb.” And Miss Belinda Blurb continues to grace flap copy, graciously promoting books & authors to this day.

Please share any thoughts on blurbs, clerks, magazines, or audiobooks in the comments section. 

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline, Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins, & the OED.

Thursday, June 25, 2015



In last week’s post we took a look at words meaning to raise one’s voice, so it seems only fair to look this week into the quieter end of the spectrum.

The early 1300s brought us the word mutter, meaning to mumble. It came from an imitative Proto-Indo-European word mut-, to grumble or mutter.

Murmur, an expression of discontent made by grumbling, came to English in the 1400s from the Old French word murmure, which came from the Latin word murmurare. It wasn’t until the 1600s that murmur meant softly spoken words (noun) or to speak softly (verb).

In the early 1300s the word mumble (spelled momelen) meant to eat in a slow, ineffective manner. By the end of the 1300s it picked up the meaning to speak indistinctly. Though it seems logical it might have come from the word mum, as in mum’s the word, mumble predates mum by two centuries, & nobody really knows mumble’s parentage.

The verb hush showed up in English in the 1540s, with the noun & interjection forms appearing in the 1600s.

The oft-ignored word susurration appeared in English in the 1400s from Latin, meaning a whispering or murmur.

The word whisper is an Old English word, once spelled hwisprian, meaning to murmur or speak softly. Though many modern speakers can’t even hear the difference, those of us “of a certain age” were taught to pronounce words beginning with wh- differently than those beginning with w-, & the Old English spelling hwisprian throws a little light on why the burst of air comes before the w- in words like the word whisper.

Please share any thoughts on all this in the comments section. 

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, & the OED.

Thursday, June 18, 2015



We English speakers have a number of words that mean to raise one’s voice.

Yell shows up in varied forms in most of the Germanic tongues: giellan, gjalla, gillen, gellan, gellen. Yell has been a part of English since Old English was first labeled as such. Yell comes from the Proto-Germanic word gel-, to yell or shout. Some of the older forms live on in a name for a bird that yells out, the nightingale.

Our word bellow has been with us since English became itself, too. It seems to have come from the Proto-Indo-European root bhel-, to sound or roar. Back when Old English was in vogue, bellow only referred to the sounds of animals, but by 1600 we humans could bellow with the best of them.

Shout entered English about 1300 from an unknown source, though some etymologists argue that it may have come from the originally Old English word shoot, as a shout is a voice thrown or shot out. Others argue it may have come from the Old Norse word skuta, to chide or scold.

The Old English word rarian, meaning roar, bellow, lament or cry, became our modern word roar. Though nobody knows for sure, roar is most likely imitative.

The word scream is of somewhat unknown origin, though variations of it are peppered through the Anglo Saxon and Germanic languages. Scream showed up in English in the 1100s & originally meant to terrify or scare.

As I have a fascination with our ongoing prejudice against Anglo Saxon & Germanic words in favor of the more “civilized” words of Latin & Greek origin, I find it humorous that the English synonyms for yell originating in Latin & Greek are vociferate, & exclaim. To my ear, an exclamation or vociferation simply doesn’t have the guts & oomph found in a good old fashioned yell, shout, roar, bellow, or scream.

Please share any thoughts on all this in the comments section. 

And for any of you intrigued by the statistics surrounding those of us fascinated with all this, please check out Grammarly's Anatomy of a Grammar Nerd. I think you'll love it.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, & the OED.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

To bind

To bind

The Latin word ligare meant to bind. Ligare gave birth to many modern words.

Oblige came to English about 1300, meaning to bind by oath. It came from ligare through French.

Delegate also came through French, starting in Latin as delagare to send as a representative, formed by adding the prefix de- (meaning from) to legare. It arrived in English in the 1500s, meaning representative.

League appeared in English in the 1100s, meaning confederacy. It came from the Middle French word ligue, which came from the Italian word lega, which came from the Latin word ligare.

Ligare also made its way through French to give us the word liaison which arrived in English in the 1640s.

When the prefix ad- (meaning to) attached itself to ligare, the Latin word was alligare, which in Old French became aloiier, which arrived in English about 1400 as the word alloy.

Rely also came through French, though from a form of ligare that included the prefix re-, not meaning to do again, as re- sometimes means, but meaning very or a lot. The Latin word religare meant to bind fast. In time Old French adopted a form which became the word relier, meaning to assemble, fasten, or attach. When rely made its way to English in the 1300s, its original meaning was to gather or assemble. It wasn’t until the 1570s that rely picked up the additional meaning depend or trust.

All these from the Latin word meaning to bind. If any of them surprised you, please leave a note in the comments section.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, & the OED.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Well

The Well

Last month I spent a glorious week at the Highlights Foundation, learning from the miraculous Patti Gauch. I can’t say enough about her dedication, gentleness, fierceness, knowledge, and vision.

