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, July 21, 2016

The inglorious hairball

The inglorious hairball

Due to an unlikely dental event & its aftermath, I find myself pondering the word pill.

Meaning a small ball or round mass of medicine, the word pill showed up in English about 1400 after a tour through Middle Dutch, Middle Low German & Middle French from its humble beginnings in Latin, where its literal translation was little ball, yet even back then it was primarily used to refer to a small ball of medicine. Looking further back on the language tree, many etymologists believe pilula, that Latin word meaning little ball, came from the word pilus, which meant hair. These same etymologists are pretty sure words for hair and ball were so closely intertwined because of the inglorious hairball, which is apparently not just a modern problem.

Though we’re not entirely sure, it’s believed Latin hairballs may have also been the source of the word pearl, appearing in English in the 1200s after making its way through Vulgar Latin, Medieval Latin & Old French.

In the 1300s, the word pellet appeared after a bit of time in Vulgar Latin & Old French, also born of the hairball.

Some possible, yet faux siblings include pillar, pillory, & pile. These all come from another Latin root pila, meaning stone barrier or heap. The name Pilar came from these, as Pilar is a reference to a pillar carved with the image of the Virgin Mary. Another faux sibling of pill is the word pilaf, which comes through Turkish from Persian & refers to a delicious rice dish completely devoid of hairballs.

And for our last grandchild of the inglorious hairball, we come to the verb pillage, which appeared in English in the 1300s, meaning the act of plundering. Pillage came through Old French from Latin & most likely came from the idea of stripping someone of his/her skin or hair, an unseemly act providing another inglorious image. Please accept my apologies.

Anything to say about hairballs? If so, just click on the word “comments” below & enter your comment.

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

Thursday, July 14, 2016



Last week’s post covered a steaming heap of unlikely words that shared a common root meaning to speak. In an attempt for balance, I took a look at the etymologies of silence & quiet for this week’s post, but came away uninspired. The word mute is another matter.

Mute made its way into English in the 1300s through Old French & Latin from Greek. Initially, mute meant pretty much what it mostly means today – silent. By the 1570s mute picked up the meaning stage actor engaging in pantomime. By 1811 a mute could be applied to a stringed instrument & by 1841 a mute could be used on horns.

The Greek source for mute was myein, to be shut, & myein has some intriguing progeny.

One branch of the myein tree grew like this:

It started way back in Greek as myein, to be shut.
Next, it became mystes, one who has been initiated (possibly referring to having been previously shut out).
From there it became mysteria, a secret rite or doctrine.
Next, it grew to be mysterium, secret worship or secret thing.
And from there it became mistere, secret or hidden meaning.
Then finally (in the early 1300s) it became mystery, meaning religious truth via divine revelation. These days most dictionaries offer about a dozen meanings for mystery, generally starting off with something like an event that baffles or eludes the understanding.

Another mysterious branch of the myein tree grew in this fashion:

Of course, we start with myein, to be shut.
Next comes myops, which literally meant close the eyes, but came to mean near-sighted.
By 1727, we have the word myopia.

Mute is often confused with a word that started out as a Proto-Germanic word meaning assembly or council (ga-motan) It next moved into Old English as gemot, meaning meeting. One must assume Old English meetings were contentious, as the next Old English word on this tree was moot, to debate. By the 1530s, moot picked up the adjectival meaning debatable or discussion of a hypothetical law case.

So from that old Greek word myein we ended up with mute, myopia & mystery, but not moot.

I’m hoping you’ve got something to say about all this. If so, just click on the word “comments” below & enter your comment.

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

Thursday, July 7, 2016

To speak

To speak

Take a look at the following words and ask yourself how they might possibly share a common root:

fairy               prophet           fame             ban
infant            confess           fable        
beckon         affable             nefarious

Hmmm. I must admit, given this list, I wouldn’t have a clue.

The common root here is the Proto-Indo-European word bha-, to speak.

The word ban showed up in Old English about the same time Old English showed up. Ban came to us through Old High German from a Proto-Germanic word meaning banish, expel or curse (all actions which must be spoken). Like the rest of the words on this list, it seems to have started with bha-, to speak.

Beckon showed up in Old English about the same time through a West Saxon & possibly Old High German word meaning to make a mute sign or to speak without words.

Prophet appeared in English in the late 1100s through Latin from a Greek word meaning one who speaks for the gods.

Fairy showed up in English in 1300, through a Latin word meaning that which is fated, & of course, for something to be fated, it must first be spoken of.

Fame showed up in the early 1200s through Old French from a Latin word meaning talk, rumor, report, good reputation.

Affable – came from Old French through a Latin word meaning one who can be easily spoken to. It appeared in English in the 1400s.

Infant appeared in English in the 1300s from a Latin word meaning unable to speak (the in- meaning not & the fant meaning speak).

Confess came from Old French from a Vulgar Latin word meaning speak together or admit. Like infant, it arrived in the 1300s.

Fable also showed up in the 1300s through Old French from a Latin word meaning spoken narrative.

Nefarious appeared in English in the 1600s from a Latin word meaning wicked crime. In this case, the ne- negates the root fari-, which meant divinely spoken, which suggests that a crime is  an activity a higher power has forbidden.

All from a little old word (actually, a little VERY old word) meaning speak.

I’m hoping you might click on the word “comments” below & let me know where your brain went when asked the initial question in this post.

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

Thursday, June 30, 2016



I just read Mary Penney’s new & exciting middle grade novel, Eleven and Holding. For more than one reason, it got me thinking about benevolence. It wouldn’t be fair to say the book is about benevolence, but it features some secondary characters whose benevolence truly shines. 

