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, June 22, 2017



Many of us who love the English language cringe upon hearing the word orientate. Truth is, orientate is recognized by almost all respectable dictionaries. So what makes orientate so cringeworhty?

Orientate is what etymologists call a back-formation. It was born when English speakers “verbified” the noun orientation. What curls the toes of language sticklers is that we already had the perfectly good verb orient — why create a second, longer word with the same exact meaning?

Not all words created through back-formation make certain people wince. A bunch of words came to us by lopping off bits instead of adding bits. 

Secrete arrived in 1707 from secretion (1640).

Surveil came to us in 1904 from surveillance (1802).

Greed showed up in 1600 from greedy, which has been part of English since before anyone called it English.

Implode came to us in 1870 from implosion (1829).
Zip appeared in 1932 from zipper (1925).

Paginate showed up in 1858 from pagination (1841).

Incarcerate arrived in 1550 from incarceration (1530s).

Avid came to us in 1769 from avidity (1400s)

Mutate appeared in 1818 from mutation (1300s).

Humiliate arrive in the 1530s from humiliation (1300s).

And even the verb edit (1891) is most likely a back-formation of editor (1640).

Please leave any thoughts on all this in the comments section.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

To split or cut

To split or cut

We English-speakers (& users of the languages that preceded English) have done a whole lot of splitting & cutting. All the following words (& a bunch I couldn’t fit into this post) come from one Proto-Indo-European source. Etymologists write this word *skei-. It meant to cut or split.

It gave us the word shingle, a piece of wood split from a larger piece. The idea that a shingled roof involves overlapping pieces also gave us the meaning overlapping stones on the shore. It also gave us the idiom to hang out one’s shingle, & a hairstyle involving overlapping layers.

Appearing in Old English (some time between 400 & 1000 AD), the word shin appears to have come from the knowledge that the fibula in the lower leg appears to have split off from the larger tibia.

Shed also showed up in Old English, meaning to divide, separate, part company or discriminate. In modern usage, we still see this meaning in the phrase to shed one’s skin & in the term watershed, in which drops of rain falling on one side of a mountain are divided from the drops of rain fallowing on the opposite side.

Shiver, originally a small piece, fragment or splinter, came from *skei-, as did shiver, to break into small pieces, however the shivering we might do when cold or frightened comes from a different source altogether.
Coming to English in 1883 we have the word ski, which came from *skei- through Old Norse from a word meaning a long stick of wood — one split from a larger piece.

The root *skei- also made its way through Greek & Latin to arrive in English as the combining form schizo-, which gave us - among other words - schizophrenic, reflecting a condition originally understood to involve a split personality.

Though etymologists still argue over the origin of the word ship, one school of thought maintains ship came from *skei-  because the building of the earliest vessels involved the cutting or hollowing of a tree

And because knowledge involves distinguishing (or splitting) one thing from another, we have the words science, prescience, omniscience, conscience, & many others.

All from cutting & splitting. Who knew?

If you found all this intriguing or surprising, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

Thursday, June 1, 2017



It shouldn’t be surprising that most words for laughter are imitative of the sound of laughter. Still, I find them intriguing, & occasionally worthy of… a laugh.

Cackle came to English in the 1200s, meaning a loud laugh. It’s considered imitative. Its source is the Latin word cacchination, which is also considered imitative, though to be honest, I’ve never heard a laugh that sounded much like cacchination.

Giggle appeared in the 1500s with no source. A giggle is a short, spasmodic laugh. Giggle is assumed to be imitative.

About a century later, titter appeared, also imitative, defined as a suppressed or nervous giggle.

Another century later, in the 1720s, the Scottish term guffaw caught on among English speakers. A guffaw is defined as a loud or noisy laugh, & not surprisingly, is imitative.

One term for a laugh that isn’t directly imitative is chortle. Formed through a marriage of chuckle & snort, chortle was coined by Lewis Carrol in 1872 in his brilliant poem, Jabberwocky. And yes, chuckle & snort are both imitative.

A snicker is a smothered laugh & came to English in the 1690s. Its sister word snigger appeared in 1706, meaning the same thing. Both are imitative.

The word laugh comes to English through Proto-Germanic from Proto-Indo-European. English speakers started using laugh in the late 1300s. And like its funny friends, laugh is imitative. I’m hoping some of the forms of this word may give you a laugh.

Old Norse - hlæja
Anglian - hlæhhan
Old Saxon - hlahhian
Old Frisian - hlakkia
Dutch & German - lachen
Sanskrit - kakhati
Lithuanian - klageti
Greek - kakhazein
Old Church Slavonic - chochotati

Boy, those Old Church Slavonic folks must have been a laugh a minute, eh?

Comments? You know where to leave them.

Thursday, May 25, 2017



When it comes to English idioms, beans rule. Here are just a few idioms that employ bean or beans:

In the 1800s the idiom hill of beans was born, meaning worthless, mostly due to the relative lack of value of beans. 

Since the 1800s, someone who is full of energy can be said to be full of beans. 

In 1830, it could be said of a clever person that s/he knows how many beans make five. Though nobody is certain, this idiom may have provided the contrast for the phrase suggesting someone is anything but clever, s/he doesn’t know beans

Since 1837, a thin person might be referred to as a beanpole

Spill the beans first showed up in 1910, when it meant spoil the situation. By 1919 spill the beans meant reveal a secret.

