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, May 21, 2015

Unlikely ungulates

Unlikely Ungulates

As noted three posts ago, recent DNA findings have placed some very unlikely animals under the ungulate (hoofed mammals) umbrella: whales, dolphins & porpoises. Most closely related to the hippopotamus, whales, dolphins & porpoises (also known as cetaceans) no longer have an order of their own. Scientists haven’t quite settled over whether cetaceans are a suborder or infra-order of ungulates.

The word cetacean entered English in 1830 from Modern Latin, meaning any large sea creature. The Latin term was derived from the Greek word ketos,  whale or sea monster. No one knows the source of ketos.

The Old English word hwæl, which meant both whale & walrus, gave us the word whale. Hwæl’s source was the Proto-Germanic word hwalaz. Our modern idiom whale of a/n _______, meaning big or excellent showed up in 1900.

One of many whales is the killer whale. The word killer showed up in the 1400s from the English word kill (which first appeared in the 1200s), & meant one who strikes, beats or knocks. Though we’re not 100% sure, kill may have come from the Old English word cwellan, to kill. Cwellan is also the most likely suspect for the source of qualm & quell. Our idiom to kill time kicked in about 1728. The figurative meaning of killer, impressive person or thing appeared in 1900, and the term killer instinct showed up in the world of boxing in 1931. And getting back to cetaceans, the killer whale was first called that in 1725.

In the early 1300s the word porpas appeared in English, from the Old French word porpais, which translates ingloriously to pork fish. Interestingly, the German word for porpoise translates literally to sea hog. It’s likely the somewhat pig-like snout of the porpoise may be responsible for both words, though a modern etymologist might wonder whether those long-ago French & German porpoise-namers may have sensed a deeper connection to the porpoise’s distant ungulate cousin, the pig.

Our word dolphin came from French in the mid-1300s. We can trace dolphin back through Old French, Medieval Latin, Latin & Greek to the word delphinos, meaning dolphin. This Greek root is closely related to delphys, meaning womb. Etymologists suggest Ancient Greeks found it remarkable that instead of coming from eggs, the progeny of this “fish” arrive through live birth.

Dear readers. If you’ve got anything to say about these water-bound “hoofed mammals,” please do so in the comments section.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Science Direct, Ultimate Ungulate, Etymonline, & the OED.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Underappreciated Ungulates of the World

Underappreciated Ungulates of the World

For the past two weeks we’ve considered the etymologies of well-known ungulates like pigs and deer. This week we’ll wrap up with some of the lesser-known ungulates of the world.

In 1774 English speakers first uttered the word tapir to refer to a 330-700 pound South American mammal with a prehensile snout. The English word tapir came from the Tupi language of Brazil, probably through French.

The springbok is a gazelle of South Africa. Springbok came to English from Afrikaans in 1775. Springbok is a compound word using springen, to leap & bok, antelope.

The dik-dik is a tiny (7-16 pound) African antelope. The word came to English in 1880 from one of the many east African languages; sadly, nobody knows which one. It’s likely that the name is onomatopoeic, as the “bark” of the dik-dik sounds much like its name.

Another African antelope, the kudu got its name from the Xosa-Kaffir language (originally iqudu). Kudu made its way into English in 1777.

In the year 1900 the Mbuba language of the Congo gave English the word okapi, a short-necked giraffe of the region.

Another African antelope, the impala, got its name from another native African language, Zulu. The word impala showed up in English in 1875. Impala didn’t make its way in chrome onto the side of a Chevrolet until 1958.

The ibex is a goat native to parts of Africa and Eurasia. The word ibex first appeared in English in the early 1600s, coming through Latin from an unidentified source.

The Tibetan word q-yag gave us yak, the wild ox of Central Asia. Yak came to English in 1795.

Here’s hoping a little attention has raised the spirits of the world’s underappreciated ungulates.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Ultimate Ungulate, Etymonline, & the OED.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Hog heaven

Hog heaven

Last week we took an initial look at ungulates. This week we’ll start with the observation that the idiom hog heaven came into use about 1940, then we’ll look into a few words that define the more hog-like ungulates.

The word swine, meaning pig, hog or wild boar, applies too all the hog-like critters below. Swine showed up in English before English was English, and come from the Proto-Germanic word swinan. The word sow, referring to the female pig is closely related to the word swine & has been around as long.

The word hog has been a part of the English language since the 1100s. Interestingly, hog originally referred to the age of a critter, and was applied to what we now call hogs, horses and sheep when they were about a year old. It wasn’t until 1400 or so that sheep and horses left the word hog behind. Within the next century hog also began to mean a gluttonous person. A gathering of hogs has been known as a drift, a piggery & a hoggery.

The origin of the word pig is a bit of a mystery. It was in use in Old English (spelled pigc), & referred only to young pigs, while the mature ones were called swine. Words for gatherings of pigs include litter, farrow, drove, cote, sounder & team.

The javelina is also known as a peccary, a native of Mexico and the southwest United States. The word javelina came to English in 1815 through Spanish from Arabic, where the word jabal i meant mountain swine. The word peccary, on the other hand, entered in English in 1610 from one of the Carib languages (most likely Venezuelan or Guianan). A gathering of javelinas or peccaries is known as a sounder.

What have you to say about all this ungulation?

Big thanks to this week’s sources: David W. K. Godrich’s A Gaggle of Geese, Wordnik, Ultimate Ungulate, Etymonline, & the OED.

Thursday, April 30, 2015



Last week we took a look at rodents. Next, we’ll consider another underappreciated order of critters, the ungulates.

