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, 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

Thursday, July 31, 2014



Since we humans tend to form groups, it’s no surprise that over the centuries English speakers have come up with countless words to label those groups. I hope you’ll enjoy this collection of words that refer to groups of people. Keep an eye out for those you find remarkable (some of my favorites include a w… of soliders, a s… of nuns & a s… of ascetics).

Groups of friends:
Circle, clique, host, multitude & troop

Groups of nuns:
Convent, nunnery, order, sisterhood & superfluity

Groups of soldiers:
Army, band, battalion, brigade, casern, century, company, crue, echelle, file, guard, host, kern, maniple, platoon, soldiery, squad, squadron, troop, velites, & wappenshaw

Groups of scholars:
Class, form, grade, school

Groups of prisoners:
Batch, clutch, colony & horde

Groups of monks:
Brotherhood, community, kellion, monastery, order, sangha (Buddhist), & skete (Ascetics)

Groups of rogues, ruffians, knaves or thieves:
Crue, picaros, gang, horde, mohock, den, gang, ring, thickness, raffle, & ropery

What's remarkable in all this? Please leave a note in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, Etymonline  & David W.K. Godrich’s A Gaggle of Geese, 2011

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Musical slang

Musical slang

Good friend & guitar player Ed Gerhard is playing in California this week, so I’m celebrating by taking a look at some terms used among musicians.

Since the 1930s, musicians have used the term jam. Etymologists argue over its origin. One school argues that the verb jam and the noun jam session come from the understanding that when playing for their own amusement, musicians try to jam as many notes in as possible. Another school argues that the 1730s understanding of jam, fruit preserves, led to the 1930s musical term, as both are sweet and excellent.

A particularly sweet & excellent series of notes might be referred to as a riff, another word over which etymologists bicker. Riff appears to have been in use since 1917 or so. Some connect riff to riffle, as a riffle in a stream, while others suggest it comes from a shortening of the word refrain, which comes from a Latin term that meant to break off. Interestingly, since the 1920s, a musician who improvises a solo (possibly including any number of riffs) is said to be taking a break.

The noun gig, meaning job playing music, is quite the mystery, Nobody’s really sure what its origins are, though it showed up among jazz musicians slightly after the turn of the century, soon to be followed by the verb gigging & the past tense verb gigged.

As of 1789 an extemporizing pianist was said to be vamping. The great grandmother of the word vamp was the Anglo-French word vaumpe, which refers to the front section of a shoe. It appears that the musical vamp may have come from the fact that the fronts of shoes often had to be repaired, or revamped, & that a good piano player could take an old song and give it new shoes.

Giving a song new shoes takes some chops, a word that was first born in 1589 to refer to the flesh that covers the jaws. This leads to the speculation that by the early 1900s when the musical understanding of chops was born, it first referred to the technical facility of a player of a brass instrument. Chops has since generalized beyond music to apply to technical facility of any kind.

The original musical axe (or ax) was a jazz saxophone in 1955 (though nobody knows whose saxophone it was). This was apparently because, like the more traditional axe, it could get the job done. By 1955 the term axe was being applied to guitars. Once guitar players got hold of the term, it generalized to refer to almost any musical instrument (though I wonder about the concertina, the triangle, the bagpipes…).

Good followers, what instrument should simply never be referred to with the word axe? Also, did anything in this week’s post surprise you?

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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Toponyms #2

Toponyms #2

Because toponyms occur when we use a place name to refer to something other than the place, it’s logical to assume toponyms would all come from places that exist somewhere on the globe. Some toponyms, though, come from places that exist in our imaginations – from fiction.

Shangri La first entered our collective imagination in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, in which Shangri La referred to a mystical and harmonious settlement in a difficult-to-reach valley. By 1938 the term Shangri La had come to mean any earthly paradise, the sort of place English speakers after 1610 might have called a utopia. The term utopia was coined by Thomas More in 1516 to refer to a non-existent perfect place. He coined the word by connecting the Greek word parts topos, meaning place with ou-, meaning not. It appears he intended to make it clear that a perfect place could never exist. Ever optimistic, we humans didn’t notice that part, & utopia’s meaning morphed to refer to a perfect place that actually could exist, creating the need to later coin the word dystopia, meaning exactly what Thomas More intended utopia to mean in the first place. Another fictional work, Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, is responsible for a word used since 1726 to mean tiny. Lilliputian comes from Swift’s creation of a place in which thumb-sized people lived. He called his region Lilliput.

Another group named after a place is the Neanderthal, named after a valley near Dusseldorf, Germany where fossilized humanoid remains were found in 1856. Worthy of remark is the origin of the place name. Before the valley called Neanderthal got its name it was a favorite haunt of German pastor & poet, Jaochim Neander, whose grandfather had Hellenized the family last name, Neumann (new man) to Neander years before. The German word for valley is thal, voila, Neanderthal! By all accounts Pastor Neander was quite civilized & exhibited none of the stereotyped proclivities we modern English speakers associate with the term neanderthal.

The German word thal, valley, is also the grandmother of our modern word dollar, which came onto the scene in the 1550s. A particular valley was the home of a silver mine from which coins were minted as early as 1519. The mine was in a valley named after a chap called Joachim, Joachimsthaler, which was also the name initially given to the coin. In time, poor Joachim got dropped and thaler became dollar. I suppose this would make Joachim the unappreciated grandfather of the dollar.

Good readers, what say you about all this toponym foolishness, or the probability of one blog post including two different Joachims?

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