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, October 19, 2017

Hurt, ache, & pain

Hurt, ache, & pain

It seems there’s a lot of hurt, ache, & pain going around, so why not?

The word hurt appeared in English as early as 1200. Hurt not only meant to injure the body, feelings, or reputation, it also meant to charge against, rush, or crash into. It came from an Old French word with no definite source, though Celtic, Frankish, Middle High German, Norse, & Dutch roots have been suggested.

The verb form of the word pain came to English from Old French in 1300, meaning to strive, endeavor, hurt or strain oneself. It came from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to atone or compensate. The noun form of pain showed up later that century, meaning punishment (it’s related to the word penalty).   Hmmm — punishment=striving? Does this reflect some sort of medieval “no pain no gain” thinking? 

The Old English word for the concept of suffering continued pain gave us the modern word ache. Descendants of what appears to be ache’s root also exist in Sanskrit &  Greek. Its meaning was fault or guilt.

So might our aches be caused by guilt? Do we bring them on ourselves? Must striving and endeavoring involve pain? And how often is it we find ourselves uncertain of the source of our hurt

Ponderings aside, may you avoid all the following aches:

tooth-ache (1200 or earlier)
belly-ache (1590)
back-ache (1600) 
heart-ache (1600)
stomach-ache (1763)
earache (1789)
headache (1934)

Comments? Here’s hoping you’ll avoid any hurtful ones.

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

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A mixed bag

A mixed bag

Here’s a collection of completely unrelated etymologies — just a small pile of intriguing ones I hope you enjoy.

Why do gambling card players throw money into the kitty? Before we English speakers called it kitty we called it kit, & before that we called it kist, a Middle English word which gave us the word chest — another word for a box into which one might put money.

Many Americans point to lobbying as one of our government’s problems. So what’s the source of lobby, lobbyist, & lobbying? Initially, those who wanted access to lawmakers simply entered the legislative chambers & made their case. When this became cumbersome (& I should imagine tiresome), they were bumped outside the chamber to the lobby (where, it appears, they still successfully sway votes & occasionally write legislation).

When something is false or fake we might label it as phony. It seems this word most likely came from a mispronunciation of Forney, the name of a chap who manufactured and sold brass rings that appeared to be gold. These became known as Forney rings, which in time shifted to phony rings, & soon phony broadened to mean anything fraudulent.

The idiom killed by kindness is based on an event some claim is true & some claim is folklore. The Athenian legislator Draco is said to have been well-liked (though his name also gave us the term draconian). He was responsible for the first written set of laws in Athens. Though the setting down of laws is typically seen as a good thing for everybody, Draco’s laws clearly favored those with power, money, & prestige. As the story goes, Draco was so well-loved that in response to his popularity, the crowd in the chamber showered him with caps, shirts & cloaks to the point that he was smothered to death, killed by kindness. I find myself reflecting on the possibility that those who can afford to dispense with their caps, shirts, & cloaks probably were quire fond of him.

Comments? You know what to do.

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

Thursday, October 5, 2017



This week we investigate whether a pie by any other name taste as sweet.

Sometime around 1300 the word pie appeared in English. It was used to refer to meat or fish encased in pastry. Some etymologists argue that it came from an Old English word for bakery, piehus, while others argue pie must have pre-dated piehus because the Old English word for house was — you guessed it — hus, thus the word for bakery might have simply meant pie house. Sadly, at the moment we don’t have enough linguistic forensic information to answer this pressing question.  

Pie seems to have a relationship with a Medieval Latin word meaning the same thing. It also seems to be connected with the word magpie. The connection may be that a medieval pie included various foodstuffs, while a pastry included only one, and a magpie has a fascination for collecting miscellaneous objects. Just think, if it tables were turned on those two words, we’d all be calling a black and white bird a magpastry

In the 1500s, a cunning person could be referred to as a wily pie.

By the 1600s, the word pie could be used to label a fruit-filled pastry.

In the 1830s, folks forced to face humiliation could be said to be eating humble pie. This idiom is based on umble pie, a pie made of inglorious animal parts — a dish eaten by folks who couldn’t afford anything else — thus the confusion with the word humble.

The inaccurate, yet ubiquitous idiom easy as pie showed up in 1889. 

As of 1904 we could label an inebriated individual as pie-eyed

By 1911, unrealistic hopes could be referred to as pie in the sky.

And in 1922 the term pie chart was born.

The word pi has no relationship to pie pi came through Greek from a Phoenician word meaning little mouth & appeared in English in 1748 to refer to the mathematical constant 3.14…

If you’re inspired to comment non-etymologically, consider sharing your favorite sort of pie

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

Thursday, September 28, 2017



Recently, yoga has become a fascination for many and a way of life for some, while others find the whole idea unthinkable. Whatever your opinion about yoga, I’m hoping you’ll find its etymology as appealing as I do.

Yoga first came to English in 1820 through Hindi from a Sanskrit word meaning union or yoking. That Sanskrit word came from the Proto-Indo-European word *yeugh-, which meant, to join. It takes no imagination to see how the ideas of union, wholeness & joining could come to mean yoga, but what I find truly fascinating is all the other words that proposed root word *yeugh- has grown into.

It gave us join, adjoin, conjoin, enjoin & joint.

It gave us junction, juncture, adjunct, conjunct & subjunctive.

It gave us subjugate, conjugate & conjugal.

And how about yoke, zygote, jostle, joust, jugular & junta?

*yeugh- to join, gave us all those words while also contributing words to Lithuanian, Old Church Slavonic, Hittite, Greek, Latin, & Old Welsh.

Nothing like a little joining, eh?

Thanks to all of you who contacted me through the blog and through other means to express condolences for the loss of my friend Paul Fahey, subject of last week’s post. Rest assured, Paul was & continues to be well loved.

