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, April 27, 2017

Precarious prayer?

Precarious prayer?

It might be said that an unfortunate soul in a precarious situation “doesn’t have a prayer.” But who knew that the words precarious & prayer are kissing cousins (etymologically speaking)?

Their common ancestor is *prek-, Proto-Indo-European for ask or request. In time it became the Latin word precari, to beg, entreat, or ask earnestly. By the 1200s precari made its way into English (after a brief sojourn in France) as pray. Initially, pray meant simply to ask earnestly or beg. Within the next hundred years it began to mean pray to a god or saint

During its stay in Latin, precari developed another form, precarius, a legal term meaning held through the favor of another (based on the idea that one might beg or entreat another for help). This form came to English about 1640. Because dependence on another can be risky business, by 1680 this legal term gained common usage meaning risky because of one’s dependence on others. Linguistic sticklers argue that precarious continues to have only this original meaning, & that most of us misuse the poor word. However, modern dictionaries idenitfy 4-5 generally risky definitions before listing the meaning dependent on others under the heading “archaic.”

Prayer & precarious — kissing cousins.

In the comments section I’d love to hear whether any of you knew about this connection. It certainly surprised me.

Thursday, April 20, 2017



There are heaps of words we can use to define our state when we’re feeling out of sorts. Many of them have unknown origins. 

In 1727 one could be in a tiff, meaning quarrelsome or petty irritation. Though no one is certain of tiff’s source, it may have be an imitative word for the sound of a sigh or puff of air. 

In 1922 the word tizzy was born. Like tiff, nobody really knows its source, but some etymologists argue it may have grown out of the earlier term, tizzy, meaning sixpence piece, slang for the first coin minted with the profile of a head on it, taken from the Latin word testa, meaning head.

In 1939 the word snit came into the world, meaning a state of agitation or fit of temper. It appeared first in the play Kiss the Boys Good-bye by Clair Boothe Luce. Nobody knows its source.

Though the word hissy has been with us since 1905, hissy fit (meaning a dramatic tantrum) didn’t appear until 1983. Both hissy & hissy fit come from the word hiss, which has been around since the 1300s. Like tiff, hiss is onomatopoeic. 

Since the 1530s, a fit of ill feeling  has been referred to as pique (or a fit of pique). This comes from a Middle French word which meant irritation or sting.

When one takes offense, one might be miffed. This form of miff got rolling in 1797. But miff first showed up in English much earlier in 1620. At that time miff was a noun meaning fit of ill humor. It appears to be another onomatopoeic word based on an exclamation of disgust.

In the 1590s a pother was a disturbance or commotion. Nobody knows where this word came from, & by the 1640s to be in a pother meant one was flustered or irritated.

In the 1600s, one who quaked or trembled could be said to be in a dither. Dither came from the Middle English word didderen, which has no known source. By 1819 folks who were anxious & flustered were said to be in a dither.

These terms aren’t heard as much as they once were. If you could bring one back into popular usage, which would  you choose?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Fast idioms

Fast idioms

There are heaps of ways we refer to something being speedy or needing to be speedier. Here are a few:

-in a flash 
-in three shakes of a lamb's tail (only two shakes in the UK)
-quick as a wink 
-in the blink of an eye 
-quick as a bunny
-quick as lightning
-get  the lead out

Here are some for which I could find source information:

-fast track (1934 horse racing)

-pronto (1850) from Spanish &/or Italian from a word meaning prompt 

-breakneck (1560s) moving so fast one is likely to break one’ s neck

-giddy up (1909) a mispronunciation of get up, also spelled gee-hup, gee-up & giddap

-flat-out — most likely from horse-racing when horse & jockey flatten out to decrease wind resistance

-posthaste (1530s) with great speed  - a request written on the envelopes of letters

-lickety-split (1852) most likely based on lick - a speedy sprint while racing - also lickety-cut, lickety-click, & licketie — probably related to quick as a lick

-faster than you can say "Jack Robinson" has numerous proposed sources, none of them confirmed, but all intriguing:
-Jack Robinson was US Secretary of the Treasury in the late 1700s & was able to get things done speedily in Congress
-Jack Robinson was constable of the Tower of London, responsible for quickly successive beheadings
-Jack Robinson was an English gentleman well-known for speedy changes of opinion

Have you got a favorite idiom regarding speediness? If so, please let me know in the comments section.