As does the author’s.

Mary is one of those quiet people out in the world doing good things. She doesn’t need people to know she’s doing good, she just does it.

Mary would like to grow up to be a philanthropist (insert laughter from anyone with intimate knowledge of a children’s author’s salary here). She makes the point that if one has goals, one needs to practice. And how does an up-and-coming philanthropist with a small income practice? By giving in small bits. So Mary gives. In everyday little ways, in offering conference scholarships to authors, in helping veterans, in sprinkling kindness here & there, & in writing books that offer hope & bring smiles to kids’ faces.

Mary is a poster-child for benevolence, a word which appeared in English in 1400, through Old French from the Latin word benevolentia. The bene- part of the word means good or well, while the –volentia means to wish. A person who is benevolent is spending his/her time & thoughts wishing others well

If you’ve been watching or reading a lot of news these days, you could probably use a reminder that benevolence happens. You’d probably benefit from spending time with good people wishing others well, perhaps giving in small bits. If so, you might want to read Mary Penney’s middle grade novel, Eleven and Holding (HarperCollins, 2016).

And if you’ve got a bit of time, how about clicking on comments below & recounting a benevolent act you recently encountered?

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

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Chill, dude!

Chill, dude!

Over the course of the years there’s been a lot of chilling going on.

The word chill came from the Old English word ciele, which meant cold, coolness, frost, or to freeze. Ciele’s source was the Proto-Indo-European word gel-, which gave birth to heaps of modern English words.

Given what liquids do when they cool down, it’s not much of a stretch to see how a word meaning to freeze could be the parent of gel, gelatin & Jello. Gelatin, meaning a clear, jelly-like substance, appeared in 1713 after spending a couple of centuries in France as gélatine. Gel, an abbreviated form of gelatin showed up in English in 1899, meaning a semi-solid substance. Jelly’s parent-word also spent some time in France (as gelee) before moving across the channel to, well, jell into the word we know. And in 1900 the Genesee Pure Food Company started selling a product called Jello.

A Latin step-child of gel- also made its way into France, then to England in 1650 as glacial. And by 1744 the noun glacier was born.

And what happened to gel- on its way through German and Old English? tIt became both cool & cold.

Because water expands upon freezing, gel- is the parent-word for gelb-, to swell, & because a cow swells prior to giving birth, gelb- is the parent-word of calf. If you, like me, consider yourself a junior etymologist, here’s some 180-degree irony. The term calving of a glacier came from the above word-child meaning to swell, while that sense of the word came from the previous one meaning cold.

As much of the nation is swept up in a heat wave, I’m hoping most of you are getting the occasional chance to chill. I also hope you’ll find a minute to comment on all this chilling in the comments section.

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

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Start from scratch

Start from scratch

The idiom start from scratch first appeared in 1918. Though we use the idiom today to refer to food preparation or a rags-to-riches life, start from scratch came from the world of sport. In a race, a starting line was scratched into the soil. A competitor starting the race with no handicap started on that line, from scratch.

Another scratch “we” started with is gerbh-, a Proto-Indo-European root meaning to claw or scratch.

Back in the day, gerbh- was employed when people wrote or drew by scratching on clay tablets. Eventually, this gave birth to the Greek word graphein, to write. We see graphein today in tons of words: graph, photograph, biography, graffiti, & on & on. After a century or three, we graduated from scratching things into clay & wrote or drew using the graphite in pencils.

And artful scratching (originally on those same clay tablets) gave us the word carve.

And gerbh- was also applied to the walking motion of some crustaceans, giving us crawdad, crab, & crayfish. Their method of locomotion, to claw one’s way, became the word crawl. And the word scrawl, to write untidily, may have also come from that idea of scratching provided by gerbh-.

Even telegram, monogram & hologram can be traced back to this idea of scratching & the root gerbh-. And because folks creating rules & such had to scratch them out in writing, we have grammar. Even more unlikely, because magical spells had to be written out, even the word glamour comes from this root.

In the history of language, there’s a lot of scratching going on. I’m hoping you might comment on it all in the comments section.

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

Thursday, June 9, 2016



In last week’s post we looked at words like shenanigans, meaning up to no good. This week’s words chronicle shenanigans of a kinder & goofier nature.

The word tomfoolery, meaning foolish trifling, appeared in English in 1812. It came from the 1640s noun tom-fool, which meant a buffoon or clown.

Since the 1580s, English speakers have been using the word frolic, originally meaning making merry. The verb frolic came from an older adjective meaning joyous or full of mirth, also spelled frolic, which comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to hop.

Also in the 1580s the noun horseplay was born, meaning overly rough play. The term doesn’t actually refer to creatures of the equine variety, but refers instead a secondary meaning of horse, strong or coarse. Horseplay gave birth to a related term in 1793, horsing (to play excessive jokes on), and another, horsing around (to join in boisterous play), in 1928.

In the 1590s the verb caper was born. It originally meant a playful leap or jump. By 1600, one could cut capers, or dance in a frolicsome manner. Caper added the meaning prank in 1840 & the meaning crime in 1926. It appears caper came to English from the Italian word capriolare, to jump in the air.

Another way to say prank or caper is the American-born noun, dido. It generally appears in the idiom to cut didoes.

In 1709 the verb romp, meaning to play, sport or frolic appeared. By 1734 the noun romp showed up, meaning piece of lively play. In 1909 romp transformed to a word meaning small children’s overallsrompers. And those readers of a particular age will recall the children’s TV show, Romper Room, which first aired in 1953.

I’m hoping you’ve got something to say in the comments section about this etymological romp.

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