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.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The wealthy ones

The wealthy ones

We have some intriguing ways of referring to those in our world who hold more wealth than the rest of us.

Elite came to English in 1823 from French, meaning a choice or select body, the best part. Its French source came from a Latin word meaning choose.

Swank came to the language in 1913, meaning classy or stylish. It appears to have come from the Proto-Germanic word meaning to swing, turn or toss. Linguists suggest that those with means may have been perceived to swagger, an act that might involve a bit of swinging, turning or tossing.

Nobody knows for certain where posh came from, but it showed up in 1914. Folk etymologies tell the tale of wealthy travelers who insisted on the very best cabins ships sailing from England to India had to offer, creating the acronym posh: port outward, starboard home, as such cabins would keep the travelers out of the sun on both stretches of the voyage. Though it’s a fine & plausible tale, etymologists can find no evidence to support the claim. A more possible source is the now-lost Romany word, posh, which meant half & was used by London street folk in the early 1800s to refer to a half penny. Posh was apparently also used to refer to passersby perceived as dandies. The etymological posh jury is still out.

In 1872 the term well-heeled appeared in America, meaning both having much money & being well-armed. In the mid-1800s in cock-fighting, a well-heeled bird had sharp spurs, allowing it to inflict maximum damage on its unfortunate opponents. Further back, 1817 a well-heeled Brit was one of the lucky folks who owned shoes.

Though it might appear that the Old French word riche, meaning wealthy & sumptuous, is the source of our modern word rich, it was actually the Old English term rice, meaning strong, powerful, of high rank, that gave birth to rich. The Old French word riche influenced how people used the word, but rich really started out as a word of power & strength. Intriguing, eh?

So good readers, was any of this surprising, unlikely, or worthy of remark?

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

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Foster vs. rescue

Foster vs. rescue

Meet Amigo. He moved in about a month ago as the latest in a long line of my wife Ellen’s foster dogs (100+ & counting). Those involved in the Big World of Dog Care wouldn't yet apply to word rescue to Amigo just yet, though others often use the words interchangeably.

Foster came into English so early it was Old English, meaning food, nourishment, bringing up. It appears to have come from the Proto-Indo European word, pa, meaning to protect and feed. Pa also appears to be the source of the word food. In English, as early as the 1200s, foster meant to bring up a child with parental care. By the 1300s, foster added the meaning to encourage or help grow. These meanings apply pretty well to Amigo. He’s definitely getting nourishment, both edible and emotional. He’s getting some parenting he hadn’t previously received, & he is definitely receiving encouragement. Though the dictionary doesn’t label fostering as temporary, it is considered temporary in the Big World of Dog Care. A foster dog is being nourished and encouraged by its foster family until a life-long home can be found. This doesn’t always work out (a story that can be better told by the three “failed” foster dogs asleep in our house as I type).

On the other hand, the verb rescue came to English from the French word rescorre in the 1200s, meaning to protect, keep safe, free, or deliver. The French word came from Latin, & is related to the word quash, (in simplified terms, rescue means ex-quash). The associated noun showed up in English about a century after the verb. Though it could be informally said that Ellen rescued Amigo from the pound, those in the Big World of Dog Care save the word rescue for the 501c3 non-profit groups that pull critters out of pounds and shelters, house them & promote them to those who might eventually adopt them. Sounds a lot like fostering, but to all those hardworking people shuffling animals around, there’s a big difference.

Any thoughts about rescuing, fostering, or quashing? Leave them in the comments section.

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015



Saturday, March 14 is National Ask a Question Day. We’ll celebrate by taking a somewhat broad-brush look at the subject.

Speaking of broad-brushes: Indira Gandhi said, “The power to question is the basis of all human progress,” whereas L.E. Landon wrote, “Curiosity is its own suicide.”

The noun question came to English in the early 1200s, meaning a philosophical or theological problem. In the next century it added the meaning a difficulty or doubt, and by the 1500s we could use question as a verb. If we look back a bit further, things get a little dark. Question came from an Old French word meaning difficulty, problem, legal interrogation, or torture, which causes one to wonder about those Old French folk, as quaestionem, the Latin source of the Old French word, simply meant a seeking, a question, or judicial inquiry.

Free of that more menacing shade of meaning is the synonym query, which came to English in the 1500s as a noun meaning a question, from the Latin word quaerere, meaning to seek, strive, endeavor or demand. Query became a verb in the 1600s, meaning simply, to question.

It would be fair to say that behind most questions & queries we find curiosity, a word that arrived in the language in the late 1300s, meaning both the desire to know or learn & careful attention to detail. Arriving about that same time was the word curious, which meant both inquisitive, & the somewhat less positive odd, anxious, & strange. During a spate in the 1700s when curious was seen to mean exciting curiosity, curious operated in genteel circles as a euphemism for erotic or pornographic.

We’ll close off with author Fran Lebowitz’s addition to the conversation:

“Children ask better questions than do adults. ‘May I have a cookie?’ ‘Why is the sky blue?’ and ‘What does a cow say?’ are far more likely to elicit a cheerful response than ‘Where’s your manuscript?’ ‘Why haven’t you called?’ and ‘Who’s your lawyer?’”

Please use the comments section for any questions (or answers) about questions.

Thursday, March 5, 2015



This week we’ll be celebrating the birthday of Olympic high jumper, Dick Fosbury by looking into the word flop. Fosbury made history (& a big splash) in the 1968 Olympics by earning the gold medal with his unconventional high jump method, known ever since as the Fosbury Flop.

Flop’s earliest appearance in English occurred centuries before Dick Fosbury, about the year 1600. It meant to flap, & appears to have been derived from the word flap, which came to English two hundred years earlier.

In 1823 flop established itself as a noun, so that when something flopped, the noise involved could be labeled a flop.

