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 17, 2017



In this modern world, most of us hear the word bank & think immediately of a financial institution. How did bank make its way there from its original meaning, a lump of mud?

Back in the 1200s, most the Scandinavian languages used a form of bank to mean a swelling or rise of soil in a sea, river or shoal. We still see this meaning when we refer to a river bank. We use the verb form when we bank up the soil to form a berm. When we bank the ball off a harder surface during a game of billiards or basketball, we’re riffing on the idea that something floating in the river might bounce off the river bank.

Some of the first bits of “furniture” were earthen structures — heaped up soil or dried mud. When the word bank made its way to Scotland, it grew to mean a raised area on which one might sleep, & the Scots called such a thing a bunker, which eventually broadened to apply to the building in which many sleeping spots exist. In time, the sleeping spots themselves got shortened to bunks. 

In Old English, bank morphed into the word bench, meaning long seat. And since there’s not that much difference between a bench & a table, both bank & bench began also meaning table — giving us the word workbench & the table at which a moneylender might sit — a bank.

Do we speak some kind of nutty language or what?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & the OED.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A challenge

A challenge

Below is a list of words that all grew out of the same Proto-Indo-European root. Through considering the words, can you figure out the meaning of the root?


A little more information:

perish — 1200s — from a word meaning to be lost 
issue — 1300s — originally meant to flow out 
obituary 1706 from a word meaning pertaining to death
itinerant — 1560s — from a legal term meaning a journey
circuit — 1300s — from a word meaning a going around
transit — 1400s — from a word meaning a going over
trance — 1300s — from a word meaning coma; passing from life to death
itinerary — 1400s — from a word meaning description of a route of travel
initiation — 1580s — from a word meaning a beginning
ambition — 1300s — from a word meaning a going around (for favor)
exit  — 1530s — go out — originally a stage direction

The common root for all these modern words is the Proto-Indo-European word *ei-, which meant to go. Hmmm. Puts a new spin on ordering food to go, eh?

In the comments section I hope you’ll mention whichever word or words seems the biggest stretch for you from a root meaning to go.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & the OED.

Thursday, August 3, 2017



In an attempt to balance last week’s post regarding the etymologies of noisy words, here are some quotes about silence.

First, three eloquent ways of saying the same thing: 

Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving us wordy evidence of that fact.
-George Eliot

In silence man can most readily preserve his integrity.
-Meister Echkart

Never miss the opportunity to keep your mouth shut.
Robert Newton Peck

And on to the darker side of silence:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. 
-Dr. Martin Luther King

Silence isn’t always golden, you know. Sometimes it’s just plain yellow.
-Jan Kemp

The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others & hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, & from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light & life flow no longer into our souls.
-Elizabeth Cady Stanton

And last, some votes of confidence:

Silence is all the genius a fool has.
-Zora Neale Hurston

Of those who say nothing, few are silent.
-Thomas Neill

Silence is not a thing we make; it is something into which we enter. It is always there…All we can make is noise.
-Mother Maribel of Wantage

I’m hoping you’ll use the comments section to let me know which of these quotes you’ve never heard, &/or which ones made you stop & think.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Stop that...!

Stop that….!

Adults have an unlimited number of ways to label the unwanted noise of children, and most those words are pretty interesting.

Though my father was the uncrowned king of foul language, his default word for kid-noise was pretty tame. Racket appeared in English in the 1560s, meaning loud noise. Racket appears to be imitative in nature, &/or may be related to the Gaelic word for noise, racaid. The added meaning dishonest activity came to English a bit later & most likely has to do with the purposeful noisy kerfuffle made by a pickpocket’s compadre with intent to distract the pickpocket’s victim. As used in the game of tennis, racquet came to English in the 1500s & appears to have come from the Arabic word rahat, meaning the palm of the hand (the precursor to the game of tennis looked a bit more like handball).

Clamor came to English through French in the late 1300s from a word meaning outcry, call or appeal

In the early 1300s English picked up the word noise from an Old French word that meant din, disturbance or brawl. The Old French word came from a Latin word which was used figuratively to mean disgust, annoyance, or discomfort, but literally meant seasick. This Latin word was nausea.

One school of etymologists tells us a Low German word meaning cry like a cat gave us caterwaul. Another school argues that caterwaul came from adding the Dutch word cater (tomcat) to the Middle English word waul (to yowl). At least these two arguing groups both agree caterwaul appeared in English in the late 1300s.

Tumult comes from a Latin word meaning commotion, disturbance, or uproar, & — like clamor, noise, & caterwaul — arrived in English in the late 1300s. Tumult is related to the word tumere, meaning to be excited, to swell. Tumere also gave us tumor, tuber, & tumescent.

And last there is din, which the Old English spelled dyne. Din came through Germanic sources from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to make noise.

Have any noise to make about all this? If so, please do so in the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources Etymonline, Collins Dictionary, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & the OED.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dog breeds

Dog breeds

Since last week we took a look at dog idioms, this week we’ll consider the etymologies of some selected dog breeds.

