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 20, 2016

What are you feeling?

What are you feeling?

Nothing inspires an emotional response like politics. Whether the present election cycle is getting you down or goading you to action, it’s affecting you. Join me in exploring the nuances of words that might pertain to your feelings.

On the not-so-positive side, you might be feeling:

appalledterror or dismay at a shocking but apparently unalterable situation

daunted – disheartened or intimidated

dismayedfear or discouragement at the prospect of some difficulty or problem which one doesn’t know how to resolve

horrified  -- horror, loathing or irritation at that which shocks or offends one

enervated – a loss of force, vigor, or energy

debilitated – temporarily weakened

undermined or sapped – weakened or impaired by subtle, gradual, or stealthy means

Or you might find this race for president is filling you with energy. If so, you might be feeling:

exhilarated – an enlivened elevating of the spirits

stimulated – roused from inertia, inactivity or lethargy

invigorated – filled with vigor or energy in a physical sense

vitalized – invigorated or animated in a non-physical sense

quickened – roused to action

Most of us are a hodge-podge of all these. I’m hoping you might leave a comment noting which reactions seem strongest in you.

(the above offer is good for the first ten folks who respond)

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, 1959, & the OED.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

To rise like smoke

To rise like smoke

I’ve just stumbled upon a Proto-Indo-European word that meant to rise like smoke, vapor or mist. The word is dheu-, & it has some intriguing offspring.

Because things that rise like smoke eventually disappear, dheu-‘s offspring include both dwindle (1590s through Old & Middle English) & die (die has been around forever & came through Old English). Dead & death were also born of dheu-, and like die, came to English so early we have no date of entry. A related term that may have come from dheu- is the word funeral. Though nobody has nailed it down, it appears that after sometime while it was visiting the Latin language, funeral’s original source was the root dheu-.

At some point it seems rising like smoke suggested a limited ability or intelligence, as dheu- also gave us dizzy (also an Old English word that’s been around forever, initially meaning stupid or foolish). Dheu- also gave us dull, as in witless, blunt, not sharp. Dull showed up in English about 1200. Another word that showed up from this vein of dheu- is dumb (meaning both unable to speak & lacking in intelligence, now considered rude in either usage). Dumb appeared early enough in English, we have no date for its arrival.

The word dew also came from this source, appearing very early in English, from Old English.

Both airborne & settled smoke can be called dust, which came from dheu- through old Germanic languages.

Any of you who have walked across a patch of thyme while inhaling have experience with why it might have come from a word meaning rises like smoke. Thyme came to English in the 1300s after a voyage through Greek, Latin, & Old French.

Fume made its way to English in the 1300s, also from dheu-.

And apparently because swirling dust can make one confused, the mental confusion & stupor associated with the disease typhus gave that disease its name in 1785, taken from the root dheu- after it spent some time vacationing in Greece & Rome.

Because an animal in cold weather creates small clouds of vapor with its breath, the deer got its name from dheu-, which came through old Germanic tongues to land very early on in Old English.

Dwindle, die, dead, death, funeral, dizzy, dull, dumb, dew, dust, time & typhus: they all started as a cloud of smoke, vapor or mist.

 Anything to say about all this? Please leave a comment.

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

Thursday, October 6, 2016



As I’ve noted before, I’m fascinated with the prejudices history has imposed on the English language. One of these began nearly a thousand years ago, after William the Conqueror thrust Norman nobility on the unsuspecting inhabitants of what eventually became England. The nobles mostly spoke Norman French, Latin, & Greek. The peons spoke various Germanic & Celtic languages.

Ever since, English speakers have perceived the languages of that imposed nobility to be “classier” than the languages spoken by those who ended up serving them. Authors regularly use this prejudice to give us a feel for characters’ levels of education, though this can backfire & annoy the reader.

