Thursday, February 27, 2014



Imagine my surprise when earlier this week I got a phone call from Carpinteria, a town about two hours south. The caller had been given a copy of Central Coast Family Magazine, which included a Wordmonger column. She asked whether I’d consider writing a column on words like tidbit & morsel. Darn tootin!

Tidbit showed up in English in the 1630s, made up of tid, meaning fond, solicitous or tender, and bit, which appeared in English in the 1200s, meaning a piece bitten off.  

The English got morsel from the French word morceau, meaning small bite, portion or helping, some time around 1200. Interestingly, the word mordant, meaning caustic (a figurative sense of biting), shares the same roots.

Smidgen came from smitch, a Scottish word meaning a very small amount, or an insignificant person. Smidgen entered English in the 1800s.

Dollop  made its way into English in the 1570s, from the East Anglian word, dallop, meaning a tuft or clump of grass. It wasn’t until 1812 that the meaning morphed to a lump, serving or blob.

Both jot & iota came to English in the 1630s from Greek. Iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet, & (in Greek) also denotes anything small. An alternate spelling was jota, thus the word jot. The Greeks got the root word from a Semitic language we’re not entirely sure of, but the original root was probably something like the modern Hebrew word yodh.

In the early 1950s, Korean War veterans brought home to America the word skosh, their version of the Japanese word sukoshi, meaning few, little, or some.

In 1877, a small child might have been referred to as a tad. Etymologists are moderately sure tad was a shortened form of tadpole, which was born of the word tadde, an alternate form of toad. Toad came to English in the 1300s from nobody-knows-where, & was added to the Middle German word poll, meaning head. It wasn’t until 1915 that tad began to mean a small bit.

Which of these morsels intrigues you most? Please leave a comment.

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


  1. Skosh is a new one to me!

    I love Scottish words; they're always so fun to say.

  2. Hey Rachel6,
    I remember first hearing skosh (pronounced skoshe) in a Levis commercial maybe 40 years ago. I've always assumed the word had Yiddish origins, but hadn't previously researched it. I love the idea that it turned out to be Japanese.

  3. How very cool that you're being published without even having to submit to the magazine. Still, it might have been nice of them to tell you. :-)

    Love these. I say "just a smidge" all the time. Didn't know I was being an archaic Scott.

    I totally get why they used the German word for "head". At one stage, tadpoles look like little toad-heads swimming around. Now my question for Mr. Monger is why are they also known as pollywogs? Or maybe that's just in New England?

  4. Scot shouldn't have had two "ts". My apologies to any kilt-wearing readers.

  5. Great little words :). I've never heard "jot" and always thought skosh had a Yiddish origin also. I like that a dallop of grass became a dollop of sour cream.

  6. Hey Anne & Christine,
    I'm with you bigtime, Christine, on the grass . sour cream transition. I guess we should thank the cows for that. And as for tadpoles & polliwogs, the latter is from Middle English polwigle : pol, head; see poll + wiglen, to wiggle; see wiggle, so one means toadhead while the other means wigglehead. Wigglehead is what I call any number of my middle school students.

  7. Oh, & Anne, The good folks at Central Coast Family magazine DID ask permission. Every so often they choose a posting & publish it.

  8. I never would have guessed that skosh came from Japanese! I definitely would have guessed Yiddish too. I think I forgot about the word "pollywog" though I know I used it as a kid. I wonder when I made the transition to "tadpole" and forgot the former existed. I love that "iota" and "jot" have the same roots. I'm going to start using the word "smitch." As for you, keep using "wiggleheads" for the cherubs at LOMS. The word is fitting for many. ;-)