Thanks to this week’s sources,, the OED, Merriam-Webster,, ,&

Thursday, April 6, 2017



So how is it that one little four-letter word can be used in all these ways?

Irene’s car is fast.
Selma broke her fast.
Ramon was fast asleep.
Luigi held fast to Wanda’s hand.
Agatha indulged in fast living.

And how is the word shamefaced possibly related?

It all started with the Proto-Indo-European word fasto, which meant firmly, strongly, very. 

This word made its way into Old English as faeste, which meant firmly, securely, strictly.  

When fasto made its way into Old Norse, it became fast, meaning firmly, strongly, vigorously. 

The speedy meaning of fast most likely came from the vigorous sense of fast in Old Norse, though it may have come from the idea of the second-place runner holding fast to the runner before him/her. During the 1700s, this meaning of fast gave birth to the idea of fast living.

The meaning, withholding food, comes from an Old English word born of the hold firmly meaning. Someone who fasts shows firm control of him/herself.

The hold tight meaning of fast grew from the firmly/securely meaning, as did the idea of being fast asleep.

And shamefaced? This word was originally pronounced & spelled shamefast, reflecting the idea that one’s shame was stuck fast. Our modern word shamefaced came from a misunderstanding of the the original word.

Any thoughts about all this fastness? Please leave them in the comments section.

Thanks to this week’s sources,, the OED, Merriam-Webster, &

Thursday, March 30, 2017



In written Old English the word dream meant one thing and one thing only: make a joyful noise. Other written records suggest our modern meaning of dream may have been spoken by Old English speakers, but by the time Middle English ruled, the modern meaning of dream took a several-century snooze.

Along the way, the word dream & its cognates picked up and then lost some intriguing meanings which include but aren’t limited to:

-joy, pleasure, gladness, mirth, rejoicing
-a cherished desire
-deception, illusion, phantasm
-a train of thoughts, images or fancies passing through the mind during sleep
-a fancy voluntarily indulged in while awake
-a state of abstraction or trance
-a wild fancy or hope
-a reverie

And those are only the nouns. Dream’s verb forms deserve an entry of their own.

So, which of the above meaning(s) would you like to infiltrate your dreams?

Thanks to this week’s sources,, the OED, & &

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Steep & stoop

Steep & stoop

It seems reasonable that these words might come from the same root:

steep slope
steep the tea 
stoop down
hang out on the stoop

However, only three of them share a root.

The verb steep (to soak in liquid) made its way into English in the early 1300s. Though nobody is certain of its source, it may have come from a Norse word meaning to pour. 

The noun stoop (raised platform at the front or back of a house or apartment), appeared in English in 1755 from a Dutch word meaning a flight of steps.

The three words that share a source are the verb stoop, the adjective steep, & the noun steeple. They all come from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to push or knock. A version of this root made its way into northern European languages meaning to bow or bend, & then into Old English as the verb stoop. Another form of this root came to mean high & lofty (possibly due to the idea that a mountain is pushed up from the surrounding soil). This form of the root found itself becoming both the adjective steep & the noun steeple

It nearly causes one to want to stoop to steep one’s tea on one’s stoop, then climb up to enjoy the tea atop a steep steeple, eh?

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017



All it takes is a brief glance through the newspaper to confirm that fiascos happen. So this week we’ll explore fiasco & some of its synonyms.

Fiasco appeared in English in 1855. It was theater talk for turkey, dismal flop, or failure. It comes through French from Italian word for bottle. Many theories exist to explain why we might call a flop on stage a bottle, but none of the theories can be proven. Today fiasco refers to any sort of failure, whether on-stage or off.

