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, July 11, 2013

Unlikely Etymologies

Unlikely Etymologies

Before today’s post, I have some news. In my life as an audiobook narrator I’ve been recognized for my audiobook production of Culloden!, a swashbuckling Scottish zombie book by William Meikle. The nomination comes from the UK’s The Guardian’s Indie Book awards (it's the 7th block of print in the post). Wow. And big thanks to Anne R. Allen who discovered the nomination.

Now onto two unlikely sentences & the unlikely etymologies of the words therein.

The vicar’s Ouija board turned out to be a red herring.

A vicar’s job is to interpret scripture for the masses, substituting for Jesus, which is why vicar is based on the Latin word vicarious, or substitute (1300s).

A Ouija board functions due to the “agreement” of the two people whose fingers rest on the planchette, thus, its name was derived from a marriage of the French & German words for yes: oui + ja = Ouija (1910).

A red herring in a mystery throws the reader/viewer off the trail. This term comes from fox hunting as early as the 1680s, as nefarious characters (or members of the Save the Beleaguered Fox Brigade, I presume) might drag a red herring across the fox’s trail, causing the hounds to veer off in the wrong direction (apparently the reek of the red herring is infamous).

A moron moseyed through the bedlam in the nick of time.

The term moron reflects Dr. Henry H. Goddard’s impression of the mental capacity of pre-teens. In 1910 he defined his term as meaning dull, stupid, silly or foolish, and introduced the word moron to apply to adults whose mental aptitude coincided with the abilities of 8-12 year olds.

The word mosey is the flipside of the word vamoose – one meaning to leave speedily & the other meaning to leave in a languid fashion (1829).

Bedlam was born as the nickname for a London-based priory, St. Mary of Bethlehem, which became a home for the mentally unstable, famous during part of its tenure for the screams of its inmates (1418).

Though nick of time wasn’t recorded until the 1640s, the story is that some Medieval churches and colleges recorded attendance by notching a stick. When a parishioner or student arrived, a nick was cut into the stick. The last one to arrive would receive the nick of time.

This week’s unlikely etymologies were inspired by Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins (Carol Publishing Group, 1999).

My thanks go out to this week’s sources the OED, Dictionary of Word Origins & Etymonline,


  1. I did not know about a whole lot of these. I had no idea that vicars let you speak to God vicariously or where the mysterious word "ouija" came from. I always thought it was from Sanskrit or something. And "moron" means a tween! Anybody who's dealt with 7th graders would probably relate :-) I always learn something from the Wordmonger.

    And major congrats on your nomination!

  2. Such a fun romp! I love that "ouja" means yes/yes. Interesting indeed. And, I am all in favor of red herring draggers. Love that image!

    And...very exciting about the nomination! And...interesting that you could be nominated for something and not even know about it. How wonderful to have someone as internet savvy as Anne around!

  3. Hi Anne & Christine,
    Good to virtually see you once again. I must admit that Ouija & vicar really surprised - & pleased - me, too. And as someone who's spent decades working with 7th graders & their ilk, I understand what Dr. Goddard was getting at, but I simultaneously find myself vicariously offended.

  4. Congratulations on your audiobook production nomination, Charlie! It doesn't surprise me at all that your narration was so captivating, it garnered this recognition. I hope you win.

    This blog post is especially interesting. I love the Jesus/vicar-vicarious connection. And never again will I hear "in the nick of time" without envisioning church attendance records being nicked on sticks.

  5. Hey Vickie,
    Given the on-&-off nature of our online attendance program at school maybe we should suggest the nick-on-sticks method. Ah, underappreciated technologies of the past...