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, May 28, 2015

Grandmother Pau


Grandmother Pau

What do Sanskrit, Hindi, Lithuanian, Yiddish, Dutch, Spanish, French, Latin, English & Norse have in common? Hard working etymologists working in the basements of ivory towers have determined these & dozens more all came from one parent language. And since it never got written down & no modern person speaks that parent language, those diligent etymologists have recreated the parent language based on the qualities of the progeny and have called that parent Proto-Indo-European.

One of the many proposed bits of Proto-Indo-European is the word pau, meaning few or little, & for an imagined word in an imagined language, our friend pau was a fertile parent. This week’s post takes a look at some of pau’s offspring, which interestingly tend to refer to horses or poverty.

The word few, meaning not many, a small number, or a little arrived in Old English early enough that it appears to have come straight from Proto-Indo-European. It arrived so early we don’t even know its birth year.

Foal, meaning foal or colt. came to Old English equally early through Proto-Germanic from Proto-Indo-European.

Poor showed up in the 1200s, meaning lacking money or resources, indigent, small or scanty. Its path took it from Proto-Indo-European through Latin & French to English.

In the 1400s filly showed up, meaning young mare, female colt or foal. It arrived in English from Proto-Indo-European via Old Norse.

In the late 1400s the word paucity came to English, meaning smallness of number or quantity. In turn, paucity gave birth to the musical term poco, meaning a little or slightly. These words made their way from Proto-Indo-European through Latin & French before arriving in English.

The word pauper arrived in English in the 1510s, meaning destitute of property or means of livelihood. It also came to English through Latin & French.

Pony came to English in the 1650s through Latin, French & Scottish, and refers to a little foal.

All these words from pau. I’m hoping some of you will leave brilliant theories in the comments section as to what the deal is with horses & poverty.


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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Unlikely ungulates


Unlikely Ungulates

As noted three posts ago, recent DNA findings have placed some very unlikely animals under the ungulate (hoofed mammals) umbrella: whales, dolphins & porpoises. Most closely related to the hippopotamus, whales, dolphins & porpoises (also known as cetaceans) no longer have an order of their own. Scientists haven’t quite settled over whether cetaceans are a suborder or infra-order of ungulates.

The word cetacean entered English in 1830 from Modern Latin, meaning any large sea creature. The Latin term was derived from the Greek word ketos,  whale or sea monster. No one knows the source of ketos.

The Old English word hwæl, which meant both whale & walrus, gave us the word whale. Hwæl’s source was the Proto-Germanic word hwalaz. Our modern idiom whale of a/n _______, meaning big or excellent showed up in 1900.

One of many whales is the killer whale. The word killer showed up in the 1400s from the English word kill (which first appeared in the 1200s), & meant one who strikes, beats or knocks. Though we’re not 100% sure, kill may have come from the Old English word cwellan, to kill. Cwellan is also the most likely suspect for the source of qualm & quell. Our idiom to kill time kicked in about 1728. The figurative meaning of killer, impressive person or thing appeared in 1900, and the term killer instinct showed up in the world of boxing in 1931. And getting back to cetaceans, the killer whale was first called that in 1725.

In the early 1300s the word porpas appeared in English, from the Old French word porpais, which translates ingloriously to pork fish. Interestingly, the German word for porpoise translates literally to sea hog. It’s likely the somewhat pig-like snout of the porpoise may be responsible for both words, though a modern etymologist might wonder whether those long-ago French & German porpoise-namers may have sensed a deeper connection to the porpoise’s distant ungulate cousin, the pig.

Our word dolphin came from French in the mid-1300s. We can trace dolphin back through Old French, Medieval Latin, Latin & Greek to the word delphinos, meaning dolphin. This Greek root is closely related to delphys, meaning womb. Etymologists suggest Ancient Greeks found it remarkable that instead of coming from eggs, the progeny of this “fish” arrive through live birth.

Dear readers. If you’ve got anything to say about these water-bound “hoofed mammals,” please do so in the comments section.


Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Science Direct, Ultimate Ungulate, Etymonline, & the OED.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Underappreciated Ungulates of the World


Underappreciated Ungulates of the World

For the past two weeks we’ve considered the etymologies of well-known ungulates like pigs and deer. This week we’ll wrap up with some of the lesser-known ungulates of the world.

In 1774 English speakers first uttered the word tapir to refer to a 330-700 pound South American mammal with a prehensile snout. The English word tapir came from the Tupi language of Brazil, probably through French.

The springbok is a gazelle of South Africa. Springbok came to English from Afrikaans in 1775. Springbok is a compound word using springen, to leap & bok, antelope.

The dik-dik is a tiny (7-16 pound) African antelope. The word came to English in 1880 from one of the many east African languages; sadly, nobody knows which one. It’s likely that the name is onomatopoeic, as the “bark” of the dik-dik sounds much like its name.

Another African antelope, the kudu got its name from the Xosa-Kaffir language (originally iqudu). Kudu made its way into English in 1777.

In the year 1900 the Mbuba language of the Congo gave English the word okapi, a short-necked giraffe of the region.

Another African antelope, the impala, got its name from another native African language, Zulu. The word impala showed up in English in 1875. Impala didn’t make its way in chrome onto the side of a Chevrolet until 1958.

The ibex is a goat native to parts of Africa and Eurasia. The word ibex first appeared in English in the early 1600s, coming through Latin from an unidentified source.

The Tibetan word q-yag gave us yak, the wild ox of Central Asia. Yak came to English in 1795.

Here’s hoping a little attention has raised the spirits of the world’s underappreciated ungulates.


Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Ultimate Ungulate, Etymonline, & the OED.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Hog heaven


Hog heaven

Last week we took an initial look at ungulates. This week we’ll start with the observation that the idiom hog heaven came into use about 1940, then we’ll look into a few words that define the more hog-like ungulates.

The word swine, meaning pig, hog or wild boar, applies too all the hog-like critters below. Swine showed up in English before English was English, and come from the Proto-Germanic word swinan. The word sow, referring to the female pig is closely related to the word swine & has been around as long.

The word hog has been a part of the English language since the 1100s. Interestingly, hog originally referred to the age of a critter, and was applied to what we now call hogs, horses and sheep when they were about a year old. It wasn’t until 1400 or so that sheep and horses left the word hog behind. Within the next century hog also began to mean a gluttonous person. A gathering of hogs has been known as a drift, a piggery & a hoggery.

The origin of the word pig is a bit of a mystery. It was in use in Old English (spelled pigc), & referred only to young pigs, while the mature ones were called swine. Words for gatherings of pigs include litter, farrow, drove, cote, sounder & team.

The javelina is also known as a peccary, a native of Mexico and the southwest United States. The word javelina came to English in 1815 through Spanish from Arabic, where the word jabal i meant mountain swine. The word peccary, on the other hand, entered in English in 1610 from one of the Carib languages (most likely Venezuelan or Guianan). A gathering of javelinas or peccaries is known as a sounder.

What have you to say about all this ungulation?


Big thanks to this week’s sources: David W. K. Godrich’s A Gaggle of Geese, Wordnik, Ultimate Ungulate, Etymonline, & the OED.