It would be reasonable to assume the word poodle comes from French, but it actually came to English in 1808 from the German word pudelhund, which meant water dog. At the time, poodles swam into bodies of water to retrieve ducks and such. And yes, poodle is directly related to the word puddle.

And schnauzer, which sounds as though it came from German, actually did. In 1923 schnauzer came to English to label a particular sort of terrier. Schnauzer meant growler, & came from the word schnauze, which meant snout. And yes, snout, snoot, & schnoz all came from this same source.

Chow-chow comes, as one would expect, from Chinese. Though it’s uncertain what the root is, some etymologists argue it’s a reduplication of the Chinese word cha, which means mixed. As every breed is actually a mixture of earlier breeds, this proposed explanation makes good sense.

Back in 1858 an undetermined native language of North America gave us chihuahua, which meant dry place. One of the many dry places in North America earned this moniker, as did the small dogs plentiful in the region.

Akita came from a Japanese word meaning field of ripe rice. This description applied to a region of northern Japan. Eventually, the energetic dog of the area also took on the name.

Corgi entered English in 1926 from two Welsh word parts: cor- meaning dwarf, &  -ci, meaning dog

The word mastiff came to English in the 1300s through French from a Latin word meaning gentle & tame. Though many folks might look at a modern mastiff & not immediately think gentle & tame, guard dogs living in people’s homes have to be well-mannered, & the mastiff was bred to be a guard dog. Many etymologists think the word mastiff might have been additionally influenced by the Old French word mestif, which meant mongrel.

Any thoughts on all these dog breeds, or all the dogged work etymologists have done to figure all this out? Please use the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources Etymonline, The Free Dictionary, Collins Dictionary, Merriam Webster, Wordnik, & the OED.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Hair of the dog

Hair of the dog

Dogs make it into English idioms all the time, as dogs make their way into our hearts. As you consider this photo of Zoe, who recently left this crazy earth, consider these:

dog & pony show
shaggy dog story
as sick as a dog
like a dog with a bone
call off the dogs
dirty dog
dog eats dog
every dog has its day
raining cats & dogs
go to see a man about a dog
hot diggety-dog!
a dog’s life
let sleeping dogs lie
meaner than a junkyard dog
put on the dog
tail wagging the dog
hair of the dog that bit you
life in the old dog yet
you can’t teach an old dog new tricks
in the dog house

I had a bit of a milquetoast upbringing & had always heard one of the above terms, yet really hadn’t constructed much meaning for it. Then, in my twenties I had a character of a roommate named Mick. He kept me laughing with his Irish accent, colorful terms & his drinking ways. Nearly every Saturday morning I’d get up to see Mick sitting on our lumpy, brown floral sofa, his eyes at halfmast & a beer in his hand. “Hair o’ the dog what bit ya,” he’d say, wincing between swigs.

Followers, please add something in the comments section:
1.    What dog idioms did I leave out?
2.    Tell your tale about one of the idioms above.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources The OED, EtymonlineThe Free Dictionary,Cesar’s Way

Thursday, July 6, 2017



A particular physical characteristic of mine inspired this post.

The word bald has been with us since the 1300s, meaning wanting hair in some place where it naturally grows. Though we’re not really sure where the word bald came from, there are some likely sources. The Proto-Indo-European word *bhel- meant to shine, flash, or gleam, the Celtic word bal meant white patch or blaze, & the Sanskrit word bhalam meant brightness or forehead.

Appearing in the 1580s, meaning of black & white coloring, piebald appears to have come from combining pie, a shortening of magpie, (a black & white birdwith the older sense of bald, meaning white.

Skewbald has been with us since the 1650s, meaning of brown and white coloring. Nobody’s sure where the skew in skewbald came from, but it’s pretty clear the bald bit came from that earlier white meaning of bald.

Who would think it’s germane, but in the 1840s the word chauvinism was born, meaning patriotism degenerated into a vice. It came from the character Nicolas Chauvin (of Théodore & Hipployte Cogniard’s play, La Cocarde Tricolore). This character hung onto his association with Napoleon & his politics long after Napoleon was gone. By the 1800s chauvinism broadened to also mean racism, & by the 1960s chauvinism began to mean sexism. Chauvin is the French form of Calvin, which comes from the Latin word calvus, meaning bald. Though paintings of John Calvin (originator of Calvinism) always show him wearing a natty cap, one must wonder why John Calvin wore that natty cap.

Any thoughts out there on baldness? If so, please leave a comment.

Thursday, June 29, 2017



Groucho Marx, Dorothy Parker, & Winston Churchill were masters of the paraprosdokian, a one-liner that ends in a manner that causes the reader to reconsider the beginning. 

A classic example is Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.

The word paraprosdokian comes from Greek. It’s a combination of para-, meaning against, & prosdokian, meaning expectation.

Here are a few anonymous ones:

Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

War doesn’t determine who is right—only who is left.

Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.

Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

The last thing I want to do is hurt  you, but it’s still on the list. 

And here are a few more from luminaries:

Winston Churchill — “If you are going through Hell, keep going.” 

And another from Winston Churchill — “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.”

