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, March 23, 2017

Steep & stoop

Steep & stoop

It seems reasonable that these words might come from the same root:

steep slope
steep the tea 
stoop down
hang out on the stoop

However, only three of them share a root.

The verb steep (to soak in liquid) made its way into English in the early 1300s. Though nobody is certain of its source, it may have come from a Norse word meaning to pour. 

The noun stoop (raised platform at the front or back of a house or apartment), appeared in English in 1755 from a Dutch word meaning a flight of steps.

The three words that share a source are the verb stoop, the adjective steep, & the noun steeple. They all come from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to push or knock. A version of this root made its way into northern European languages meaning to bow or bend, & then into Old English as the verb stoop. Another form of this root came to mean high & lofty (possibly due to the idea that a mountain is pushed up from the surrounding soil). This form of the root found itself becoming both the adjective steep & the noun steeple

It nearly causes one to want to stoop to steep one’s tea on one’s stoop, then climb up to enjoy the tea atop a steep steeple, eh?

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017



All it takes is a brief glance through the newspaper to confirm that fiascos happen. So this week we’ll explore fiasco & some of its synonyms.

Fiasco appeared in English in 1855. It was theater talk for turkey, dismal flop, or failure. It comes through French from Italian word for bottle. Many theories exist to explain why we might call a flop on stage a bottle, but none of the theories can be proven. Today fiasco refers to any sort of failure, whether on-stage or off.

Some fiascos in the news take the form of mayhem, a word that showed up in English in the 1400s through Anglo-French from an Old French legal term meaning to maim an opponent enough that he can no longer defend himself. And yes, this same Old French word also gave us the verb maim.

We call a noisy commotion or uproar a hullabaloo. This word came through northern England &/or Scotland to land in English in the late 1700s. Though nobody’s certain, most etymologists believe hullabaloo may be a tweaking of the greeting, hello. 

A bustle, tumult or fuss can be referred to as a fracas, a word that showed up in English in 1727. It came through Italian from a Latin verb meaning to shake.

In 1890 the word brouhaha (meaning an uproar or fuss) made its way into English from French. Though the connection is lost on me, most etymologists believe it may have come from the Hebrew phrase, “barukh habba,” which means blessed be the one who comes.

From Scottish through Canadian English we have the word kerfuffle, meaning a commotion, or disturbance. Kerfuffle first appeared on the scene in the 1930s.

And we have rumpus (1764) & ruckus (1890), both meaning an uproar or disturbance. Though nobody’s sure where either of these words originated, it appears ruckus grew out of rumpus.

Which of these words best fits to news you read or saw today? Chime in by clicking on “comments” below.

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017



Though most of us haven’t heard the word pleonasm, we hear, read, & use pleonasms every day. 

Check over this list. I bet you can define pleonasm on your own.

frozen tundra 
foreign imports
mass exodus
kneel down
hot water heater
ATM machine
break & enter
empty space
advance warning
mental telepathy
temper tantrum
lag behind
aid & abet
fellow countrymen
cameo appearance
advance reservations
past history
nape of the neck
serious crisis
alternative choice
future plans
sum total

So to finish up in pleonastic style, I’d like to thank each & every one of you for joining me here at Wordmonger this week. 

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, 200 Common Redundancies & a Thought Company article regarding George Carlin’s commentary, “Count the Superfluous Redundant Pleonastic Tautologies”

Thursday, March 2, 2017

We got the beat

We got the beat

Though the musical sense of the word beat didn’t appear until the 1840s, beat first showed up in Old English as a verb meaning to thrash or inflict blows on. It came from the Proto-Indo-European word meaning to strike or thrust. Linguists represent this word as *bhau-.

*Bhau- is the source of a heap of modern English words. Here are a few:

The verb butt appeared in English in about 1200, meaning to strike with the head.

*Bhau- also gave us the noun bat, meaning a stick or club (obviously used to beat something). Bat has been with us since Old English. For the purpose of making sense of the next few etymologies, it’s important to note that the part of the bat one grips is typically narrow, while the business end of a bat is comparably thick.

When butt first transitioned to a noun in English (1200-1300) it meant both thick end and flat fish (possibly - but not definitively - due to the need to tenderize the fish by beating it with a bat). We still see the meaning flatfish in the word halibut  which appeared in the 1400s.The meaning human posterior (another thick end) also showed up in the 1400s, and by the 1600s the noun butt  also meant the target of a joke. By the mid-1800s butt also meant the remaining end of a smoked cigarette. Both butt in & buttinski showed up about 1900.

The word buttress  (an element of a building that thrusts out from the primary structure) appeared in English in the 1300s.

