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 20, 2018

Punctuation's unlikely past

Punctuation’s unlikely past

The word punctuation showed up in English in in the 1530s. Its source was a Latin word meaning to mark or point with dots, to prick or pierce. By the 1660s punctuation had morphed to mean a system of inserting pauses into written material. 

In the 1200s, the word question appeared in English, meaning a philosophical or theological problem. It came to us from Latin through an Old French word that meant question, problem, interrogation or torture. Hmmm. It wasn’t until 1849 that an orthographic mark denoting a question was referred to as a question mark (before that we called such a thing an interrogation point). 

In the 1300s the term exclamation made its way to English from Latin through Middle French. By 1824, the exclamation point could be used to denote surprise or increased volume. It wasn’t named the exclamation mark until 1926, and what a crying shame we lost the intermediary term for it, the shriek-mark.

The colon, period, & comma have more interesting tales to tell. They didn’t start out as orthographic marks at all. Each of them started out as a part of a sentence — as a string of words.

The word colon was first used to denote a limb, member, or part of a verse. This meaning morphed in the mid-1500s to mean a clause of a sentence. In time, we began to call the punctuation mark that sets off an independent clause a colon.

The word comma also first denoted part of a sentence; a short phrase or clause of a sentence or poem. Comma comes from a Greek word that meant that piece which is cut off. Now a comma is that orthographic mark that signifies a break between parts.

And period came to us through Latin and Middle French from Greek, where it meant a going around (it’s related to perimeter). By the time period made its way to Latin, one of its meanings was a complete sentence, & darned if we didn’t start using period to denote the mark that shows we’ve come to the end of a sentence.

What a wacky language. I’d love to hear whether any of this surprised you. Comment away—

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

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Sheds, shacks, & hovels

Sheds, shacks & hovels

Lately, much of my writing (revising, actually) is happening in the garden shed I re-built for recording audiobooks. I call it the Shedio. So this week’s post is a re-posting from six years ago, considering the word shed & its various synonyms.

Shed is of questionable parentage. It appeared in English in the 1400s. It may have its roots in the word shade, but no certain evidence has jumped forth into the sunlight to prove this theory.

Similarly, the term shack has no definite parentage. It first appeared in print in 1878. Some etymologists argue that it may be a variant of shake, or possible have come from ramshackle (both of which predate it). Others claim it may have come from the Nahuatl word xacalli, wooden hut, through Mexican Spanish. Still nobody really knows from whence the shack came.

The word hovel isn’t really a synonym for shack or shed, but a hovel is a small building, & I have a fondness for the word. I lived a year in a place friends & family referred to as "hovel sweet hovel." It was one of seven tiny, decrepit buildings near San Luis Obispo Creek. I had to duck to enter, I couldn’t sit on the toilet with the bathroom door closed, & the mushrooms growing from the floor were not an interior decorating decision. Hovel showed up in English back in the 1300s, meaning a vent for smoke, & within a century had come to mean a shed for animals. It wasn’t until the 1600s that it came to mean a rude or miserable cabin. This last definition is particularly apropos. I learned afterward that the compound of seven hovels had been used in the 1940s to house the county’s Japanese residents as they waited to be delivered to internment camps. Misery indeed.

So, dear readers, please leave a comment with a tidbit of a tale regarding any shed, shack, or hovel experiences you’ve “enjoyed.”

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, & the OED.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Rarely sighted idioms

Rarely sighted idioms

In the last couple of weeks we’ve considered rarely-sighted words (#1 & #2). Now it’s onto rarely-sighted idioms.

To throw a tub to a whale is to create a diversion. This idiom comes from whaling times. It seems when a whale got close enough to the whaling ship to threaten the safety of the whalers, they could sometimes divert its attention by slinging a barrel or tub into the sea. Amazingly, some whales were pleased to play with the tub instead of the ship. 

In Britain & Australia, a supercilious, pretentious, or self-important individual can be referred to as toffee-nosed. This slang term is considered rude, but then, isn’t self-absorption a bit rude? It comes from the word toff, a British term for a flashy dresser. 