Some fiascos in the news take the form of mayhem, a word that showed up in English in the 1400s through Anglo-French from an Old French legal term meaning to maim an opponent enough that he can no longer defend himself. And yes, this same Old French word also gave us the verb maim.

We call a noisy commotion or uproar a hullabaloo. This word came through northern England &/or Scotland to land in English in the late 1700s. Though nobody’s certain, most etymologists believe hullabaloo may be a tweaking of the greeting, hello. 

A bustle, tumult or fuss can be referred to as a fracas, a word that showed up in English in 1727. It came through Italian from a Latin verb meaning to shake.

In 1890 the word brouhaha (meaning an uproar or fuss) made its way into English from French. Though the connection is lost on me, most etymologists believe it may have come from the Hebrew phrase, “barukh habba,” which means blessed be the one who comes.

From Scottish through Canadian English we have the word kerfuffle, meaning a commotion, or disturbance. Kerfuffle first appeared on the scene in the 1930s.

And we have rumpus (1764) & ruckus (1890), both meaning an uproar or disturbance. Though nobody’s sure where either of these words originated, it appears ruckus grew out of rumpus.

Which of these words best fits to news you read or saw today? Chime in by clicking on “comments” below.

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017



Though most of us haven’t heard the word pleonasm, we hear, read, & use pleonasms every day. 

Check over this list. I bet you can define pleonasm on your own.

frozen tundra 
foreign imports
mass exodus
kneel down
hot water heater
ATM machine
break & enter
empty space
advance warning
mental telepathy
temper tantrum
lag behind
aid & abet
fellow countrymen
cameo appearance
advance reservations
past history
nape of the neck
serious crisis
alternative choice
future plans
sum total

So to finish up in pleonastic style, I’d like to thank each & every one of you for joining me here at Wordmonger this week. 

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, 200 Common Redundancies & a Thought Company article regarding George Carlin’s commentary, “Count the Superfluous Redundant Pleonastic Tautologies”

Thursday, March 2, 2017

We got the beat

We got the beat

Though the musical sense of the word beat didn’t appear until the 1840s, beat first showed up in Old English as a verb meaning to thrash or inflict blows on. It came from the Proto-Indo-European word meaning to strike or thrust. Linguists represent this word as *bhau-.

*Bhau- is the source of a heap of modern English words. Here are a few:

The verb butt appeared in English in about 1200, meaning to strike with the head.

*Bhau- also gave us the noun bat, meaning a stick or club (obviously used to beat something). Bat has been with us since Old English. For the purpose of making sense of the next few etymologies, it’s important to note that the part of the bat one grips is typically narrow, while the business end of a bat is comparably thick.

When butt first transitioned to a noun in English (1200-1300) it meant both thick end and flat fish (possibly - but not definitively - due to the need to tenderize the fish by beating it with a bat). We still see the meaning flatfish in the word halibut  which appeared in the 1400s.The meaning human posterior (another thick end) also showed up in the 1400s, and by the 1600s the noun butt  also meant the target of a joke. By the mid-1800s butt also meant the remaining end of a smoked cigarette. Both butt in & buttinski showed up about 1900.

The word buttress  (an element of a building that thrusts out from the primary structure) appeared in English in the 1300s.

Since the 1300s we’ve been thrusting buttons through button-holes.

And in argumentation, both the words rebut (1300s) & refute (1500s) mean to strike back & were born of the word *bhau-.

Inspired to butt in with a comment? Please do.

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

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The elusive scraperfish

The elusive scraperfish

Word-lovers go to great lengths to help others make sense of this nutty language we love so well. The Elusive Scraperfish is one such effort. It’s not elusive because of its astounding camouflage or because it buries itself in the muck. It’s elusive because so many people don’t even know it’s there. Such is the nature of bottomdwellers that concern themselves with English pronunciation rules.

Meet the scraperfish.