Zsa Zsa Gabor —“He taught me housekeeping; when I divorce, I keep the house.”

Groucho Marx—”I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”

Albert Einstein—“The difference between stupidity & genius is that genius has its limits.”

Dorothy Parker — “If all the girls who went to Yale were laid end-to-end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”

Please leave a note in the comments with any other paraprosdokians you know, or with comments on the ones above.

Thursday, June 22, 2017



Many of us who love the English language cringe upon hearing the word orientate. Truth is, orientate is recognized by almost all respectable dictionaries. So what makes orientate so cringeworhty?

Orientate is what etymologists call a back-formation. It was born when English speakers “verbified” the noun orientation. What curls the toes of language sticklers is that we already had the perfectly good verb orient — why create a second, longer word with the same exact meaning?

Not all words created through back-formation make certain people wince. A bunch of words came to us by lopping off bits instead of adding bits. 

Secrete arrived in 1707 from secretion (1640).

Surveil came to us in 1904 from surveillance (1802).

Greed showed up in 1600 from greedy, which has been part of English since before anyone called it English.

Implode came to us in 1870 from implosion (1829).
Zip appeared in 1932 from zipper (1925).

Paginate showed up in 1858 from pagination (1841).

Incarcerate arrived in 1550 from incarceration (1530s).

Avid came to us in 1769 from avidity (1400s)

Mutate appeared in 1818 from mutation (1300s).

Humiliate arrive in the 1530s from humiliation (1300s).

And even the verb edit (1891) is most likely a back-formation of editor (1640).

Please leave any thoughts on all this in the comments section.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

To split or cut

To split or cut

We English-speakers (& users of the languages that preceded English) have done a whole lot of splitting & cutting. All the following words (& a bunch I couldn’t fit into this post) come from one Proto-Indo-European source. Etymologists write this word *skei-. It meant to cut or split.

It gave us the word shingle, a piece of wood split from a larger piece. The idea that a shingled roof involves overlapping pieces also gave us the meaning overlapping stones on the shore. It also gave us the idiom to hang out one’s shingle, & a hairstyle involving overlapping layers.

Appearing in Old English (some time between 400 & 1000 AD), the word shin appears to have come from the knowledge that the fibula in the lower leg appears to have split off from the larger tibia.

Shed also showed up in Old English, meaning to divide, separate, part company or discriminate. In modern usage, we still see this meaning in the phrase to shed one’s skin & in the term watershed, in which drops of rain falling on one side of a mountain are divided from the drops of rain fallowing on the opposite side.

Shiver, originally a small piece, fragment or splinter, came from *skei-, as did shiver, to break into small pieces, however the shivering we might do when cold or frightened comes from a different source altogether.
Coming to English in 1883 we have the word ski, which came from *skei- through Old Norse from a word meaning a long stick of wood — one split from a larger piece.

The root *skei- also made its way through Greek & Latin to arrive in English as the combining form schizo-, which gave us - among other words - schizophrenic, reflecting a condition originally understood to involve a split personality.

Though etymologists still argue over the origin of the word ship, one school of thought maintains ship came from *skei-  because the building of the earliest vessels involved the cutting or hollowing of a tree

And because knowledge involves distinguishing (or splitting) one thing from another, we have the words science, prescience, omniscience, conscience, & many others.

All from cutting & splitting. Who knew?

If you found all this intriguing or surprising, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

Thursday, June 1, 2017



It shouldn’t be surprising that most words for laughter are imitative of the sound of laughter. Still, I find them intriguing, & occasionally worthy of… a laugh.

Cackle came to English in the 1200s, meaning a loud laugh. It’s considered imitative. Its source is the Latin word cacchination, which is also considered imitative, though to be honest, I’ve never heard a laugh that sounded much like cacchination.

Giggle appeared in the 1500s with no source. A giggle is a short, spasmodic laugh. Giggle is assumed to be imitative.

About a century later, titter appeared, also imitative, defined as a suppressed or nervous giggle.

Another century later, in the 1720s, the Scottish term guffaw caught on among English speakers. A guffaw is defined as a loud or noisy laugh, & not surprisingly, is imitative.

One term for a laugh that isn’t directly imitative is chortle. Formed through a marriage of chuckle & snort, chortle was coined by Lewis Carrol in 1872 in his brilliant poem, Jabberwocky. And yes, chuckle & snort are both imitative.

A snicker is a smothered laugh & came to English in the 1690s. Its sister word snigger appeared in 1706, meaning the same thing. Both are imitative.

The word laugh comes to English through Proto-Germanic from Proto-Indo-European. English speakers started using laugh in the late 1300s. And like its funny friends, laugh is imitative. I’m hoping some of the forms of this word may give you a laugh.

Old Norse - hlæja
Anglian - hlæhhan
Old Saxon - hlahhian
Old Frisian - hlakkia
Dutch & German - lachen
Sanskrit - kakhati
Lithuanian - klageti
Greek - kakhazein
Old Church Slavonic - chochotati

Boy, those Old Church Slavonic folks must have been a laugh a minute, eh?

Comments? You know where to leave them.