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 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.

Thursday, June 2, 2016



We English speakers have lots of ways to suggest someone is up to no good. This week we’ll cover a few of them.

A nefarious (or in some cases fun-loving) individual might engage in shenanigans. This word showed up in 1855 in California. Though my ear tells me shenanigans is likely a slur against the Irish (like so many other words), most etymologists disagree. Though nobody’s really certain, shenanigans appears to have come from a Spanish word, charranada, which means trick or deceit. A small dissenting group of etymologists suggest shenanigans may have come from a German word, schenigelei, a word referring to the peddler’s craft. And an even smaller group of much-maligned etymologists suggest the word may have come from the Irish word for fox, sionnach. Hmm.

Another word referring to a rogue’s deeds or actions is knavery, a noun that appeared in the 1580s based on the much older word knave. Knave’s root, from Old English, is the noun cnafa, originally meaning a boy or male servant. By 1200, though, knave/cnafa picked up the negative connotation, rogue or rascal. The word knavery was born of that connotation.

An 1841 word that originally meant trickery is hanky-panky. Though it’s not quite nailed down, it’s likely hanky-panky evolved from hoky-poky, which evolved from hocus-pocus. And a century after hanky-panky was first put to paper, about 1939, hanky-panky picked up the meaning sexual dalliance.

Knavery, shenanigans & hanky-panky can also be referred to with the somewhat less loaded word, antics, which came to English in 1520 & meant grotesque or comical gesture. Its root is the word antico, which originally referred to ancient, unearthed Roman murals, seen to be strange & bizarre, thus labeled antico, a word which has since morphed to mean antique.

The 1809 verb skylark means to frolic or play. The word skylarking was originally used to refer to the antics of exuberant sailors playing in the rigging.

And the idiom monkey business was born in 1883 to refer to questionable shenanigans. Monkey business may reflect the word monkey’s history, as monkey came through Old French from the Arabic word maimun, which meant both monkey & auspicious; the sighting of an ape was perceived to be unlucky – almost as unlucky as being the victim of monkey business.

So, good readers, what do you have to say about these etymological shenanigans?

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

Thursday, May 26, 2016

To throw

To throw

Jet (as in a jet of water) showed up in English in the 1690s. It came through French from the Latin word iacere, which meant to throw. It doesn’t take much creativity to imagine how a word meaning to throw would end up referring to:

a stream of water (1690),
a spout or nozzle for emitting fuel (1825),  
jet propulsion (1855 – no joke – at that point we were propelling things with jets of water), or
fuel-driven jet propulsion (1945).

What fascinates me are all the other words that came from iacere.

jetty – early 1400s – rocks or land thrown into the sea
jetsam – 1560s – initially the act of throwing something overboard,  soon to morph into the items thrown overboard
jettison – 1848 – to throw overboard
trajectory – 1690s – the path of something thrown
adjective – late 1300s – from ad-iacere, meaning to throw near
adjacent – late 1400s – also from ad-iacere, meaning to throw near
jut – mid 1400s – throw in the way
eject – mid 1400s – to throw out
joist – early 1300s – lumber thrown down on which a floor can be built
interjection – early 1400s – a word thrown into a conversation
conjecture – late 1300s – a possibility one throws into an argument

As you consider the next list of words, imagine how they might have something to do with the Latin root iacere, to throw, then click on comments below & offer your explanation of the connection.

deject, &

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

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Etymological sixth sense?

Etymological sixth sense?

Sometimes what appears to be an unexplainable preference actually has an explanation.

Last week I had the incredible good fortune to attend a writing retreat with children’s writing guru & editing luminary, Patricia Lee Gauch. Now a retired editorial director of Philomel (Penguin), Patti wrote some remarkable children’s books & is a passionate editor & teacher. A handful of the many authors whose award-winning books she edited are TA Barron, Jane Yolen, Judith St. George, Eric Carle, Patricia Polacco, Kathryn Erskine, Andrew Clements, Virginia Hamilton, & Brian Jacques.

While discussing making a scene come alive, Patti mentioned that many editors tend to ask authors for detail, but the word detail has never resonated for her. Instead, she sometimes asks for more specifics. Her default term though -- the word that really latches onto what she’s looking for in a scene that needs to come alive -- is texture.

Interesting. The modern word detail, meaning a small, subordinate piece, came to English about 1600 from a French noun that originally meant cut into pieces.

Her second choice, the noun specifics, arrived in English about that same time from Latin through French. The original Latin word meant kind or sort, & is also the parent word for the word species.

Patti's preferred word, texture, made its way into English two centuries earlier from Latin through Middle French. It’s related to the word textile & comes from a verb that meant to weave or fabricate.  

In his/her efforts to help an author craft a book, an editor is doing all s/he can to help the author weave the disparate strands of character, story, setting & tension into something whole, something complete. Nobody wants a story to be cut into pieces. Maybe it's no surprise that a gifted, longstanding editor winces at the use of the word detail, finds the word specifics acceptable, but not quite right, & relishes the word texture.  

Does Patti’s word choice when it comes to editorial advice reflect a sixth sense regarding the history of these words? Can a word’s origins follow it from language to language & culture to culture, through centuries of change?

Readers, writers, what are your thoughts on this? Please chime in by clicking on comments below.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury

Last week’s post featuring some thoughts from a favorite author luminary led me to this week’s post. I’ll get back to etymologies and such next week, but for now, I hope you’ll have a good time with the ever-prolific & fascinating Ray Bradbury.

Born in 1929 & leaving this universe as we know it in 2012, author of 500 works, Ray Bradbury won the Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, the National Medal of Arts, & the National Book Foundation Medal, & tons more. Known best as a science fiction novelist & short story author whose stories always valued character above technology, Bradbury also wrote TV scripts, poems, screenplays & plays. Here is a tiny sampling of his thoughts:

“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.”

“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”


“Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”

I’m hoping some of you might choose a quote from above & have something to say about it in the comments section.

Big thanks to this week’s sources:, SearchQuotes, BrainyQuote, & -  
photo from