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, April 28, 2016

A dollar by any other name

A dollar by any other name

Ah, the ubiquitous dollar. We have many names for it. In this post we’ll cover a few of them.

In the 1550s the word dollar entered the English language. It referred to any number of coins of various values. Dollar comes from the German word thaler, an abbreviation of the word Joachimstaler, a word which referred to the coins minted in the town called Joachimstal, a village positioned in a valley, taler) & named for a chap called Joachim.

In 1836 Washington Irving first connected the two words almighty dollar, defining it as “that great object of universal devotion throughout our land.”

In 1855 some folks started calling dollars scads. Nobody’s certain about the source of the word scads, though some etymologists point toward a fish called the scad. Apparently the scaled, cold-blooded scads tend to travel in abundant schools. There is no singular form of the monetary scad, & by 1869 scads added the generalized meaning, large amounts. Connection? Nobody knows for sure.

In 1856 the word buck kicked in among American English speakers. Buck (meaning dollar) also has no verified source, though some have wondered whether bucks may have sprung from buckskins, which were used in some places as a unit of trade on the American frontier.

In 1862, Americans started calling dollars greenbacks. Before this, paper money was printed & issued by individual banks. The country’s paper money (initially known as demand notes) was printed in green ink, thus the name, greenbacks.

In 1895 the word simoleon came to mean dollar. Though nobody’s sure why simoleon came to mean dollar, & nobody has found a connection to Roman coin-names, there were Roman coins called simbella & simodius.

About 1936 the word single came to mean dollar. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how single came to mean dollar. Single has been a word in English since 1400 & came from the Old French word sengle, which meant alone, unaccompanied, unadorned.

In the 1940s, for no reason I can find, some Americans started calling dollars rutabagas.

Any thoughts about all these monetary monikers? Please say so in the comments section.

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

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Even more kids

Even more kids

Welcome to the third of three posts on synonyms for child. The first & second posts can be found here & here.

In 1725 the Scottish word tot, little child, became an English word. It appears to have come from either the word totter, OR an Old Norse term for dwarf, OR a Danish term of endearment that translates to thumb-child.

In early Renaissance Western England and the northern Midlands there was a word for ragged garment. It was related to the word for cloak. This word morphed by about 1500 to mean beggar’s child. The word? Brat.

Back in the 1300s, urchin meant hedgehog (it still does in Shropshire, Yorkshire & Cumbria). Apparently the word urchin was used pejoratively to refer to those who looked different. Etymonline tells us these unfortunates ranged “from hunchbacks to goblins to bad girls.” By the 1500s, we English speakers landed on a new meaning for urchin: raggedly clothed youngster.

Along similar lines, the word nipper appeared in 1530s to refer to a pickpocket. One can imagine how the chaos, poverty, & 16-hour work days of parents during the industrial revolution might have inspired nipper to shift its meaning to small boy (by 1859).

Friend Bruce West asked about the terms of affection sometimes applied to children, punkin & punkinhead. These spellings, considered to be “vulgar American English,” appeared in 1806 & appear to have come from the 1780s term pumpkinhead, which referred to a person whose hair was “cut short all around.” Pumpkin, as in squash, showed up in English in 1640 from Middle French.

Bambino came to English in 1761 from the Italian word for baby, the diminutive form of bambo, the Italian word for simple. Interestingly, in 1919 the word bambino gave birth to another English word that originally meant simple fellow, the word bimbo. Only one year later, bimbo picked up the additional meaning floozy.

Any thoughts about all these childish words? Please say so in the comments section.

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

Thursday, April 14, 2016

More kids

More kids

Last week’s post on synonyms for child was just a start. Here are some more ways we might refer to young folk.

In 1793 the word toddler came to English. Its source was the English verb toddle, which showed up in 1600. Toddle may have come from totter, or from another English verb from the 1500s meaning to toy or play.

Lass came to English in 1300 from a Scandinavian source, though etymologists can’t decide which one. Some suggest the source was an Old Swedish word meaning unmarried woman, some posit lass came from a West Frisian source meaning light & thin, and some suggest a Norse source for lass – a word meaning idle & weak. Though I hold nothing against the Norse, it would be nice to hear some future word historians disprove that possibility.

