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, 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.

Thursday, May 25, 2017



When it comes to English idioms, beans rule. Here are just a few idioms that employ bean or beans:

In the 1800s the idiom hill of beans was born, meaning worthless, mostly due to the relative lack of value of beans. 

Since the 1800s, someone who is full of energy can be said to be full of beans. 

In 1830, it could be said of a clever person that s/he knows how many beans make five. Though nobody is certain, this idiom may have provided the contrast for the phrase suggesting someone is anything but clever, s/he doesn’t know beans

Since 1837, a thin person might be referred to as a beanpole

Spill the beans first showed up in 1910, when it meant spoil the situation. By 1919 spill the beans meant reveal a secret.

Since 1940 we’ve been referring to a small close-fitting hat as a beanie, a term that grew out of the 1910 slang word for head, bean.

It appears the idiom cool beans, meaning excellent! (as of the 80s & 90s) may have originated in the 1970s, when a handful of colorful uppers &/or downers looked like a handful of jelly-beans.

And, since 1971, anyone overly focused on trivial details can be referred to as a bean-counter. Like hill of beans, this idiom reflects the relative  lack of value of beans.

Do any of you out there know beans? If so, please leave a comment.

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017



We English speakers have heaps of ways to raise our voices. Here are a few:

Shout has been a part of the language since the 1200s & has meant to call or cry out loudly that whole time. Its source is unclear, but it may be the root of shoot (when shouting, one throws one voice, a bit like one might “throw” an arrow or bullet). 

Yell has been a part of English since the beginning of English. It comes through Proto-Germanic from the Proto-Indo-European word *ghel-, which meant to shout out, sing or yell. We can see the sing meaning of *ghel- in the modern word nightingale, which causes me to appreciate that nightingales held onto this sing meaning of the word; nobody needs birds who yell.

The Old Norse word skrækja made its way into English in the 1200s as scrycke,  which eventually became both the word screech, & the word shriek, meaning exactly that. Linguists are pretty sure it’s an imitative word.

Bellow appeared in English in the 1300s, meaning to roar. It came through Old English from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning the same thing.

A comparable late-comer to English is the word holler, meaning to shout. Holler didn’t appear until the 1690s, from an earlier form, hollar, which referred to the act of calling the hounds in from hunting.  A later shade of meaning denoted a style of singing popular at the time in the American South. Holler shares its roots with the word hello.

The modern digital equivalent of YELLING may have first been established in John Irving’s 1989 book, A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Ideas? Comments? Reactions? Please leave them in the comments section. YELL if you must.

Thursday, May 11, 2017



Over the years we English-speakers have had many ways to say that something is just fine. Here are a few of them.

1702 - tip-top  - most excellent, as what is most excellent is top of the heap.

1811 - up to snuff  - This idiom showed up some 160 years after the practice of inhaling powdered tobacco into the nose became all the rage in England. Its original meaning was sharp, wide awake, not easy to deceive, & most likely reflects the somewhat caffeine-like effects of snorting powdered tobacco.

1848 - top-notch - Etymologists assume this idiom may come from a game of some sort, but no one is certain. Like tip-top, top-notch denotes something that is most excellent.

1866 - hunky-dory - satisfactory, or just fine. Nobody’s certain of this idiom’s source. One school of etymologists thinks it may have come from the earlier word hunkey - also meaning satisfactory, which came from the word hunk, an inner-city New York slang term used to refer to home-base, a safe place during games like tag. Others suggest hunky-dory is a mispronunciation of Honcho dori, a street in Yokohoma, Japan, infamous for the sailorly diversions it offered. Both are intriguing & believable possibilities, but neither has been nailed down as fact.

1953 - peachy-keen, meaning most excellent. This figure of speech appears to have grown out of peachy, used to mean attractive since 1900, & keen, which in 1900 became a term of approval among the teenage population. Interestingly, keen is a word of many sometimes contradictory meanings: bold, brave, fearless, prudent, wise, able, eager, ardent, sharp, loud, shrill, biting, bitter, & cutting.

What other ways do you know of verbally approving of something? Please leave your examples in the comments section.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Old dictionaries

Old dictionaries

My affinity for old dictionaries should be no surprise to Wordmonger followers. Sadly, I can find no Old Dictionary Appreciation Day, Week, or Month, so I’ve decided to unilaterally proclaim the first week of May “Old Dictionary Appreciation Week.”

An element I greatly appreciate in older dictionaries is the “synonym” feature which closes the occasional entry. This feature takes similar words or terms & parses out the shades of meaning. Here are two synonym entries from my 1959 Webster’s New World Dictionary:

Intelligent implies the ability to learn or understand from experience or to respond successfully to a new experience; clever implies quickness in learning or understanding, but sometimes connotes a lack of thoroughness or depth; alert emphasizes quickness in sizing up a situation; bright and smart are somewhat informal, less precise equivalents for any of the preceding; brilliant implies an unusually high degree of intelligence; intellectual suggests keen intelligence coupled with interest and ability in the more advanced fields of knowledge.

Beautiful is applied to that which gives the highest degree of pleasure to the senses or to the mind and suggests that the object of delight approximates one’s conception of an ideal; lovely applies to that which delights by inspiring affection or warm admiration; handsome implies attractiveness by reason of pleasing proportions, symmetry, elegance, etc., and carries connotations of masculinity, dignity, or impressiveness; pretty implies a dainty, delicate or graceful quality in that which pleases and carries connotations of femininity or diminutiveness; comely applies to persons only and suggests a wholesome attractiveness of form and features rather than a high degree of beauty; fair suggests beauty that is fresh, bright or flawless and, when applied to persons, is used especially of complexion and features; good-looking is closely equivalent to handsome or pretty, suggesting a pleasing appearance, but not expressing the fine distinctions of either word; beauteous in  poetry and lofty prose is now often used in humorously disparaging references to beauty.

Is that poetry, or what?

Good followers, what bits of old dictionaries do you fancy?

My thanks go out to this week’s source, Webster’s 1959 New World Dictionary of the American Language

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, & &