The meaning to fall or drop heavily was added to flop’s arsenal of meaning in 1836.

By 1893 flop picked up the meaning a failure.

In 1858, flop’s adjective cousin, floppy was born.

By 1836 flop gave birth to the more jocular term, flopperoo.

Another meaning, complete failure, came about in 1893.

In 1900 the term flip-flop showed up, meaning a complete change in direction.

In 1902, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published, featuring the risk-taking antics of Peter & the rule-following ways of his good little siblings, Cottontail, Mopsy and Flopsy.

The word flub, derived from flop, joined us in 1920, meaning a botch or bungle.

The sound of plastic sandals was responsible for the 1970s term, flip-flop. Interestingly, the term flip-flap had been used to echo that same sound since 1520.

This week, to celebrate Dick Fosbury’s 68th birthday, please spend a little time appreciating the word flop:
            -take a stroll in plastic sandals
            -watch a truly bad movie or play
            -change your opinion
            -at the end of a long day, fall or drop heavily into bed
-or leave a comment right here about all this floppishness

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015



Sometimes our words come from mispronunciations.

An apprentice or lackey for a more talented individual can be referred to as a student, at one time pejoratively mispronounced stugent. Though it’s not nailed down, some linguists assert  that in 1913 this purposeful mispronunciation spawned the word stooge.

The Spanish word juzgar means to judge. The court or tribunal where a judge might be employed is a juzgao. Some time around 1911 we Americans mispronounced juzgao & misunderstood its meaning, and voila, hoosegow was born,

In Turkish, the letter g can represent a sound somewhat close to an English w. The Turkish word yog, meaning to condense, is the root of the Turkish word yogurt (pronounced in Turkish yowurt). The spelling led to the English mispronunciation of yogurt, which entered the language in the 1620s.

The word for golden in Middle Dutch was gulden. In the late 1400s, English speakers mispronounced gulden, morphing it into guilder.

The word bulge, meaning a rounded projection or protuberance, appears to have been dialectically mispronounced about 1872 as bug, giving us the term bug-eyed. So even though some insects may be bug-eyed, the bug in bug-eyed doesn’t mean bug.

The word haphazard, meaning unplanned, random or ineffectual, appears to be the source of the crass & initially purposefully mispronounced word half-assed, which came to English in 1913.

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

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Haphazard Idioms

Haphazard Idioms

The following idioms don’t follow a theme or tell a story. They simply have individual elements I find fascinating. I hope you’ll agree.

The term blubbermouth, a crybaby or weepy person, has been around since 1400. Originally, blubber (spelled blober) referred to the bubbling, foaming sound & product of the tide. By the 1500s the term picked up the meaning whale oil, and a century later the meaning whale fat. Some weeping-related synonyms that have since fizzled out include blubberguts, blubberhead, & blubbercheeks.

Our figurative term can’t hold a candle to has wonderfully literal beginnings. Back when candles were first created, if a task needed to be completed after sunset, the most able person performed the task while a less able person held the candle. The least able person didn’t even have the aptitude to hold the candle while the work was being done.

A goody-two-shoes is an obnoxiously good individual. The term was born in the 1700s in John Newbery’s children’s collection, Mother Goose’s Melody: or Sonnets for the Cradle. One of the stories featured a painfully poor girl who was fortunate enough to be given a pair of shoes. She was so pleased, she started most interactions by pointing at them & exclaiming, “Two shoes!” It’s not entirely clear how an eternally grateful individual morphed into an obnoxiously good individual, but we’ll let that mystery be.

Contrary to popular assumptions, the idiom out of sight, meaning excellent, has been in existence since 1896.

The term whipper-snapper, or small, cheeky person, appeared first in the 1670s. A century before that, the term snipper-snapper held a similar meaning, which is cited by some sources as whipper-snapper’s origin, though other sources claim whip-snapper, person in charge, is the origin of whipper-snapper.  

The term narrow-minded, meaning small-minded & bigoted, was born in 1625. Interestingly, its sister-word narrow-hearted, meaning mean, ungenerous & ignoble, has not survived.

So, did anything in that somewhat arbitrary list pique your interest? If so, please leave a comment.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Hugh Rawson’s book Wicked Words, Merriam Webster,  Etymonline, & the OED.

Thursday, February 12, 2015



Idioms. You gotta love ‘em. This one has a particularly interesting history.

The word starkers showed up in English in 1923, meaning completely naked. Its roots appear in the term stark naked, which English speakers were using as early as 1520. At this point in the family roots, there’s an unexpected fork.

One would expect stark naked & starkers’ origins to be stark, which came from the Old English word stearc, which meant obstinate, severe, rigid, stiff, stern, strong or violent. By the 1400s, the idiom stark dead came about. Though stark actually referred to the rigidity of a corpse, popular understanding led to the belief that stark was intensifying dead, much like saying truly dead or very dead. It appears this caused the meaning of stark to shift to mean utter, sheer or complete. By the 1640s, that newly established meaning contributed to the Idiom stark raving, possibly translatable today as totally psycho. By the 1830s, stark added a new meaning, bare or barren.

Some other words that were born into Old English of the stiff meaning of stearc include stork, thorn (who would’ve thunk?) & possibly stretch. A century or more later, starch, stereo, & sterile all came from the stiff or rigid meaning of stark.

But wait. What about that previously mentioned “unexpected fork” in the family roots? The two words or terms above that didn’t come from stearc are stark naked & starkers. They came from another Old English word, steort, which is also the root of the name of a bird called a redstart, a colorful critter named for its red derriere. All this because steort meant rear end, rump or buttocks, which leads to the realization that stark naked actually translates to mean butt naked.

Idioms. You gotta love ‘em.

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