Since the 1300s we’ve been thrusting buttons through button-holes.

And in argumentation, both the words rebut (1300s) & refute (1500s) mean to strike back & were born of the word *bhau-.

Inspired to butt in with a comment? Please do.

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

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The elusive scraperfish

The elusive scraperfish

Word-lovers go to great lengths to help others make sense of this nutty language we love so well. The Elusive Scraperfish is one such effort. It’s not elusive because of its astounding camouflage or because it buries itself in the muck. It’s elusive because so many people don’t even know it’s there. Such is the nature of bottomdwellers that concern themselves with English pronunciation rules.

Meet the scraperfish.

It scrapes along on the bottom of the sea, looking for its tunnel-dwelling prey. As its rough belly scrapes along the ocean floor, it makes the sound kkkkkk, kkkkkkk, kkkkkk, signifying to those in the know that the letter C (masquerading as a gill), generally makes the K sound. However, when the scraperfish spots its tunnel-dwelling prey, it sucks it up, savors it, & says sssss, sssss, sssss.

The observant reader will notice the nature of the scraperfish’s prey. When the letter C is followed by an E, I, or Y, it makes the S sound (cellophane, cinnamon, cyborg…). Otherwise, it makes the K sound (coliform, curly, cadaver…). The scraperfish rule even works when a C is doubled, as in accident & accelerate. When a C is followed by the letter H, all bets are off, but in other cases, it’s amazing how consistently this pronunciation rule applies.

What’s cooler still is that there’s a second form of scraperfish.

Amazingly, it hunts the same exact prey, giving us
gelatin, gin, & gymnasium in the presence of its prey, and gasoline, gogo boots, & guru otherwise. Sadly, this second fish’s rule doesn’t work when g doubles up. Also, some high profile words like begin & girl ignore our friend the scraperfish. Still, it applies the majority of the time.

Okay, so how many of you word nerds have already met the scraperfish? And who can contribute other unlikely tales to support English spelling or pronunciation rules? Please use the comments section to let me know.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Alternative facts

Alternative facts

Alternative facts are getting a lot of play these days. It shouldn’t surprise us that the term alternative facts can be alternatively understood, since over time both words have had varied meanings.

The adjective alternative grew out of the Latin word alter, to change or make something different. Its origin is the Proto-Indo-European word *al-, which meant beyond. Alternative showed up in English in the 1580s, meaning offering one or the other of two

When used in rhetoric during the 1600s, alternative meant a proposition of two statements, the acceptance of one implying the rejection of the other. 

By 1970, alternative picked up the meaning purporting to be a superior choice to what is in general use.

The noun fact came from the Medieval Latin word factum, which translates literally to thing done. As time passed, Medieval Latin became Latin, & factum came to mean event, occurrence, deed, or achievement. When it made its way to English as fact in the 1530s, it meant anything done, though in usage, the anything done to which the word fact referred was usually an evil deed.

Grist for the mill, eh?

Anything to say about all this? Please leave a comment or two in the comments section.

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

Thursday, February 9, 2017

We ourselves

We ourselves

Imagine a word used to refer to oneself in the plural; sort of a we-meets-ourselves word. Today, etymologists write the word *s(w)e-. This Proto-Indo-European word gave birth to a fascinating and diverse collection of words that all relate back to the idea of we/ourselves.

The word self came to us through Proto-Germanic back when folks were speaking Old English. Some time during its stay in Germanic languages it appears to have lost its plural, inclusive nature. 

Another word from this source is secret, which appeared in English in the 1300s, through Latin words meaning private, set apart, withdrawn, or one one’s own.

Sullen made its way to English through Anglo-French. Initially meaning by oneself, alone (in Middle English), sullen didn’t pick up the meaning morose until the late 1300s.

The word swami appeared in English in the 1700s through Hindi. Swami, now meaning Hindu religious teacher, originally meant one’s own or our own master.

Sibling came to us via Proto-Germanic and Old English. Linguists consider sibling an “enlargement” of the root *s(w)e.

And though they appear nothing like their relatives, the words idiot & idiom also came from *s(w)e-. Born of the idea that folks who couldn’t function in society due to apparent lack of mental ability tended to stay to themselves, idiot came to English in the early 1300s through Latin & Old French. An idiom is a figure of speech peculiar to a particular group of people. Idiom came to English through Greek & Latin in the 1500s. The fact that we cling to our idioms as something that defines us appears to have contributed to the existence of this word

All from a little word meaning we/ourselves.

I’d love to know which of these word-siblings you found most surprising. Fee free to use the comments section for such commentary.

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