Since 1940 we’ve been referring to a small close-fitting hat as a beanie, a term that grew out of the 1910 slang word for head, bean.

It appears the idiom cool beans, meaning excellent! (as of the 80s & 90s) may have originated in the 1970s, when a handful of colorful uppers &/or downers looked like a handful of jelly-beans.

And, since 1971, anyone overly focused on trivial details can be referred to as a bean-counter. Like hill of beans, this idiom reflects the relative  lack of value of beans.

Do any of you out there know beans? If so, please leave a comment.

Thanks to this week’s sources,, the OED, Merriam-Webster, Word Detective, &

Thursday, May 18, 2017



We English speakers have heaps of ways to raise our voices. Here are a few:

Shout has been a part of the language since the 1200s & has meant to call or cry out loudly that whole time. Its source is unclear, but it may be the root of shoot (when shouting, one throws one voice, a bit like one might “throw” an arrow or bullet). 

Yell has been a part of English since the beginning of English. It comes through Proto-Germanic from the Proto-Indo-European word *ghel-, which meant to shout out, sing or yell. We can see the sing meaning of *ghel- in the modern word nightingale, which causes me to appreciate that nightingales held onto this sing meaning of the word; nobody needs birds who yell.

The Old Norse word skrækja made its way into English in the 1200s as scrycke,  which eventually became both the word screech, & the word shriek, meaning exactly that. Linguists are pretty sure it’s an imitative word.

Bellow appeared in English in the 1300s, meaning to roar. It came through Old English from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning the same thing.

A comparable late-comer to English is the word holler, meaning to shout. Holler didn’t appear until the 1690s, from an earlier form, hollar, which referred to the act of calling the hounds in from hunting.  A later shade of meaning denoted a style of singing popular at the time in the American South. Holler shares its roots with the word hello.

The modern digital equivalent of YELLING may have first been established in John Irving’s 1989 book, A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Ideas? Comments? Reactions? Please leave them in the comments section. YELL if you must.

Thursday, May 11, 2017



Over the years we English-speakers have had many ways to say that something is just fine. Here are a few of them.

1702 - tip-top  - most excellent, as what is most excellent is top of the heap.

1811 - up to snuff  - This idiom showed up some 160 years after the practice of inhaling powdered tobacco into the nose became all the rage in England. Its original meaning was sharp, wide awake, not easy to deceive, & most likely reflects the somewhat caffeine-like effects of snorting powdered tobacco.

1848 - top-notch - Etymologists assume this idiom may come from a game of some sort, but no one is certain. Like tip-top, top-notch denotes something that is most excellent.

1866 - hunky-dory - satisfactory, or just fine. Nobody’s certain of this idiom’s source. One school of etymologists thinks it may have come from the earlier word hunkey - also meaning satisfactory, which came from the word hunk, an inner-city New York slang term used to refer to home-base, a safe place during games like tag. Others suggest hunky-dory is a mispronunciation of Honcho dori, a street in Yokohoma, Japan, infamous for the sailorly diversions it offered. Both are intriguing & believable possibilities, but neither has been nailed down as fact.

1953 - peachy-keen, meaning most excellent. This figure of speech appears to have grown out of peachy, used to mean attractive since 1900, & keen, which in 1900 became a term of approval among the teenage population. Interestingly, keen is a word of many sometimes contradictory meanings: bold, brave, fearless, prudent, wise, able, eager, ardent, sharp, loud, shrill, biting, bitter, & cutting.

What other ways do you know of verbally approving of something? Please leave your examples in the comments section.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Old dictionaries

Old dictionaries

My affinity for old dictionaries should be no surprise to Wordmonger followers. Sadly, I can find no Old Dictionary Appreciation Day, Week, or Month, so I’ve decided to unilaterally proclaim the first week of May “Old Dictionary Appreciation Week.”

An element I greatly appreciate in older dictionaries is the “synonym” feature which closes the occasional entry. This feature takes similar words or terms & parses out the shades of meaning. Here are two synonym entries from my 1959 Webster’s New World Dictionary:

Intelligent implies the ability to learn or understand from experience or to respond successfully to a new experience; clever implies quickness in learning or understanding, but sometimes connotes a lack of thoroughness or depth; alert emphasizes quickness in sizing up a situation; bright and smart are somewhat informal, less precise equivalents for any of the preceding; brilliant implies an unusually high degree of intelligence; intellectual suggests keen intelligence coupled with interest and ability in the more advanced fields of knowledge.

Beautiful is applied to that which gives the highest degree of pleasure to the senses or to the mind and suggests that the object of delight approximates one’s conception of an ideal; lovely applies to that which delights by inspiring affection or warm admiration; handsome implies attractiveness by reason of pleasing proportions, symmetry, elegance, etc., and carries connotations of masculinity, dignity, or impressiveness; pretty implies a dainty, delicate or graceful quality in that which pleases and carries connotations of femininity or diminutiveness; comely applies to persons only and suggests a wholesome attractiveness of form and features rather than a high degree of beauty; fair suggests beauty that is fresh, bright or flawless and, when applied to persons, is used especially of complexion and features; good-looking is closely equivalent to handsome or pretty, suggesting a pleasing appearance, but not expressing the fine distinctions of either word; beauteous in  poetry and lofty prose is now often used in humorously disparaging references to beauty.

Is that poetry, or what?

Good followers, what bits of old dictionaries do you fancy?

My thanks go out to this week’s source, Webster’s 1959 New World Dictionary of the American Language