Thursday, July 9, 2015

More word-related etymologies

More word-related etymologies

English is rich with odd etymologies. Last week’s post considered three etymologies having to do with writing or words, & here are a few more.

Most of us recognize that our words – written & spoken – come with some level of bias. The word bias showed up in English in 1520 from Old French. It came from the surreptitious practice of nefarious bowlers who used to weight competitors’ bowling balls so they wouldn’t roll straight. The inserted weight was known as a bias.

Recently, politicians on both sides of the aisle have made news due to a very specific use of words (some would say an overuse of words), the filibuster.  Our modern understanding that a filibuster involves sanctioned legislative obstruction showed up in 1865, but previous to that, the word referred to pirates. First recorded in 1580, the flibutor was defined as a West Indian buccaneer, probably coming from the Dutch word vrijbueter, or freebooter. In the Americas, the term applied to lawless military adventurers before making its way onto the Senate floor.

A less formal but arguably important employment of words showed up in English in 1763, originally meaning to drink to each other. Hobnob was original habnab, most likely from the Old English habban nabban, to have or have not. Just as person A at the pub might raise a glass to person B, who might raise a glass back to person A, quickly followed by a repeat of the same, our modern definition of hobnob suggests the give & take of friendly socializing.

A slightly less friendly form of hobnobbing comes into play when we bandy words. The word bandy showed up in English in 1570 from the precursor of field hockey, a game called bandy, which involved players knocking a ball back and forth with crooked sticks. Bandy originally meant to strike back & forth, & in time morphed to mean exchange blows, then eventually moved into the metaphoric meaning, to exchange verbal blows.

On another note, if you’d like a free Anne R. Allen audiobook I produced, check out the link to the left.

Please share any thoughts on bias, filibuster, hobnob or bandy in the comments section. 

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline, Jordan Almond’s Dictionary of Word Origins, & the OED.


  1. I love that "lawless military adventures" became "sanctioned legislative obstruction". That is too funny. And the origin of bias is fascinating. But then, as you have shown us every week, etymology itself is pretty fascinating!

  2. Hey Christine,
    Thanks for coming by. I'm glad there are other word nerds out there who appreciate this etymology foolishness.

  3. I had the same reaction as Christine to the lawless military adventures=filibusters. So true.

    I've always liked the word hobnob. Maybe because some of the best cookies in the world are called Hobnobs. They make them in England and they are rich oatmeal cookies with dark chocolate icing. I think they make as good "haves" as as a draught of brew. Very interesting etymology. Makes sense.

    As does "bandy". Interesting how we keep an expression long after the words themselves have gone out of fashion.

  4. Hi Anne,
    I'm pleased you enjoyed the post.