Though many of us might assume the English word lad had its source in the Scottish words lad & laddie, the Scots borrowed those words from English in the 1540s, more than two centuries after ladde appeared in English. In 1300 it meant both foot solider & young male servant. Like lass, lad’s source has etymologists’ collective knickers in a twist. Some suggest lad comes from a Middle English word meaning one who is led. Other word sleuths argue for a Norwegian word meaning young man, while those aforesaid Norse provide the most unlikely & intriguing possibility. It seems there was a time when pejorative terms associated the slandered subject with shoes, socks or stockings (I’m not making this up). The Old Norse word for woolen stockings or hose was ladd, and may have been the source for our modern word lad, though if so, it came through boys being referred to as the equivalent of fools.

And of course, there are the deliciously negative terms born in 1960s, rugrat & anklebiter.

Any thoughts about all these childish words? Please say so in the comments section.

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

Thursday, April 7, 2016



After last week’s look at terms referring to parents, we’ll take a couple of weeks considering some of the words we use to refer to children.

The Old English word cild had a broader meaning than our modern word child. It meant infant, newly born person, unborn person, & fetus. It came from a Proto-Germanic word whose descendants from various languages include words meaning womb, pregnant, children of the same marriage, & litter. It wasn’t until later Old English that cild/child came to mean young person before the onset of puberty. Our modern plural children (born in the 1100s) was predated by the 975 AD plural of child, cildru.

Both baby & babe, meaning infant, showed up in the 1300s from the Old English word baban, most likely a term imitating an infant’s babble. Baby also came to mean childish adult person about 1600 & about 1915 babe came to mean attractive young woman. Interestingly, the French word bébé came from the English word baby.

The Old English word geoguð meant junior warriors, the young of cattle, & young people, & morphed in time into the modern word youth. Related words include geong, which became the word young, & geongling which morphed first into youngling, & by 1580 into youngster.

The Old Norse word kið, meaning the young of a goat, gave English speakers the word kid as early as 1200. It took until the 1590s for kid to refer to the offspring of humans. Kid was not always a term of endearment, as our friends at tell us it was “applied to skillfull young thieves and pugilists since at least 1812.” The more endearing word kiddo showed up in 1893.

The word tyke probably came from Old Norse & made its English debut in the 1300s, meaning mongrel or cur. Tyke didn’t start meaning child until 1902.

I’m planning on investigating more childish words next week. Any you’d like to know about? Leave a request under comments.

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

Thursday, March 31, 2016



A while ago, fellow writer and friend Angela Russell asked where we get the words we use to label our parents. Since this is a family-friendly blog, I’ve stuck with traditional words, leaving out those terms of non-endearment that might be used by children under duress.

Mother comes from the Old English word, modor, which comes from Proto-Germanic. Chances are good mother was born of ma, that first sound many babies make (many etymologists associate ma with suckling), paired with –ther, known as a kinship suffix (sometimes showing up as –ter).

That ma sound gave us most our words for mother. It seems almost all Indo-European languages have some form of ma or mamma:

Welsh: mam
French: maman
German: muhme
Greek: mamme
Persian, Russian, Lithuanian & others: mama

In 1844 in American English the word mommy grew out of mamma. And in 1867 mom was born of mommy. In Britain it seems mamma morphed first in to mummy in 1815, and then into mum by 1823.

And on to the dads.

In the 1200s the word sire appeared in English, meaning lord or liege. Within fifty years it came to also mean father.

The OId English word fæder came from Proto-Germanic and gave us our modern word father. Fæder ‘s original meanings included he who begets a child, nearest male relative, & supreme being. Other words that share father’s etymological lineage include:

Dutch: vader
German: vater
Gothic: atta
Old Irish: athir
Old Persian: pita
Sanskrit: pitar
Greek & Latin: pater

In multiple sources I find commentary that the word dad is thought to be “prehistoric” – far older than written records could possibly show. I am astounded to find no similar claims for mama, which forces me to question whether this mostly reflects solid research, or mostly reflects sexism. Hmmm. My musings notwithstanding, about 1500 the word daddy appeared.