And please leave any comments about yoga and its many family-members in the comments section.

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

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Paul Fahey

Paul Fahey

Often, we crazy humans don’t acknowledge the wonders of those around us until they pass away. Since my friend Paul just passed away, I suppose I’m doing that right here. Still, I’m confident in saying that people have been appreciating the wonders of Paul for decades.

This week’s post will consider the etymologies of some of the words people have been describing Paul with for years.

Supportive appeared in the 1590s from the verb support through Old French from a Latin word meaning to convey, carry or bring up. 

Talented showed up in English in the 1630s. It came from the word talent, which has been around since the 1200s, meaning inclination, will, or desire. It came from Greek through Latin & Old French, & originally meant a balance, a pair of scales, or anything of weight

Encouraging came to English in the 1400s from the word courage, which was born of an Old French word meaning innermost feelings, heart.

Gracious made its way to English in the 1300s from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning to favor. One of gracious’s English meanings is merciful & benevolent.

Kind made its way to us through Proto-Germanic & Old English. When the word kind appeared in Modern English in the 1400s,  it meant benign, compassionate, loving, full of tenderness.

One of the conversations Paul & I regularly shared over the years had to do with the word mensch, a person of strength & honor. We share(d) the goal of working toward what we called menschhood. Mensch came to English in 1907 through Yiddish from a German word meaning human. Mensch’s Proto-Indo-European root was *manna-, which isn’t related to manna from heaven, but I would submit that having a mensch in one’s life, like having Paul Fahey in one’s life, is indeed, manna. I miss him.

Paul was a prolific writer, editor, & LGBTQ advocate. I hope those of you who didn’t know Paul might follow a link or two to get to know him through his books, & those of you who did know Paul might remember him with a smile. 


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

Thursday, September 14, 2017



Here at Wordmonger I’ve had a fine time celebrating dog idioms, dish idioms, walking idioms, skin idioms, & idioms made from the words in the title of John Green’s novel, The Fault in Our Stars. This week it’s time for idioms based around the word fish, a word that takes up nearly three full pages of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Big fish in a small pond is a figure of speech started in America in the early 1880s. Many people prefer being the big fish in a small pond, although escaping into the larger sea can have its advantages.

Though Chaucer included the term “a fish that is waterless” in Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s, the first time the term a fish out of water appeared in print seems to be three centuries later. You might say it’s the rare bird who enjoys feeling like a fish out of water, though I have appreciated that situation many times – a year in American Samoa as one of the few palagi on the island, a couple of years as the only Anglo in the Cal State Northridge Pan African Studies Gospel Choir, the list goes on…

There is, of course, the possibility that the fish in the water think of the fish out of water as queer fish, a British idiom that appeared in 1919, applied to anyone who might appear odd or eccentric.

Etymologists argue about the origins of fine kettle of fish (& its sibling, pretty kettle of fish). Some are moderately certain the idiom was born of a Scottish term kettle of fish, which referred to a picnic of sorts, in which the local landholder invited his minions to enjoy a day off work. This event called for the minions to light a fire on the riverbank, suspend a giant kettle over it, catch fresh fish, cook them in the kettle, and serve them to the visiting nobles. No one is certain how the theoretically positive experience could have collected a negative connotation, but I do wonder about those “lucky” minions who were invited to do all the work. Other etymologists suggest a pretty kettle of fish may have originated as a pretty kiddle of fish. Kiddle was a word used to refer to nets thrown across a river to catch the fish. Perhaps when the catch was particularly successful (or pretty), hauling in a bunch of flapping, unhappy fish made a bit of a mess? The jury is out & sparring etymologists continue to duke it out.

In 1660, John Evelyn first penned the idiom bigger fish to fry, which may be the sort of thing that leads a big fish in a small pond to venture into the larger sea, where he may feel like a queer fish, or a fish out of water, or might discover that life out of his little pond is a pretty kettle of fish.

What other fish idioms can you add to the list? Please leave a comment suggesting an idiom or two.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: the OED, Etymonline. Barron’s Handbook of Commonly Used American Idioms, Literary Exchange,,, The, Wise Geek,, & Wordnik  (I've reprieved this post from 2015)

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Belly words

Belly words

Given our propensity for redundancy, we English speakers have a surprisingly limited number of words to refer to the belly.

The word stomach came to English in the late 1300s from Greek through Latin & Old French. It originally held multiple meanings. 1: the gullet, throat or belly, 2: inclination, taste or liking, & 3: dislike or distaste. Because at the time many believed pride to reside in the belly, stomach also operated as a synonym for the word pride.

As of 1867, English speakers could refer to the stomach with the word tummy, which modern dictionaries label as an infantile synonym for stomach. The less formal dictionaries use the descriptor baby-talk.

Gut came to Old English from Proto-Indo-European. Most Germanic languages still have some variation of gut. Closely related to the word gutter, gut initially meant channel, a meaning which was soon applied to biological channels and came to mean entrails or bowels. In the 1300s gut picked up the verb meaning entrail-removal & another noun meaning stomach. It wasn’t until 1918 that the idiom to hate someone’s guts was born.

The no-longer-in-vogue word paunch came to us from Latin through Old French from a word meaning stomach or swelling.

And belly came from a Germanic word meaning belly or pouch. Its Germanic-language sisters have similar meanings including bag, husk, bellows, pod, billow, purse, pod, & wineskin. All these words come from a Proto-Indo-European verb meaning to blow or swell. And the idiom belly up to the bar appeared sometime in the 1930s.

Here’s hoping you successfully stomached all that. Anything to say about it? Please use the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources Etymonline, Collins Dictionary,, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & the OED.