One of her many bits of advice for the writers in attendance involved filling the well. The apparently unrelated quotes in this post, all connect to that magical week, all come from insightful women of note, & I hope they will make their way into your wells, bubble around in there, blend with what’s already there, mingle, fraternize, ferment, and grow.

“What a richly colored strong warm coat
is woven when love is the warp & work is the woof.”
-Marge Piercy

“Every bit of new truth discovered is revolutionary to what was believed before.”
-Margaret Lee Runbeck

“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them.”
-E.L. Konigsburg

“The greatest sign of success for a teacher…is to be able to say, “The children are now working as if I did not exist.”
-Maria Montessori

“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom & disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
-Rachel Carson

Readers, I hope you’ll leave a note in the comments section regarding any of these that you’d like to pour into your well.

Big thanks to the folks at the Highlights Foundation, the unparalleled Patti Gauch, my fellow attendees, & this week’s source: Rosalie Maggio’s The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Grandmother Pau

Grandmother Pau

What do Sanskrit, Hindi, Lithuanian, Yiddish, Dutch, Spanish, French, Latin, English & Norse have in common? Hard working etymologists working in the basements of ivory towers have determined these & dozens more all came from one parent language. And since it never got written down & no modern person speaks that parent language, those diligent etymologists have recreated the parent language based on the qualities of the progeny and have called that parent Proto-Indo-European.

One of the many proposed bits of Proto-Indo-European is the word pau, meaning few or little, & for an imagined word in an imagined language, our friend pau was a fertile parent. This week’s post takes a look at some of pau’s offspring, which interestingly tend to refer to horses or poverty.

The word few, meaning not many, a small number, or a little arrived in Old English early enough that it appears to have come straight from Proto-Indo-European. It arrived so early we don’t even know its birth year.

Foal, meaning foal or colt. came to Old English equally early through Proto-Germanic from Proto-Indo-European.

Poor showed up in the 1200s, meaning lacking money or resources, indigent, small or scanty. Its path took it from Proto-Indo-European through Latin & French to English.

In the 1400s filly showed up, meaning young mare, female colt or foal. It arrived in English from Proto-Indo-European via Old Norse.

In the late 1400s the word paucity came to English, meaning smallness of number or quantity. In turn, paucity gave birth to the musical term poco, meaning a little or slightly. These words made their way from Proto-Indo-European through Latin & French before arriving in English.

The word pauper arrived in English in the 1510s, meaning destitute of property or means of livelihood. It also came to English through Latin & French.

Pony came to English in the 1650s through Latin, French & Scottish, and refers to a little foal.

All these words from pau. I’m hoping some of you will leave brilliant theories in the comments section as to what the deal is with horses & poverty.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, & the OED.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Unlikely ungulates

Unlikely Ungulates

As noted three posts ago, recent DNA findings have placed some very unlikely animals under the ungulate (hoofed mammals) umbrella: whales, dolphins & porpoises. Most closely related to the hippopotamus, whales, dolphins & porpoises (also known as cetaceans) no longer have an order of their own. Scientists haven’t quite settled over whether cetaceans are a suborder or infra-order of ungulates.

The word cetacean entered English in 1830 from Modern Latin, meaning any large sea creature. The Latin term was derived from the Greek word ketos,  whale or sea monster. No one knows the source of ketos.

The Old English word hwæl, which meant both whale & walrus, gave us the word whale. Hwæl’s source was the Proto-Germanic word hwalaz. Our modern idiom whale of a/n _______, meaning big or excellent showed up in 1900.

One of many whales is the killer whale. The word killer showed up in the 1400s from the English word kill (which first appeared in the 1200s), & meant one who strikes, beats or knocks. Though we’re not 100% sure, kill may have come from the Old English word cwellan, to kill. Cwellan is also the most likely suspect for the source of qualm & quell. Our idiom to kill time kicked in about 1728. The figurative meaning of killer, impressive person or thing appeared in 1900, and the term killer instinct showed up in the world of boxing in 1931. And getting back to cetaceans, the killer whale was first called that in 1725.

In the early 1300s the word porpas appeared in English, from the Old French word porpais, which translates ingloriously to pork fish. Interestingly, the German word for porpoise translates literally to sea hog. It’s likely the somewhat pig-like snout of the porpoise may be responsible for both words, though a modern etymologist might wonder whether those long-ago French & German porpoise-namers may have sensed a deeper connection to the porpoise’s distant ungulate cousin, the pig.

Our word dolphin came from French in the mid-1300s. We can trace dolphin back through Old French, Medieval Latin, Latin & Greek to the word delphinos, meaning dolphin. This Greek root is closely related to delphys, meaning womb. Etymologists suggest Ancient Greeks found it remarkable that instead of coming from eggs, the progeny of this “fish” arrive through live birth.

Dear readers. If you’ve got anything to say about these water-bound “hoofed mammals,” please do so in the comments section.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Science Direct, Ultimate Ungulate, Etymonline, & the OED.