Another British & Australian idiom is making whim-wham for a goose’s bridle. Its meaning rests somewhere between go away kid, you bother me, & none-of-your-business. It was/is typically used to deflect a nosy child’s questions. “What are you doing Grampa?” can be answered with, “I’m making a whim-wham for a goose’s bridle.”

The phrase to make a hames of something means to make a mess of something — to spoil something through ineptitude. It’s an idiom born in Ireland, & refers to a draft horse’s collar. The hames of the collar are the bits that connect to the traces, & apparently it’s easy to set them up backward, making a hames of it. 

And then there’s don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs, which means It’s seldom a good idea for the young to offer advice to their elders. This idiomatic advice was offered as early as the 1700s. Apparently egg-sucking in the 1700s was something everyone knew how to do, so why teach grandma how?

If you’ve got the screaming ab-dabs, you either are experiencing extreme anxiety, or suffering from delirium tremens. When this idiom appeared in the early 1930s, it referred only to the DTs, but within twenty years or so it generalized to mean extreme anxiety. Though most etymologists believe it is British in origin, some wonder whether it may have started in America, as evidenced by the 1914 Fields & Donovan tune “Abba-Dabba Honeymoon” — Hmmm.

I hope these have offered a chuckle or two & I haven’t made a hames of it. Any response? Please leave a comment.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources:, Collins Dictionary, WorldWideWords, English Forums, & Free Dictionary.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Rarely sighted words #2

Rarely sighted words #2

Here’s a second installment of words we English speakers have mostly lost (the first installment can be found here). I think at least some of them deserve a rebirth.

A quodlibet was initially a topic up for philosophical discussion, though in time, the meaning morphed to mean a medley of well-known tunes. Either meaning works just fine for the word’s Latin source, which translates to what pleases you. I find myself envisioning a group of philosophers meeting at the pub & saying to the local musicians, “Strike up that quodlibet while we discuss our quodlibet!”

An inanimate item that is responsible for a person’s death is called a deodand. Back in the day, English law required the owner of the murderous object pay the grieving family in the amount of the value of the object. This seemed to work fine when the object was a length of rope, a pitchfork, a plough — but as soon as the industrial revolution kicked in & these expenses bumped up to the cost of a carpet-making loom, a steam engine, a train (& the payments had to be made by corporations that just might have had the ear of Parliament members), the law was abandoned.

Arfanarf is Cockney slang for half-and-half, but it does not refer to a dairy product. The term was used in the late 1800s & early 1900s to order up a drink that was half porter & half ale, or in some regions, a mixture of beer & whisky. Nothing like a little arfanarf to get the conversation flowing, eh? 

To be erumpent is to burst out of something. It’s related to interrupt, erupt & abrupt. It’s a rarely sighted word unless you happen to be a mycologist (a studier of mushrooms) — given the habits of mushrooms, mycologists use the term erumpent frequently & with gusto.

An embuggerance is a niggling or irritating barrier encountered when trying to solve a problem. The term was born in the British military some time around 1950. Though bugger in modern usage is sexual in nature, both terms come from a much older expression, “to bugger one about” — to irritate one.

So, do you have any quodlibets regarding all this, or do you find all this wordmongering to be an embuggerance? Please let me know in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Dictionary of Slang & Euphemism, Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, WorldWideWords,  & Wordnik,

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Rarely sighted words #1

Rarely sighted words #1

Here are some words that most English speakers have left behind. Which one(s) do you think might be worth the concerted effort to bring back into common usage?

Spiv is British slang from the 1930s. It’s most likely derived from the word spiffy. It means a flashily dressed petty crook who does anything to avoid honest work. A disproven - yet intriguing - folk etymology is that a spiv is the opposite of a Very Important Person, so the pluralized acronym (VIPs) was reversed to create the word spiv.

Sometime in the 1800s the word quockerwodger (or quocker-wodger) appeared in English. Its literal meaning refers to a wooden toy whose legs and arms are connected loosely to its body, so that any movement at all causes it to flap around. This meaning was quickly eclipsed by the word’s figurative meaning: a politician whose strings are clearly pulled by someone else.

About 1800 this French word made its way into English — gobemouche. It’s constructed of a word meaning housefly (mouche) & a word meaning swallow (gobe). This latter bit is related to words like gobsmacked & shut your gob! The word’s literal translation is flyswallower. A gobemouche is a painfully naive & gullible individualamazed by the world, & therefore standing around with his/her mouth wide open.