The word ungulate first showed up in English in 1802 from the Latin word ungulatus, or hoofed. Soon after that, in 1839 the word ungulates began representing the entire order of hoofed mammals.

Recent advances in DNA testing have completely changed our understanding of which critters are & aren’t ungulates. The old-school ungulates have now been sliced, diced & moved around. Who knew in 1839 that a hippopotamus was more closely related to a whale than it was to a rhinoceros? Who ever guessed that whales belonged in the order named for hooved mammals?

There are 257 species of ungulates on the globe as I type. In the next three weeks we’ll take a look at the etymologies of a few of them.

In the 1300s, the word rhinoceros appeared in English, taken from the Greek word rhinokeros, which meant nose-horned.

The word hippopotamus showed up in the 1560s. It came through Late Latin, but started with the Greeks, & meant river-horse. This spelling replaced the earlier Middle English word ypotame, which also means river-horse & also comes from Greek, but made its way through French before landing in England.

The word deer is an Old English word once spelled doer. It meant animal or beast. Heorot, the word the Old English used to refer to the modern critter we call a deer morphed in time to the word hart. It seems that the word deer won out over time because enough folks going hunting for any animals preferred finding deer to the other options (some which had nasty tusks). In time, the initially general term took on the more specific meaning.

An Algonquin language (most likely Narragansett or Abenaki) gave English the word moose in 1610 The word means he strips off, which refers to either the moose’s habit of using his palmate antlers to strip the bark off trees, or to the moose's use of the bark of trees to strip the "velvet" from the antlers.

Ungulate junior etymologists unite! What have you to say about all this ungulation?

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Wordnik, Ultimate Ungulate, Etymonline, & the OED.

Friday, April 24, 2015



This spring our neighborhood has seen a serious uptick in the grey squirrel population, which got me to thinking about the word squirrel, which led to this post.

In the early 1300s English speakers started using the word squirrel instead of the Old English word acweorna. Squirrel came from the Anglo-French word esquirel, which we can trace back through Old French, Vulgar Latin, & Latin to the Greek word skiouros, a word used to refer to – what a surprise – squirrels, though it translates literally to shadow-tailed. Interestingly, it wasn’t until 1939 that the word squirrel added to its quiver a verb form, allowing us now to squirrel things away.

The word chipmunk came to English in 1832 from the Ojibwa word ajidamoo, which means one who descends trees headlong. The lack of phonetic similarity between chipmunk & ajidamoo is probably due to the English speakers translating the “foreign” sounds of the people they were busy displacing to sounds they were accustomed to hearing.

Though some marmots live in grasslands, European marmots tend to prefer higher altitudes. The word marmot came to English in the 1600s. We can trace it back through French & Swiss to the Latin murim montis, or mountain mouse.  

The vole lives primarily in fields. The word vole came to English in 1828,most likely from the Old Norse word, vollr, which means field.

We refer to a type of burrowing squirrel as a gopher, a word that arrived in American English in 1812. The Americans most likely borrowed the word from the Louisiana French speakers’ word gaufre, which meant honeycomb or waffle, a reference to the condition of the garden or field after the gopher has claimed it as its own.

Please share any of your rodential thoughts in the comments section.

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

Up #3

Up #3

Thanks for tuning into the third of three posts on up, a brief list of a few more idioms that employ the word up.

1700s – to cheer up or become happier
1700s – bottoms up or cheers!
1809toss-up or an even matter
1818 – to turn up one’s nose or show disdain
1823 – to upend or turn over
1844 – to buck up or cheer up
1860 – to jack up or hoist or raise
1881 – to whoop it up or make a joyful disturbance
1896 – all choked up or overcome with emotion
1903 – to live it up or live extravagantly
1904 – to jack up or raise a price
1926 - to wrap up or put an end to
1933 – to mess up or make a mess of
1935 – to shack up or cohabit
1960upchuck or vomit

Please use the comments section to remark on any of these terms or the dates they appeared.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Go English, Albert Jack, Etymonline, & the OED.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Up #2

Up #2

The word up was spelled in a number of ways in Old English, including up & uppe. It meant up or upward & came from the Proto-Indo-European word upo, which also gave us the Greek word hypo (as in hypo-allergenic, hypochondriac & hypodermic).

In last week’s post I mentioned that up performs as an adverb, noun, verb & adjective. I missed something. Up also functions as a preposition.

Adverb – Marcel walks up the hill.
Adjective - Ophelia seems up today.
Verb - The grocer upped the price of blueberries today.
Noun - The market has its ups & downs.
Preposition - Madeleine’s speedy departure left Stanley up in the air.

And here are a few more uppish idioms:

1847 – The term getup (or get-up) refers to one’s costume. This appears to have come from the 1841 idiom getup meaning initiative or energy.

1853 – upholster is referred to by linguists as a “back formation” because it appears to be a base word, but actually came from the longer word (from 1610) upholsterer, which refers to a person who fixes furniture. Upholsterer comes from the word upholdester, which came from the word upholden back in the 1300s, and meant repair, uphold, keep from falling or sinking.

1891 – To send someone up the river, meaning to send someone to jail, originated in New York City, as the prison Sing Sing was up the Hudson River from the city.

1947 – upbeat, meaning with a positive mood, comes from the 1869 musical term upbeat, which labels the beat during a bar when the conductor’s baton is pointed upward.

1951 - To drive someone up the wall, meaning to annoy or irritate, came from the observed behavior of some animals (& patients) in cages.

Please use the comments section to tell me what’s up.

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