The words on the left, taken from books I’ve recently read, came from the mouths of characters the authors presented as educated. In the right column you’ll find a jumbled list of simpler synonyms with Germanic roots. See if you can match them.

ablutions (Latin)                     yawning (Middle English)
demulcent (Latin)                   hurtful (probably Old English)
feculent (Middle French)        wooded (Old English)
lambent (Latin)                       licking (Old English)
sylvan (Middle French)           washing (Old English)                 
cerulean (Latin)                      fiery (Middle English)
deleterious (Greek)                muddy (Middle Low German)
empyrean (Greek)                  soothing (Old English)
oscitant (Latin)                       blue (Proto-Germanic)

I’ve put a key to the matched pairs in the comments section. I’m hoping you’ll leave a comment either regarding this anti-Germanic prejudice, or your success at pairing the synonyms.

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

Thursday, September 29, 2016

To take

To take

The Indo-European root that meant take or seize was ghend. It made its way into Latin as prendere, and made its way from there to many places, & one of those places is the English language.

We find it in the word prey, which arrived in the 1300s originally meaning to plunder, pillage & ravage, all arguably forms of taking. Over the years prey has come to be both a noun & a verb. Its primary modern meanings are an animal hunted or taken for food & to seize food.

Latin for bird of prey was osprey, which showed up in English in the 1400s. Interestingly, Latin-speakers called the bird we now call an osprey an ossifrage, but somewhere on the way to English through Medieval Latin & Old French, the similarity of the two words confused things and the ossifrage became the osprey.

The word spree (meaning a drinking bout) appeared in English in 1804 from Scottish. Though its earlier source may have been the French word esprit, it more likely came from a Middle Irish word meaning takings or booty, which, as you’ve already guessed, came from the Latin word meaning take.

When we win something we take it home & call it a prize, & when we pry into someone’s life or physically pry something from its place, it’s another sort of taking, all from that same root.

When we take someone unawares we surprise that person. And when we take someone & lock him/her up that person becomes an imprisoned prisoner in a prison, all words that started out as a little word meaning take.

And a person involved in taking this for that is an entrepreneur, a word that appeared in English in 1828. Entrepreneur came from combining the Latin prefix entre- (between) with the Latin root prendere (to take or seize).

I’m hoping some of you will have something to say in the comments section. Perhaps you’ll offer your take on all this.

Big thanks to friend Aaron Keating, for suggesting this week’s topic, & thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik,  Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A smattering of Romany

A smattering of Romany

One of English’s many underappreciated donor languages is Romany. Sadly (& historically), like their language, the Roma people have been similarly underappreciated.

In 1788 the word pal appeared in English. Pal comes from a Romany word meaning brother or comrade.

The noun cove, a word generally understood to be English slang for fellow, chap or man, arrived in English in the 1560s. Its source? A Romany word meaning that man.

Another colloquial English word for fellow, chap or man is bloke. Though some etymologists argue that bloke may have Celtic origins, many connect it to the Romany word loke, meaning a man.

The phrase “put up your dukes” is likely born of the Romany word dook, a word that refers to a hand read in palmistry.

Since the 1890s the word lush has meant drunkard. This meaning of lush most likely comes from a Romany word having to do with alcohol.

Though those of my era might assume the word nark is a shortening of narcotics, its source is Romany. The verb nark appeared in English in 1859 meaning to act as a police informer, and most likely came from the Romany word meaning nose.

The Romani - or Roma - people arrived in Europe some time around the 1100s from the region around India, and suffered incredible prejudice. Many European nations enacted laws that expelled Romani. In Medieval Denmark, England, & Switzerland Romani were simply put to death. In other parts of Europe, Romani were enslaved, & this slavery continued as late as the1800s. And during WWII two million Romani perished in Nazi “concentration camps”.

Even after all that persecution, some twelve million Romani still walk the earth (& give our language great words).

Big thanks to friend Aaron Keating, for suggesting this week’s topic, & thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik,  Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, LiveScience, & the OED.