It scrapes along on the bottom of the sea, looking for its tunnel-dwelling prey. As its rough belly scrapes along the ocean floor, it makes the sound kkkkkk, kkkkkkk, kkkkkk, signifying to those in the know that the letter C (masquerading as a gill), generally makes the K sound. However, when the scraperfish spots its tunnel-dwelling prey, it sucks it up, savors it, & says sssss, sssss, sssss.

The observant reader will notice the nature of the scraperfish’s prey. When the letter C is followed by an E, I, or Y, it makes the S sound (cellophane, cinnamon, cyborg…). Otherwise, it makes the K sound (coliform, curly, cadaver…). The scraperfish rule even works when a C is doubled, as in accident & accelerate. When a C is followed by the letter H, all bets are off, but in other cases, it’s amazing how consistently this pronunciation rule applies.

What’s cooler still is that there’s a second form of scraperfish.

Amazingly, it hunts the same exact prey, giving us
gelatin, gin, & gymnasium in the presence of its prey, and gasoline, gogo boots, & guru otherwise. Sadly, this second fish’s rule doesn’t work when g doubles up. Also, some high profile words like begin & girl ignore our friend the scraperfish. Still, it applies the majority of the time.

Okay, so how many of you word nerds have already met the scraperfish? And who can contribute other unlikely tales to support English spelling or pronunciation rules? Please use the comments section to let me know.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Alternative facts

Alternative facts

Alternative facts are getting a lot of play these days. It shouldn’t surprise us that the term alternative facts can be alternatively understood, since over time both words have had varied meanings.

The adjective alternative grew out of the Latin word alter, to change or make something different. Its origin is the Proto-Indo-European word *al-, which meant beyond. Alternative showed up in English in the 1580s, meaning offering one or the other of two

When used in rhetoric during the 1600s, alternative meant a proposition of two statements, the acceptance of one implying the rejection of the other. 

By 1970, alternative picked up the meaning purporting to be a superior choice to what is in general use.

The noun fact came from the Medieval Latin word factum, which translates literally to thing done. As time passed, Medieval Latin became Latin, & factum came to mean event, occurrence, deed, or achievement. When it made its way to English as fact in the 1530s, it meant anything done, though in usage, the anything done to which the word fact referred was usually an evil deed.

Grist for the mill, eh?

Anything to say about all this? Please leave a comment or two in the comments section.

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

Thursday, February 9, 2017

We ourselves

We ourselves

Imagine a word used to refer to oneself in the plural; sort of a we-meets-ourselves word. Today, etymologists write the word *s(w)e-. This Proto-Indo-European word gave birth to a fascinating and diverse collection of words that all relate back to the idea of we/ourselves.

The word self came to us through Proto-Germanic back when folks were speaking Old English. Some time during its stay in Germanic languages it appears to have lost its plural, inclusive nature. 

Another word from this source is secret, which appeared in English in the 1300s, through Latin words meaning private, set apart, withdrawn, or one one’s own.

Sullen made its way to English through Anglo-French. Initially meaning by oneself, alone (in Middle English), sullen didn’t pick up the meaning morose until the late 1300s.

The word swami appeared in English in the 1700s through Hindi. Swami, now meaning Hindu religious teacher, originally meant one’s own or our own master.

Sibling came to us via Proto-Germanic and Old English. Linguists consider sibling an “enlargement” of the root *s(w)e.

And though they appear nothing like their relatives, the words idiot & idiom also came from *s(w)e-. Born of the idea that folks who couldn’t function in society due to apparent lack of mental ability tended to stay to themselves, idiot came to English in the early 1300s through Latin & Old French. An idiom is a figure of speech peculiar to a particular group of people. Idiom came to English through Greek & Latin in the 1500s. The fact that we cling to our idioms as something that defines us appears to have contributed to the existence of this word

All from a little word meaning we/ourselves.

I’d love to know which of these word-siblings you found most surprising. Fee free to use the comments section for such commentary.

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