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, January 10, 2019

The virtuous werewolf

The virtuous werewolf

Once upon a time (or so linguists believe) there was the word *wi-ro-. It meant man in Proto-Indo-European. Over the years it’s given birth to a disparate batch of word-children.

One of those words is the noun virtue, which appeared in English about 1200, meaning moral excellence. It came from a Latin word meaning courage, manliness, high character. The following century saw the beginnings of the related word virtuous, meaning characterized by vigor, strength, or valiance. It took two hundred years for virtuous to mean having peerless moral qualities. And by 1610 another word was born into this family of words through Italian: virtuoso, originally meaning scholar or connoisseur, & shifting by 1743 to mean one with peerless artistic skill or talent. 

Two *wi-ro-born words many of us hope are being re-conceptualized in this MeToo era are virile & virility, meaning manly & manly strength respectively. Virile & virility showed up in the 1400s & 1500s through Latin & Middle French.

When *wi-ro- made its way into Germanic languages, one branch of its meaning became generalized to the human race, human existence, or the affairs of life & became the Old English word world. After a few hundred years of wallowing about in the minds & usage of Old English speakers, it oozed through meanings like the world of humans, the physical world (as opposed to the spiritual world), & morphed its way into its many modern meanings, one of which is the earth.

Another branch of this word continued to mean man in Old English. When Old English speakers added their version of *wi-ro- (man) to their word wulf (wolf) they came up with werewolf

Here’s hoping in the next few centuries as these words grow & adopt new meanings, they’ll encourage a bit more virtue, & virtuosity among all humanity & add some gentler, more flexible understandings to what it is to be a man — or for that matter, a human.

Thoughts? Please sling them into the comments section.

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

Thursday, January 3, 2019



Let’s start out the year with some interjections, because sometimes you just have to interject.

Yippee showed up in 1920, an expression of exultation. It may have come from hip (as in hip hip hooray).

Dern (1830) & durn (1835) are American attempts to avoid the “swear word” darn, which was a 1781 American attempt to avoid the “swear word” damn. In popular usage, they all are an expression of anger, irritation, or contempt. Linguists believe darn may be an abbreviation of eternal damnation (mispronounced ‘tarnal damnation). If so, it’s related to the 1784 American interjection tarnation.

Wow showed up from Scotland in 1510, & continues to express a state of delight or amazement. Its source is unclear.

Ahem appeared in 1763, a lengthened version of the earlier hem, imitative of clearing of the throat. Ahem continues to be an expression of disapproval, embarrassment or an attempt to get others’ attention.

Oh is a one-interjection-fits-all-emotions sort of interjection from the 1530s. Existing in many Indo-European languages, oh can be used to express nearly any emotion. This interjection gave birth to oh boy  in 1910, oh baby in 1918, & oh yeah in 1924.

Hey has been part of the language since 1200. Like oh, hey has many meanings. Some include an expression of derision, challenge, greeting, pleasure, surprise, warning, & anger.

Mercy has been around as an English interjection since 1300. Though it originally was a shortening of may God have mercy, as a modern interjection mercy can express surprise, annoyance, fear, or thankfulness.

Man has been used as an English interjection since the 1400s, originally expressing impatience, surprise, or emphasis, & today — like the much-maligned interjection dude man can mean almost anything.

English is rife with interjections. If you’ve got a favorite “fit-to-print” interjection I missed in this very short list, please suggest it in the comments section.

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

Thursday, December 27, 2018

You're welcome

You’re welcome

This time of year there’s a heap of Thank yous going on & a lot of you’re welcomes to boot. 

Thank you has been in English usage since 1400, and comes from Germanic languages from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning to think or feel. I love the idea that thankfulness is associated with something as basic as consciousness: simply thinking & feeling. There’s something to ponder in the new year.

To my complete surprise, you’re welcome didn’t show up in English until 1907, though welcome has been in English usage since at least 600 AD. Back then welcome looked something like wilcuma. Old English speakers used this word to welcome guests with a kindly greeting. Welcome has two word parts: willa, meaning  pleasure, desire or choice, & cuma, meaning guest. Etymologists translate wilcuma’s original meaning as greetings to one who suits my will or wish

May all those who visit you in the coming year suit your will or wish, & may you find many an opportunity for heartfelt thank yous.

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

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Put-downs starting with S

Put-downs starting with S

For those moments in life when you just need a put-down that starts with the letter S:

Schlemiela fool or bumbler — arrived in English in the 1860s from a Yiddish word which probably came from the name of a general involved in ill-fated battles & at least one ill-fated extramarital affair.

Scofflawone who habitually ignores the law — arrived in English in 1923, as the winner of a contest posed by Delcevare King, who asked people to coin a word to define those who ignored the 18th amendment by drinking or making illegal alcohol.

Scoundrel an unprincipled knave or rogue - showed up in English in the 1580s. Though its origin hasn’t been pinned down, it may have come from a French word meaning to hide oneself.

Sharka predatory person or swindler — Appearing in English in the 1560s, shark may have come from a Mayan word meaning shark, however, many etymologists insist shark was initially applied as an insult to humans, probably from a German word meaning rascal. When it came time to put a name to a toothy, predatory fish, the word shark seemed to fit.

Skinflint a stingy, miserly person — showing up in English in the 1700s, skinflint defines an individual who is such a cheapskate, s/he would try to scrape skin off a piece of rock (flint) for profit.

Slob — an untidy, loutish individual — slob appeared in English in the 1780s from a Scandinavian source, meaning mud & mire, & by the 1860s, it gained its modern meaning.

