Thursday, May 31, 2012



This week’s etymology is pleasingly contentious.

Hazard came into English about 1300 from the Old French word, hasard or hasart, a game of chance played with dice. Most etymologists agree that the French word stems from the Spanish word, azar, an unfortunate card or throw at dice.

From there, some etymologists see no source. Others argue for the Arabic term yasara, he played at dice, while others argue for azahr or al-zahr, meaning, the die.  

By the mid-1500s the English word hazard shed its specific connection to games of chance & became generalized to refer to any chance of loss, harm, or risk.

What I find fascinating is that by most accounts, the word entered English due to the Crusades. Soldiers don’t spend all their time lopping off heads; they have a little down time to learn the local customs & play the local games, and throwing dice was one of the games Crusaders learned during their travels. Isn’t it wickedly ironic that games of chance, & eventually a word referring to risk & chance of loss was born of the recreational time of Christian soldiers heading to the Holy Land with violent intent? That’s not just irony, that’s exponential irony.

Good followers, what might you have to say about irony, Crusaders, the Holy Land, and risk?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,   Interesting English Borrowed Words & the OED.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

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 tale. 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. This second fish’s rule doesn’t work when g doubles up. Also, it has some high profile rule-breaking words in begin & girl, but like the first scraperfish, it applies the great 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?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bunk & its buddies

Bunk & its Buddies

English is rife with colorful terms referring to irrelevant, useless, or empty words. As we ramp up to ramping up to elections, let’s celebrate a few of them.

Bunk appeared in American English about 1900 as a shortened form of bunkum, meaning nonsense. By most accounts the term was born in the US House of Representatives when North Carolina Representative Felix Walker threw in his two cents regarding Missouri’s statehood in relation to the Mason-Dixon Line. He needed to say something that would appear in the papers back home in Buncombe, so he unabashedly made a  "long, dull, irrelevant speech." In time, Buncombe shifted to bunkum, which got shortened to bunk.

Blatherskite, was born during the American Revolution, & refers to both the words spoken by a talkative, nonsensical person & the person him/herself. It comes of blather, meaning to babble. Blather is a Scottish term derived from an Old Norse word meaning to wag the tongue, added to skite, meaning a contemptible individual. We see a related ending in the word cheapskate, & a related beginning in the term blithering idiot. Skite also originated in Old Norse, from a word meaning to shoot, which apparently is what the Old Norse thought should be done with blatherers.

Bosh came to English in the 1830s from Turkish. Its literal Turkish meaning of empty, applies in English only to meaningless speech or writing.

Claptrap appeared in the 1730s & meant a stage trick to catch applause. Since then we’ve lost the applause-inducing element of the term & it simply means cheap, nonsensical or pretentious language.

There are so many great synonyms for bunk, blatherskite, bosh & claptrap. Followers, what empty-word words would you add to the list?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,  Hugh Rawson’s Wicked Words & the OED.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Old Dictionary Appreciation #1

Old Dictionary Appreciation #1

My affinity for old dictionaries should be no surprise to Wordmonger followers. This appreciation has been fueled by experience with watered-down newer dictionaries, or – sadder still – “student dictionaries” that may as well have had the marrow sucked out of their bones.

I can find no Old Dictionary Appreciation Day, Week, or Month, so I’ve decided to celebrate old dictionaries whenever the spirit moves me. This week is one such week.

It doesn’t take dusty, leather-bound dictionaries to stoke my fires. Dictionaries published as recently as the 1960s simply make me smile. I find what I need in them. They include the features I expect.

One such element 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, May 3, 2012

Boggled by Bogus Bogeys

Boggled by Bogus Bogeys

One would think that boggle, bogus, & bogey would all be closely related. They may be. Or not. It seems the Queens & Kings of Etymology can’t always dig up enough dirt to prove anything, so instead, we have speculation, but fascinating speculation it is. Here are some bits & pieces of it:

Bogey, bogie or bogy, may be derived from bug, meaning scarecrow, bugbear or terror, OR bogy meaning the devil, OR from bogle, meaning goblin

Over the years, this derogatory term has been used to mean:

-one who spoils the game or interferes with the pitch
-a tax collector
-a curse
-bad luck
-a dissatisfied customer
-a lump of mucus or slime
(& there’s a verb to go bogy, which means to become prophetic or develop a second sight)

Bogus may have originated as a term for a machine which printed counterfeit money, OR may have come from tantrabogus, a term used in Vermont to refer to ill-looking objects, OR from near Devonshire, where bogus was used to refer to the devil.

Over the years, bogus has been used to mean:
-a sham
-anything spurious
-something unpleasant, dull, or silly

Boggle is somewhat straightforward in its etymology, as most agree boggle came from the French word bogle, a spectre.

Over the years the verb boggle has meant:
-to start with fright
-to take alarm
-to shy, as a startled horse
-to hesitate
-to play fast or loose
-to scare
-to make a mess of
while the noun form of boggle has meant:
-a goblin
-an objection
-an enjoyable word game from Milton Bradley

It’s all pretty boggling. Any thoughts on all this, stalwart followers?