Thursday, September 15, 2016



I’ve always been fond of the word muck. What a pleasure to discover muck has an intriguing etymology.

The noun muck came to English in the mid-1300s, followed within a half century by its verb form. Initially, the noun meant cow dung & vegetable matter spread as fertilizer, which helps explain why the verb initially meant to dig in the ground or to move manure. Apparently all this mucking about made its way through Scandinavia after starting off as a Proto-Germanic word meaning soft.

And most sources suggest that same Proto-Germanic word meaning soft also gave us the word meek, which came to English even earlier (in the 1200s), meaning gentle, courteous, benevolent.

Interesting that a word meaning soft grew to mean both cow dung mixed with vegetable matter & those who will inherit the earth.

Pondering this unlikely association led me to have a look at the etymology of manure, which first arrived in English as a verb meaning to cultivate land or hold property (possibly a synonym for inheriting the earth?). It came through Anglo-French & Old French from the Latin word manuoperare, literally to work with the hands. It’s easy to see how one of the most humble forms of working with one’s hands is/was to spread fertilizer, or work the earth. It wasn’t until1540 the noun manure was born, meaning exactly what it means today.

And what other words did the root of manure become? How about maneuver? Its humble roots of working with the hands morphed in time through Old French to land in English in 1758 meaning planned movement of troops or warships. All this suggests there is at least etymological truth in those epithets thrown by military grunts on the ground regarding the instructions given them from above.

Which brings us to humus, a word meaning earth or soil. Humus showed up in English in the late 1700s after a trip through Latin from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning earth. Another branch of that same word meaning earth made its humble way into Latin to become the word humility, which seems to bring us back to meekness.


Good readers, I hope you’ll have a comment on these humble, meek, manure-ish words & their histories.

Big thanks to friend Aaron Keating, for suggesting this week’s topic, & thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam-Webster, Wordnik,  Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A smattering of Sanskrit

A smattering of Sanskrit

English really does deserve the “melting pot” description it often receives. One of the countless languages that have contributed to English is Sanskrit (from the region we now call northern India), & here is a tiny fraction of Sanskrit’s contributions to English.

The mynah bird got its English name in 1769 through Hindi from a Sanskrit word meaning delightful or joyful.

Some time around 1839 the Sanskrit word loptram, meaning stolen property or booty, made its way through Hindi & Anglo-Indian to become the English word loot.

It’s very likely that the Sanskrit word drona-m, meaning wooden trough, morphed its way through Hindi to become the English word dinghy. Dinghy joined English in 1810.

Our English word bandana appeared in 1752 from bodhnati, a Sanskrit verb meaning bind. To get to English it passed though through Hindi.

It’s likely the Sanskrit word kandha, or piece of cane sugar showed up in English in the late 1200s as candy. On the way to English it traveled through Persian, Arabic & Old French.

The Sanskrit word for twisted or matted hair was juta-s, which showed up as jute  in English in 1746 after a trip through Bengali.

The board game Parcheesi came from the Sanskrit number twenty-five, (panca vinsati-s), which moved through Hindi to arrive in English in 1800.

The Sanskrit word sramana-s, meaning Buddhist ascetic, passed through Prakrit, Chinese, Tungus, and German to become the English word shaman. When? The 1690s.

It’s very likely the verb shampoo, which showed up in English in 1762 came from the Sanskrit verb meaning pounds or kneads. To get to English it passed through Hindi & Anglo-Indian. In English, shampoo originally meant to massage, & didn’t mean to wash the hair until 1860. And it wasn’t until 1866 that shampoo became a noun.

Since these source words were spoken a long time ago, I’ve chosen to write of Sanskrit in the past tense even though modern Sanskrit is alive and well in many parts of India.

Please click on comments below if you were surprised by any of these etymologies.

Big thanks to friend Aaron Keating, for suggesting this week’s topic, & thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, Etymonline, & Collins Dictionary, & the OED.