Sluggard — a lazy person or idler — coming to English around the 1400s, probably from a Norwegian word meaning slow, it originally applied to slow-moving people, boats, & animals.

Stooge — an incompetent underling — arriving in English in 1913 meaning a stage assistant or straight man (& butt of a comedian’s jokes), stooge grew to mean incompetent underling by the 1930s. It may have come from the word student, as students sometimes assisted actors on stage.

So which S word would you love to put to use? Which one would you likely avoid using? 

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Hugh Rawson’s Wicked Words,, Wordnik, Merriam-WebsterCollins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Six intriguing idioms

Six intriguing idioms

Every idiomatic phrase has a story. Here are a few I find entertaining.

In the 1800s, English speakers in America borrowed a Cree word for marmota monax (also known as the groundhog). They squeezed it into sounds that made some sort of sense in English, & ended up with woodchuck. These rodents were powerfully effective diggers, and regularly dug up the dirt roads, yielding chuckholes. Today, though rodents aren’t responsible, we still call the cavities in asphalt & cement roads, chuckholes

Some early puritans held the belief that a human was made of two halves: the body, & the spirit. Given puritanical thinking regarding the body, it should be no surprise that the spirit was considered the better half. When Sir Phillip Sydney wrote The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, he applied this concept to marriage. Ever since, any married individual has a better half.

The word bootlicker was born in the US of A’s youth. When hunters returned from a successful hunt (which often involved dressing and skinning), they weren’t very good at cleaning up their footwear, and stray dogs would follow them to lick their boots. The story goes that the trained hunting dogs would never stoop so low (hmmm), so bootlicker refers to the fawning behavior of curs.  

The most plausible of the many possible origins for getting one’s ducks in a row has to do with bowling. When bowling first made its way to America, a narrower-then-usual pin was used, which resembled a duck looking upward, & was called a duckpin. In those early years, machinery didn’t set up the pins for the next bowler, so someone had to run down the lane to put the ducks in rows. Voila.

In China, a task that requires synchronized multiple hands can be accompanied by the phrase (said in unison), gung ho, which translates to work together. And it’s no surprise that when a bunch of people work together, amazing things can be accomplished. English-speaking observers impressed by such things as the Great Wall, figured it took a bunch of enthusiasm to manage such a project. Ever since, gung ho! has meant very enthusiastic (in English, anyway).    

There are a couple possible origins for put up your dukes, & duke it out. Some etymologists link this to the British cockney tradition of labeling one thing by the name of something else that rhymes. Apparently, before 1700, fingers were referred to as forks. Cockney speakers combined this information with the royal title the Duke of York. Since fingers were already called forks, obviously, hands must be dukes! Makes perfect sense, right? Story #2 involves a specific Duke of York — Frederick Augustus, who was “widely admired” as a bare-knuckle fighter. So, fo course, why not call fists dukes?

I’d love to know which of these origin stories you find most intriguing OR most satisfying.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Webb Garrison’s Why You Say It, , Phrases.orgCollins Dictionary, & the OED.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Vital forces

Vital forces

Long ago, there was a root that mostly meant vital force, or life. We modern English speakers no longer have that word, but we have its grandchildren.

One of them made its way through Greek & Latin to become eon, an indefinitely long period of time. 

Another came through Old English to become the word each, meaning any, all, every. So did ever, meaning at any time, & every, meaning each individual without exception. This root also gave us the word never, meaning not ever, & never’s Old English synonym, no.

Making its way through Latin & Old French, this root grew into eternal, meaning enduring, everlasting, endless, as did the word eternity, meaning forever.

It also came through Greek & French to become hygiene, the healthful art.

Its Latin progeny include longevity, meaning great age or long life, & primeval, or first age.

Another came to English through Sanskrit to become Ayurvedic, pertaining to the traditional Hindu science of medicine.

Through a Scandinavian source, this word became nay, meaning not ever.

Who knew? Vital forces, indeed. 

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

Thursday, November 29, 2018



We hear a lot about avatars these days, mostly related to avatar’s most modern meaning, a digital representation or handle of a person. Truth is, this word & its forebears have been around quite some time. The first English application of avatar came about in 1784, & meant descent of a Hindu god in an incarnate form, which came from a Sanskrit word meaning the same thing. Linguists cite the source of the Sanskrit word as the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *tere-, to overcome, pass through or cross over.

*Tere- is the source of many English words.

Through & thorough appeared in English in the 1300s. Initially, both meant from end to end & side to side. It wasn’t until the 1500s that through took on the meaning in one side & out the other & thorough began to mean exhaustively complete.

And because air passes through the holes in the nose, we have the word nostril, which came through Old English from a PIE root meaning nose combined with the PIE root *tere-, to pass through. Another word that came from that same Old English word initially meant to pierce or penetrate. By the 1590s this word picked up the meaning a shivering exciting feeling, & became our modern world thrill.

Because the Greek gods gained their immortality from drinking the nectar of the gods, the word nectar translates to overcoming death. In this word, *tere- became -tar, added to the PIE root *nek- (death), which also gave us necromancy & many of its kin. And nectar gave birth to the word nectarine.

*Tere- also made its way through Latin to become the combining form trans-, which gave us transparent, transcontinental, treason, transition, transcend, transcribe, transect, transient, transaction, transgender, & many more.

All this adds up to the fact that the root *tere- is responsible for 75% of the words in the sentence Her avatar’s nostrils thrilled as the treasonous necromancer thoroughly transfixed the nectarine.

Life is funny

Please let me know which words or transformations in this post surprised you most.

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