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, January 10, 2019

The virtuous werewolf

The virtuous werewolf

Once upon a time (or so linguists believe) there was the word *wi-ro-. It meant man in Proto-Indo-European. Over the years it’s given birth to a disparate batch of word-children.

One of those words is the noun virtue, which appeared in English about 1200, meaning moral excellence. It came from a Latin word meaning courage, manliness, high character. The following century saw the beginnings of the related word virtuous, meaning characterized by vigor, strength, or valiance. It took two hundred years for virtuous to mean having peerless moral qualities. And by 1610 another word was born into this family of words through Italian: virtuoso, originally meaning scholar or connoisseur, & shifting by 1743 to mean one with peerless artistic skill or talent. 

Two *wi-ro-born words many of us hope are being re-conceptualized in this MeToo era are virile & virility, meaning manly & manly strength respectively. Virile & virility showed up in the 1400s & 1500s through Latin & Middle French.

When *wi-ro- made its way into Germanic languages, one branch of its meaning became generalized to the human race, human existence, or the affairs of life & became the Old English word world. After a few hundred years of wallowing about in the minds & usage of Old English speakers, it oozed through meanings like the world of humans, the physical world (as opposed to the spiritual world), & morphed its way into its many modern meanings, one of which is the earth.

Another branch of this word continued to mean man in Old English. When Old English speakers added their version of *wi-ro- (man) to their word wulf (wolf) they came up with werewolf

Here’s hoping in the next few centuries as these words grow & adopt new meanings, they’ll encourage a bit more virtue, & virtuosity among all humanity & add some gentler, more flexible understandings to what it is to be a man — or for that matter, a human.

Thoughts? Please sling them into the comments section.

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

Thursday, January 3, 2019



Let’s start out the year with some interjections, because sometimes you just have to interject.

Yippee showed up in 1920, an expression of exultation. It may have come from hip (as in hip hip hooray).

Dern (1830) & durn (1835) are American attempts to avoid the “swear word” darn, which was a 1781 American attempt to avoid the “swear word” damn. In popular usage, they all are an expression of anger, irritation, or contempt. Linguists believe darn may be an abbreviation of eternal damnation (mispronounced ‘tarnal damnation). If so, it’s related to the 1784 American interjection tarnation.

Wow showed up from Scotland in 1510, & continues to express a state of delight or amazement. Its source is unclear.

Ahem appeared in 1763, a lengthened version of the earlier hem, imitative of clearing of the throat. Ahem continues to be an expression of disapproval, embarrassment or an attempt to get others’ attention.

Oh is a one-interjection-fits-all-emotions sort of interjection from the 1530s. Existing in many Indo-European languages, oh can be used to express nearly any emotion. This interjection gave birth to oh boy  in 1910, oh baby in 1918, & oh yeah in 1924.

Hey has been part of the language since 1200. Like oh, hey has many meanings. Some include an expression of derision, challenge, greeting, pleasure, surprise, warning, & anger.

Mercy has been around as an English interjection since 1300. Though it originally was a shortening of may God have mercy, as a modern interjection mercy can express surprise, annoyance, fear, or thankfulness.

Man has been used as an English interjection since the 1400s, originally expressing impatience, surprise, or emphasis, & today — like the much-maligned interjection dude man can mean almost anything.

English is rife with interjections. If you’ve got a favorite “fit-to-print” interjection I missed in this very short list, please suggest it in the comments section.

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