A word born in the 1960s among the historical re-enactment crowd is farb. A farb is a historical re-enactor whose efforts don’t come close to authentic.

Blivet showed up in American English in the 1940s. It originally referred to a useless, superfluous, or unnecessary object. In time, it came to refer to a self-important person.

And likely coming from the word nit is the word nitnoid. A nitnoid is either a person who crushes the life out of something through nitpicking detail, or the detail itself. This word appeared in American English in the 1900s.

A blatteroon is a person who boasts, blathers & babbles (often about him/herself). Blatteroon appeared in English in the 1600s from a Latin word meaning babbler.

So which one(s) of these deserves a rebirth? Please let me know in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Oxford Reference Merriam Webster, WorldWideWords,  & Wordnik,

Thursday, August 16, 2018



Since I’m heading off to enjoy the joyous occasion of a niece’s wedding…

The word marriage showed up in English about 1300, meaning entry into wedlock. It came through Old French from Latin. The word marry showed up about the same time, meaning both to get married & to give one’s offspring into marriage. Interestingly, while the English word marry can be used to refer to both a male marrying & a female marrying, many languages require different marry verbs depending on gender, typically reflecting what I’d call antiquated sexist understandings of marriage.

Wedding appeared in Old English before the 1300s, & meant betrothal or act of marrying. It replaced the time-honored Old English word bridelope, which meant bridal run. Etymologists claim this word had to do with “conducting the bride to her new home,” though my imagination goes elsewhere. Wedding comes from the word wed, to pledge oneself or unite. It comes from a Proto-Germanic term which ended up meaning:
in Gothic: to betroth
in Old Frisian: to promise
in Old Norse, German, & Danish: to bet or wager 

Though one might think the word wedlock is a compound of wed + lock, that second part actually comes from the old English suffix, -lac, which meant actions or proceedings, suggesting a somewhat less limiting understanding of marriage.

The word matrimony acknowledges that some weddings might be a tad rushed. Arriving in English about 1300, matrimony is made up of two Latin word parts, this first meaning mother & the second meaning state or condition. Hmm.

And big thanks to Etymonline for introducing me to George Bernard Shaw’s snarky take on marriage:

“(W)hen two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, & exhausting condition until death do them part.”

Any thoughts on all these matrimonial words (or Shaw’s thoughts)?

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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Old Fogies

Old fogies

Here’s a bit of a Greg Brown song I’ve been appreciating these days:

I’m creaking and I’m moaning 
like an ok tree limb.
That strong young fellow, 
what happened to him?
I got bones, 
old bones, 
stiff old bones

I suppose that appreciating such lyrics puts me in the old fogey category.

Fogey (sometimes fogy) appeared in English in the 1780s, and etymologists (some of them, bona fide old fogies) haven’t nailed down its roots. Fogey may have come from a Scottish word meaning Army pensioner, or from any number of English terms — one meaning mossy, another meaning bloated, or the English word fogram, meaning old-fashioned.

Codger appeared in English in 1756, meaning an old, eccentric, miserly man. It most likely came from the word cadger, which means beggar.

A term for an old, incompetent person is duffer. This word showed up in English in the mid-1800s. It may have its roots in the slang term duff worthless or fake, or in a Scottish word meaning dull or stupid person, which was derived from a pejorative English word for deaf. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that duffer had anything to do with the game of golf.

Geezer came to English in 1885, a Cockney version of the -guise part of disguise. The word geezer originally referred to a mummer (a masked actor performing pantomime). Etymologists assume the word’s modern meaning occurred due to the silent nature of pantomime reflecting the silent nature of some of us geezers.

A fuddy-duddy can — by definition — be young, but is most decidedly old-fashioned. It appears to have come from the late 1800s American English term duddy fuddiel, a term that referred to a ragged fellow. Other variations include fuddydud, fuddie-duddie, & my personal favorite, fudbucket.

So, what do you fellow fudbuckets (or non-fudbuckets, I suppose), have to say about all these geezerly words? Let  me know in the comment section.

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