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 18, 2014

Crawling buzzard-monkeys

Crawling buzzard-monkeys

Often, idioms act as advice or sage observation & it should be no surprise that multiple cultures might have the same things to say to future generations. This week’s post takes a look at one English idiom as stated in five other languages. The English idiom of the day is You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Below are three lists:
-each idiom loosely translated into English
-the languages from which each idiom hails, &
-each idiom in its original tongue

However, I’ve changed up the order in each list. Your task is to match each translated idiom with its original language & original wording:

A.    You can’t turn a buzzard into a sparrowhawk.
B.    A monkey in silk is still a monkey.
C.   To celebrate a wedding with dried figs.
D.   Even if the monkey wears a golden ring it remains ugly.
E.    If you’re born to crawl you can’t fly.

1.    Dutch
2.    Italian
3.    Spanish
4.    French
5.    Russian

I.               fare le nozze con I fichi secchi
II.              rozhdennyj polzat letat ne mozhet
III.            aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda
IV.            al draagt een aap een gouden ring, het is en blijft een
V.             on ne peut faire d’une buse un épervier

Before checking the first comment in the comment section, make a list of your corresponding letter, Arabic number & Roman numeral. Then, in the comments section let us know how well you did & what you have to say about sow’s ears, or silk-wearing monkeys, or maybe even dried figs.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources:, Adam Jacot de Boinod’s Toujours Tingo, & Learning English with Idioms

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Traceable Idioms

Traceable Idioms

Idioms abound, yet they usually have shaky or completely untraceable origins. Hard-working word sleuths have uncovered the origins of only a fraction of English idioms. Here are a few.

Point blank – the term appears to come from French, point blanc, a term in which the blanc refers to the white circle in the center of a target & point means exactly that – aim.

Slush fund – The masts of sailing ships were once maintained by rubbing slush into the wood. This slush was the waste grease from the galley. After a ship’s masts were happily greased, the cook could sell the remaining grease, which put money in his pocket – money he could spend however he liked, his slush fund.

Dull as dishwater – Oddly, this is a fishing term. Fishing in a pond, river, lake or bay wasn’t dull at all, but fishing in a ditch rarely produced a fish, & was therefore, tedious. The idiom appears to originally have been dull as ditchwater, or dull as fishing in ditch water.  In time, it changed to the idiom we know today.

Nick of time – During the Middle Ages, attendance at church and university was taken by carving tally marks, or nicks, in a piece of wood. Those who arrived on time received a nick. It’s intriguing that we don’t refer to those arriving late as nickless, nick-free, or unnicked.

Pillar to post – Criminals were once either pilloried or tied to a post and whipped. The even less fortunate were dragged from one of these two forms of torture to the other, sometimes multiple times. In time, from pillory to post morphed into from pillar to post.

Peeping Tom – apparently when the famous (or infamous) Lady Godiva rode through the streets without a stitch on, the one chap who ogled her & got caught doing so was named Tom. Some sources suggest that neither Tom’s peeping nor his punishment (going blind) was part of the original tale, but the addition appears to be the origin of this idiom.

Good readers, which of these idiom origins do you find most remarkable? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Phrase Finder, Etymonline, the OED, & Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ambrose Bierce's blacklist

 Ambrose Bierce’s blacklist

A friend and owner of a local independent bookstore discovered a copy of a slim 1909 book, Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right – A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. She decided it might be the sort of thing that would interest me. She was right.

Written over a century ago by one of the era’s brilliant literary and social critics, Write it Right beautifully exemplifies that over time, language changes, and that people -- no matter how bright, daring, and wonderful they might be -- don’t like change.

The book is set up like a dictionary, each entry either focusing on one word or on words that Mr. Bierce believed users were confusing. Bierce’s purpose was to “teach precision in writing.” Below you’ll find a few selected entries highlighting not only Bierce’s keen wit and education, but his delightfully high opinion of himself.

Banquet. A good enough word in its place, but its place is the dictionary. Say, dinner.

Casket for coffin. A needless euphemism affected by undertakers.

Dirt for Earth, Soil, or Gravel. A most disagreeable Americanism, discredited by general (and Presidential) use. “Make the dirt fly.” Dirt means filth.

Firstly. If this word could mean anything it would mean firstlike, whatever that might mean. The ordinal numbers should have no adverbial form: “firstly,” “secondly,” and the rest are words without meaning.

Gent for Gentleman. Vulgar exceedingly.

Gubernatorial. Eschew it; it is not English, is needless and bombastic. Leave it to those who call a political office a “chair.” “Gubernatorial chair” is good enough for them. So is hanging.

Meet for Meeting. This belongs to the language of sport, which persons of sense do not write—nor read.

Pants for Trousers. Abbreviated from pantaloons, which are no longer worn. Vulgar exceedingly.

Poetess. A foolish word, like “authoress.”

Tasty for Tasteful. Vulgar.

Ways for Way. “A squirrel ran a little ways along the road.” “The ship looked a long ways off.” This surprising word calls loudly for depluralization.

Readers, I hope you have something to say about all this. If so, please say it in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: The Ambrose Bierce Project, & Write it Right – A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, The Neale Publishing Company, 1909.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Idioms beginning with leave

Idioms beginning with leave

Idioms allow us to communicate clearly even while using words that have nothing to do with our meaning. My American Idioms Dictionary, for instance, lists twenty-one idioms beginning with the word leave, covering the better part of two pages. Oddly, most idioms’ origins are shaded in mystery. Three of the six idioms below are legitimate. Three are manufactured. See if you can determine the faux origins (answers are in the comments section).

