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, 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.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Warm colors

Warm colors

We English speakers have been using the word red as a noun meaning ruddy or red in color since the 1200s. There are versions of red in Old Norse, Middle Dutch, Old Saxon, and most the Germanic languages. In Old English we mostly spelled it read, which gave us the last names Reid & Read (names based on a color, much like the surnames Black, Brown, Green, & White. In the 1580s, English speakers began using this word to refer to the skin color of native Americans. In 1781 the idiom red-handed came into usage, in 1898 the idiom to see red was born, & the idiom red carpet came about in 1934.

The word orange arrived in English about 1300 through French, Latin, Arabic and Persian from naranga-s, a Sanskrit word meaning orange tree. Interestingly, orange continued to refer to the orange tree until the 1540s, when it finally made its way onto the artist’s palette to label a color. It’s believed the initial n was lost in English due to confusion introduced by the article a/an. The confusion becomes evident by reading this aloud: an orange, a norange. Additionally, in 1795, secret supporters of William of Orange referred to themselves as the Orangemen, in 1961 the US military labeled a toxic pesticide & weapon Agent Orange, 1& in 963 we began referring to orange juice as OJ.

The Proto-Indo-European root *ghel- gave English speakers the word yellow (which appears in slightly different form in Norse, Swedish, Dutch, & German). Originally, *ghel- meant to shine. Middle English speakers appear confused on yellow’s definition, as at different times it meant blue-grey, hazel, & greenish-yellow, though we appear to have landed on the color we now call yellow by 1400 or so. Once we’d landed there, yellow developed any number of negative, inappropriate, or downright corrosive meanings:
-in 1787 English speakers developed the slur yellow to refer to people of Asian descent
-in 1856 yellow began to mean cowardly
-in 1867 we started referring to a mongrel as a yellow dog
-by 1881 yellow dog started meaning contemptible person
-in 1898 yellow journalism referred to sensational chauvinism in the media (inspired by an earlier publicity stunt involving yellow ink)
-in 1924 a new way of saying cowardly was born — yellow-bellied
In the coming week, may all your color-references be positive. 

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

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Cool colors

Cool colors

Most English words labeling basic colors seem to have been around since Old English was spoken.

Blue came to English about 1300, meaning the color of the clear sky. Blue was so associated with the sky that by the 1640s, the blue meant the sky, which we still see in the idioms, like a bolt from the blue & the wild blue yonder. Blue came through Old French from a Proto-Indo-European word that meant light colored: blue, blonde, or yellow. Awfully specific, eh? That word comes from an even earlier Proto-Indo-European source meaning to shine, flash, or burn.

Purple has been with us since some time during Old English. It came through Northumbrian and Latin from Greek. The original word had three distinct meanings: the color purple, the shellfish from which a purple dye could be extracted, & generally splendid attire. No one’s sure of the Greek word’s source.

Lavender came through Old French from Latin and appeared in English in the 1300s. It originally referred to the lavender plant, which was often used in soaps for washing clothing, giving us the words laundry, latrine, lather & lavatory. It wasn’t until 1840 that the word lavender began meaning a pale purple color.

The word green has been with us since we spoke Old English. It was originally a noun meaning the color of living plants, which gave us the village green & the putting green. For years the word green was used not only to refer to the color green, but to cast aspersions on fickle people, something etymologists guess had to do with the fact that in northern climes anything green will eventually change. In the 1400s, green began to be used to refer to unripe fruit or vegetables, & soon green was not only applied to people of tender age, but to gullible people of immature judgment.

Stay tuned for next week’s foray into colors of the warm variety.

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

Thursday, August 17, 2017



In this modern world, most of us hear the word bank & think immediately of a financial institution. How did bank make its way there from its original meaning, a lump of mud?

Back in the 1200s, most the Scandinavian languages used a form of bank to mean a swelling or rise of soil in a sea, river or shoal. We still see this meaning when we refer to a river bank. We use the verb form when we bank up the soil to form a berm. When we bank the ball off a harder surface during a game of billiards or basketball, we’re riffing on the idea that something floating in the river might bounce off the river bank.

Some of the first bits of “furniture” were earthen structures — heaped up soil or dried mud. When the word bank made its way to Scotland, it grew to mean a raised area on which one might sleep, & the Scots called such a thing a bunker, which eventually broadened to apply to the building in which many sleeping spots exist. In time, the sleeping spots themselves got shortened to bunks. 

In Old English, bank morphed into the word bench, meaning long seat. And since there’s not that much difference between a bench & a table, both bank & bench began also meaning table — giving us the word workbench & the table at which a moneylender might sit — a bank.

Do we speak some kind of nutty language or what?

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A challenge

A challenge

Below is a list of words that all grew out of the same Proto-Indo-European root. Through considering the words, can you figure out the meaning of the root?


A little more information:

perish — 1200s — from a word meaning to be lost 
issue — 1300s — originally meant to flow out 
obituary 1706 from a word meaning pertaining to death
itinerant — 1560s — from a legal term meaning a journey
circuit — 1300s — from a word meaning a going around
transit — 1400s — from a word meaning a going over
trance — 1300s — from a word meaning coma; passing from life to death
itinerary — 1400s — from a word meaning description of a route of travel
initiation — 1580s — from a word meaning a beginning
ambition — 1300s — from a word meaning a going around (for favor)
exit  — 1530s — go out — originally a stage direction

The common root for all these modern words is the Proto-Indo-European word *ei-, which meant to go. Hmmm. Puts a new spin on ordering food to go, eh?

In the comments section I hope you’ll mention whichever word or words seems the biggest stretch for you from a root meaning to go.

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

Thursday, August 3, 2017



In an attempt to balance last week’s post regarding the etymologies of noisy words, here are some quotes about silence.

First, three eloquent ways of saying the same thing: 

Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of that fact.
-George Eliot

In silence man can most readily preserve his integrity.
-Meister Echkart

Never miss the opportunity to keep your mouth shut.
Robert Newton Peck

And on to the darker side of silence:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. 
-Dr. Martin Luther King

Silence isn’t always golden, you know. Sometimes it’s just plain yellow.
-Jan Kemp

The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others & hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, & from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light & life flow no longer into our souls.
-Elizabeth Cady Stanton

And last, some votes of confidence:

Silence is all the genius a fool has.
-Zora Neale Hurston

Of those who say nothing, few are silent.
-Thomas Neill

Silence is not a thing we make; it is something into which we enter. It is always there…All we can make is noise.
-Mother Maribel of Wantage

I’m hoping you’ll use the comments section to let me know which of these quotes you’ve never heard, &/or which ones made you stop & think.