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 15, 2013

Imitative Annoyances

Imitative Annoyances

Thanks to Victoria Heckman, whose comment on last week’s post suggested looking into the etymology of the word huff, a word of imitative (or onomatopoeic) origin. This week, we’ll start with huff, then take a look at a few more words of imitative origin that refer to something annoying.

Huff made its way into English in the mid-1400s, as an imitation of an exhalation. By the 1590s huff picked up the meaning bluster with indignation. The idiom Victoria noted, to leave in a huff, showed up in 1778.

In 1727 the word tiff came to English, meaning an outburst of temper, also based on the imitative sound of an exhalation, or slight puff of air. By 1754 tiff picked up the meaning, a small quarrel.

Another word imitating a puff of air is guff, which arrived in 1825. By 1888 it picked up its modern meaning, empty talk or nonsense, as in that’s a lot of guff.

In 1765, ugh showed up, imitating another sort of exhalation, a cough. By 1837 ugh morphed to become an interjection of disgust.

Squib, a short piece of sarcastic writing, showed up in English in the 1520s. Though etymologists haven’t determined that it has its origin in the firework of the same name, if it indeed does, then it is imitative of the sound of that particular firework, which hisses (as might the unfortunate targets of sarcastic writing).

In the 1620s, the imitative word squelch was born. It meant to fall, drop or stomp on something soft with a crushing force (imagine the sound of collapsing onto a sofa fashioned of marshmallow crème). Squelch picked up a second meaning in 1764, to suppress completely.

The final imitative annoyance for this post took me by complete surprise. The Sanskrit word mu referred to a gnat or fly, & was imitative of the sound of such insects. In time, mu made its way into Latin, where it became the noun, musca, fly. By the time it reached English, it referred to a particularly annoying little fly, so it picked up a diminutive ending to become mosquito.

It’s enough to make one exhale a puff of air, isn’t it?

Future posts will include the words suggested last week by Christine Ahern & Anne R. Allen. Thanks to them in advance. So, did anyone out there already know that mosquito is imitative in origin? Have any of you ever collapsed onto a marshmallow crème sofa? Come on, fess up.

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


  1. That adds a whole different dimension to the nickname of Arianna Huffington's cyber-rag,the HuffPo. doesn't it? Uh-oh. Didn't mean to write a squib.

    Intrigued to see the future posts we have inspired!

  2. I think I might start putting "ito" at the end of any word that I wish to diminish. "It's really only a painito." or "I got another rejection but it came with a personal note so it was really just a rejectito." Ha!

  3. Christine - brilliant idea. We should decide that all future items some might refer to as rejections are now to be labeled rejectitos! And Anne, you squibber, you! Thanks to both of you for regularly popping by & having things to say.