The Old French word papa made its way into English in the 1680s. Americans shortened papa to pop in 1838.

Back in 1200 the term old man came to mean boss, father or husband, though it took until 1775 for old lady to come to mean mother or wife.

It was no surprise that I was unable to find the terms of endearment my sister & I used for our parents, Muz & Puz. This causes me to wonder whether other offspring labeled their parents in a similarly odd or unique fashion. Good readers, I’m hoping you’ll address these wonderings in the comments section.

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

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Final Craziness

Final Craziness

After three craziness posts (March 2, March 9 & March 16), here’s one more addressing words and terms we use to suggest someone is unhinged. Due to the abundant number, I’m skipping the word histories. And still, there are dozens more.

Late 1600s – to be half-baked
1810 – to have a screw loose
1850s – to be off one’s chump
Late 1800s – to be off one’s base,
Late 1800s - to be off one’s kadoova
Late 1800s -To not have all one’s buttons
Late 1800s – To slip a cog
Late 1800s – to be out of touch
1870 – to be off one’s conk
1890 – to be off one’s onion
Early 1900s - to be off one’s kazip
Early 1900s - to be off one’s bean,
1929 – To be round the bend (or around the bend)
1940s - to be off one’s nana
1950s - to be off one’s nob

Also, good friend and fellow writer Bruce West wrote in to remind me of two more:

The universal sign language of the index finger spinning at the temple, which Bruce points out was first reported in 1885 by Captain “White Hat” Clark of the US Cavalry when documenting the sign language of Native Americans.

Dinky dau, a term Bruce & his fellow Viet Nam vets brought home with them. The direct translation is crazy head, though dinky dau is used as a synonym for crazy.

Having so many ways to say crazy is, well, crazy! In the comments section, I’m hoping some of you might note the term above that most took you by surprise.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

More Craziness

More Craziness

It’s sad social commentary that we English speakers have nearly an infinite number of ways to tell someone he or she is unbalanced. We looked at some in the March 3 post, then a few more in the March 10 post. And we continue...

The literal meaning of batty (full of bats) appeared in English in the 1580s. It took until 1903 for its figurative meaning to take hold. Batty, meaning nuts or crazy grew from the idiom to have bats in one’s belfry, an American phrase born just a decade before batty.

In 1861 the British established one of many military outposts in India. It was called Deolali, a local word for which I can’t find a definition. The story goes that after their tours of duty, soldiers sitting around at Deolali got a bit stir-crazy. And thus, in 1917, the word doolally was born, meaning crazy or eccentric.

Kooky is an American term that showed up in 1959. Though etymologists aren’t certain, kooky most likely came from an American twist on the word cuckoo, which initially (mid-1200s) referred to a bird with an annoyingly repetitive call. In the 1580s a British figurative form of cuckoo was born, meaning stupid person, a reflection of the never-changing nature of the call. Then in America in 1918, the crazy, unbalanced meaning of cuckoo came to life.

In 1705, the crazy-meaning buggy was born before the automotive buggy, though by all reports, the erratic behavior of early automobile drivers certainly could have inspired the crazy meaning of buggy. Truth is, nobody knows why buggy means unbalanced.

In 1610 the meaning of unsound mind was added to the existing word crazy, a word which first showed up in the 1570s, meaning diseased or sickly, & in only another ten years began to mean full of cracks or flaws.

Some crazy-based meanings & idioms include:
-1873 – to drive someone crazy
-1877 – Crazy Horse – A moniker I’ve always incorrectly assumed slapped the craziness on the Oglala Lakota leader who bore the name. In fact, a more accurate translation of Tȟašúŋke Witkó’s name is “His Horse is Crazy”.
-1927 – cool or exciting, from the world of jazz
-1935 – crazy like a fox

I’m hoping you’ve got something to say about all this craziness. If so, please do so in the comments section.