Leave no stone unturned (1700s) Based on the behavior of a North American bird, the ruddy turnstone, which is surprisingly diligent in its efforts to turn over stones to find food.

Leave someone high & dry (1700s) When a ship was run aground or caught on land due to a dropping tide, it was left high and dry.

Leave well enough alone (1400s) The old Scottish game Twibbits involved flipping discs, the goal being to place one’s disc as far from others’ discs as possible, yet near the goal. The winner was said to be left alone, but if two throws tied, the round was judged well enough alone, a term equal to our modern good enough.

Leave someone holding the bag (1700s) This idiom comes from a hazing game much like a snipe hunt, in which a gullible individual is sent up into the hills with a bag while his/her tormenters claim they’ll drive the elusive snipe out of the bushes & into the bag, but instead, have a good laugh at the expense of their innocent victim.

Leave someone in the lurch (1500s) This idiom has its origins in a French cribbage-like game called lourche in which a player was said to be left in the lurch when s/he was put in a hopeless position.

Leave someone out in the cold (1500s) When the portcullis of a castle or other fortified building was lowered at dusk, members of the household were sometimes left out in the cold.

Please consider which three seem most authentic, then check answers in the comments section & let us all know how you did.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Phrase Finder, NTC’s American Idioms Dictionary, & Etymonline

Thursday, August 21, 2014



This time of year in the northern hemisphere, students & teachers are heading back to school. This post takes a look at some of the words we associate with school.

A student is one who studies, though in modern American culture, not every student who fits the definition of study established in the early 1100s, to strive toward, devote oneself, cultivate or show zeal for. Of note is the fact that study’s mother word from Proto-Indo-European was (s)teu-. Its meaning may fit another percentage of the modern student population, to push, stick, knock or beat. Then again, it’s possible that pushing, knocking & beating may be a figurative reference to the parents & teachers “encouraging” those students who aren’t naturally showing zeal for their education.

The first English form of the word teach was tæcan, which meant to show, point out, declare, direct, warn, persuade or demonstrate. It came from Proto-Indo-European & is related to the words diction, dictionary, dictate, & token.

The word education came to English in the 1400s from the Latin verb educare/educere, to rear, educate, train, nourish, or support, made of the word parts ex + ducere, & meaning to lead out or draw forth.

Old English’s leornian, to get knowledge, be cultivated, study or read, gave us our modern word learn, which came from the Proto-Indo-European word leis, to follow or find the track or furrow.

And last, the word school showed up in Old English through Latin from the Greek word skhole, meaning spare time, leisure, rest, ease or idleness, because one didn’t engage in such things as learning until the work of surviving was done. Given that, I find it fascinating that skhole comes from the Proto-Indo-European word segh, which meant to hold in one’s power.

Please leave a thought or two about all this in the comments section.

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014



I would like thoughts of peace to be on my mind always, but I often let life get in the way. Recent events, though, have brought my ever-present (if sometimes buried) hopes for peace to the forefront.

The word peace came to English in the 1100s, meaning freedom from civil disorder. It came to English through Old French from the Latin word pacem or pax. Our modern word pact more closely reflects the initial meaning of peace’s Proto-Indo-European root, pag or pak, which meant to make firm, to join together, to agree.

Ah that we humans of the world might join together & firmly agree on peace.

Some modern synonyms for peaceful include:

placid, an undisturbed & unruffled calm

calm, a total absence of agitation or disturbance

tranquil, a more intrinsic & permanent peace than the peace suggested by the word calm.

serene,  an exalted tranquility

harmonious, musical agreement or settled governmental order

In lieu of leaving a comment for this post, I’m hoping we can all instead bring peaceful thought & action to the forefront, & maybe, just maybe (with all due respect to Margaret Meade) a small group of thoughtful word nerds can change the world for the better.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1959, & Etymonline

Thursday, August 7, 2014

To grasp or enclose

To grasp or enclose

A fascinating construct of linguists is the proto-language, a language we have no direct proof of. Linguists study the earliest languages they can access, find similar words and structures in the languages in a region, and then propose the mother tongue that may have given birth to the tongues spoken in that region. It’s tricky business. One of the most-cited and least questioned proto-languages is Proto-Indo-European, and this week’s post takes a look at the apparent descendants of Proto-Indo-European’s proposed word-part gher- , to grasp or enclose.

It’s easy to imagine a word meaning to grasp or enclose turning into the Old English word gyrdel, a belt, sash, or cord worn around the waist, & gyrdel morphing into girdle, initially meaning to cut off a belt of bark around a trunk to kill a tree (1665), & moving from there to mean an elastic corset (1925). I’ll leave the comparison of the intent of those two words to my readers with more direct experience than I.

Gher- also seems to have been responsible for the birth of the Old English word geard, a fenced enclosure. From geard come the words yard, & garden. Our modern word orchard was original ortgeard &/or wortgeard, a compound word referring to a geard filled with wort (wort being vegetables, fruits & roots).

When those tricky Old English speakers filled a geard with kinder (children), they called it a kindergarten.

It also appears that gher- made its way to Greece, where people danced in an enclosure, inspiring the word khoros, which became our modern word chorus, which on its way through France, referred to the enclosure in the church where people sang, the chouer, the parent of our word choir.

Gher- also made its way into Latin, where it referred to the king’s enclosure & residence, cohors. In time, cohors grew to label the enclosure itself, the court (which makes our word courtyard redundant). Court also began to refer to the folks within it, both court & cohort. When one of the individuals in that group expressed marital interest, he was said to be courting, & doing so in a gentlemanly fashion earned him the label, courteous.

All this from grasping & enclosing? I’d love to hear your comments on any of this, in particular, the darker twists & shadows etymology throws upon words we typically see as positive.

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