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, March 28, 2019

From Algonquian

From Algonquian

English-speaking settlers on the continent learned a bunch from the Algonquian-speaking inhabitants, & this learning didn’t stop centuries ago. Here are a few of the Algonquian words that have become part of English.

In 1610, the word opossum (or simply possum) came to English from the Powhatan branch of Algonquian. The original word translates to white dog.

The Mikmak branch of Algonqiuan gave us the word caribou in the 1660s. The original word translates to pawer or scratcher, due to the caribou’s habit of pawing through the snow to find edible moss and grass.

Just south of Boston is the Great Blue Hill. Before Europeans muscled into the area, an Algonquian-speaking group of people lived there. Their native neighbors referred to them as the people at the large hill, or Massachusetts. Though the people at the large hill sadly no longer exist, the name remains.

In the 1670s, English speakers started using the word woodchuck, which comes from the Cree branch of Algonquian & originally referred to the marten, a rodent inclined to live in forests. The Cree word was otchek, but because martens lived in trees, European settlers heard something closer to woodcheck, thus ending up with woodchuck.

Most branches of Algonquian had a word meaning shoe, which sounded something like mocassin. In 1610, English speakers started using the word to refer to a soft leather shoe lacking a stiff sole.

An inland group of Algonquian speakers labeled a particular hunk of land the place of the wild onion — which sounded something like shekakoheki. In 1833, English speakers learned this word from the French trappers in the area, & made use of it to name that area Chicago.

In 1629, an Algonquian word meaning that which is ground or beaten made its way into English to refer to parched corn — so we have the word hominy.

We all know the famed location of Orville & Wilbur Wright’s first flight is Kitty Hawk, but the place name had nothing to do with cats or kitties — it’s a brutally Anglicized version of the Algonquian place name, which first occurred on English maps as Chickehawk. Nobody’s certain what the original Algonquian name was, or what it meant.

Historically, English speakers showed little respect to the many speakers of the various branches of Algonquian. Perhaps we can show a bit of respect now by (at the very least) recognizing the source of some of our English words.





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

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Made in Arabic-speaking lands

Made in Arabic-speaking lands

An astounding number of English words come either from or through Arabic. Here’s a tiny sampling.

In the 1670s alcove (a vaulted recess) made its way to English from Arabic through Spanish & French. 

Demi-tasse (a small cup of black coffee or the cup in which it is served) came to English from Arabic through French in 1842.

Our English word ghoul comes from an Arabic word meaning evil spirit that robs graves & feeds on corpses. Ghoul showed up in English in 1786. 

In the 1660s, English speakers started using the word yarbuah, which referred to a mouselike rodent of Africa & Asia Minor, called exactly that in Arabic. But in 1849, yarbuah was eclipsed by a version of yarbuah that travelled through Latin & French on its way to English, but still came from the original Arabic word. Thus, we have gerbil.

The first two syllables of Guadalcanal come from an Arabic word meaning river. Guadalcanal first appeared in English in 1568. The first two syllables of Guadalupe came from the same Arabic source in the same year.

In about 1600, English speakers began using the word henna, which came from the Arabic word hinna, the name of the small thorny tree from which henna dye is extracted.

In 1600 the originally Arabic word gazelle arrived in English after a linguistic tour through North Africa, Spain, and France.

Tarragon arrived in English in the 1600s. Though it started out as a Greek word, it came to English through Arabic.

The originally Latin word tuna spent a bunch of time in Arabic & Spanish before making its way into English in 1881. And in other tuna news, the word albacore came through Portuguese from an Arabic word that translates literally to milk-cow (due to the albacore’s substantive size).

The word sofa showed up in English in the 1620s from Arabic through Turkish.

Was any of these words a surprise? I’d love to hear from you.




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

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Made in India

Made in India, mostly
 (though Hindi is spoken in many places)

Hindi has given English speakers some great words.

The word loot arrived in English in 1849 from a Hindi word meaning booty or stolen property. Hindi speakers got this word from Sanskrit.

In HIndi, a payndit is a learned master or teacher. By the 1670s, this word oozed into English as pundita person who offers opinions in an authoritative manner.

Pajamas (& pyjamas) came to English in 1800 from a Hindi word meaning loose trousers tied at the waist. Pajamas came to Hindi from a Persian word meaning leg clothing. 

In 1851 bloke arrived in English. Etymologists haven’t nailed down its source, but the two frontrunners are a Celtic word meaning a large, stubborn person, & a Hindi word meaning a man.

Hindi speakers got the word kamarband from Persian, which by 1610 made its way to English as cummerbund, a loose sash worn as a belt.

Bandana made its way to English in 1752 from a Hindi word referring to a method of dying. This word came from a Sanskrit word meaning bind — apparently the method of dying in question was something like our modern tie-dye.

In 1859 the word nark or narc came to English — an informer. Its most likely source is a Romany word which came from a Hindi word meaning nose.

The punch that refers to a type of mixed drink appears to have come from the Hindi word for the number five — reportedly the number of ingredients in the first punch. This particular meaning of punch came to English in the 1630s.

The word cot, a small, light, bed, first appeared in English in the 1630s from a Hindi word meaning couch or hammock.

In 1915, the Hindi word meaning pleasant, happy, & healthy, gave us the word cushy. Interestingly, it has no relationship to the word cushion.

We English speakers probably owe a thank you note to the Hindi-speaking world. For which of these words do you feel most grateful?




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

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Made in Russia

Made in Russia

There are heaps of English words that come from Russian. Most those words are no surprise at all:

borzoi         cosmonaut babushka 
Bolshevik ruble balalaika 
tundra         commisar stroganoff 
samoyed vodka            tsar 
pogrom       Kalashnikov    gulag

Then there are Russian words that made their way through Yiddish before arriving in English:

The Russian word blinyets meaning little pancake — became the Yiddish word blintze, which in 1903 became the English word blintz.

The Russian word knysh — a type of cake — became the Yiddish word knish, which arrived unchanged in English in 1930.


The Russian word latka — a patch — was figuratively used to refer to a pastry. This figurative meaning made its way into Yiddish, then became the English word latke in 1925.

Some words made it to English from Russian in other ways:

Parka made its way to English in 1780 through Aleut from Russian.

The Sanskrit word sramana-s referred to a Buddhist ascetic. By the 1690s it landed in English as shaman, but not before a wild linguistic road trip through Prakrit, Chinese, Tungus, and — of course — Russian. 

Yurta house or hut — came from one of the Turkic languages, then spent centuries in Russian before getting to English in 1784.

Last but not least, etymologists are pretty sure the word hamster — first appearing in English in 1600, & replacing the inelegant term German rat — comes from a mash-up of the Russian word for the Asian rodent cricetini & the Lithuanian word for ground squirrel.

Which of these sounds least Russian to your ear? 





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