Thursday, August 30, 2012



The word eavesdrop has a poetically beautiful etymology.

It comes from Middle English, born of the Old English word, yfesdrype.

Eaves are, of course, those bits of a house’s roof that stick out from the house.

Historically, the eavesdrip was the line on the ground where the rain or morning dew dripped from the eaves. In time, this became a legal term, used to determine – in part – how close one house could be built to the next house. In time, the droplets falling from the eaves acquired the moniker eavesdrops. Soon after that, nosey people who stood close enough to their neighbors’ homes to hear what was going on inside were called eavesdroppers, since standing so close put them in the eavesdrip. Soon, the British legal system happily applied the term eavesdropper to nosey listeners.

Is that poetry, or what?

Good followers, what have you to say about this transformation, or about your experiences being eavesdropped upon, or possibly eavesdropping? Writers out there, I would submit that we find more eavesdroppers in fiction than in real life – true or unfounded hogwash?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, The Word Detective, & The OED.

Thursday, August 23, 2012



One of the 97 brand spanking new words in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary’s Eleventh Edition is earworm, a cognitively infectious musical agent, more informally known as one of those annoying tunes that you can’t get out of your mind.

Though earworms have haunted me my whole life, I promise to refrain from providing lists of likely tunes that will haunt you forever. The word earworm has interested me since it was first introduced to me some time in the late 1960s by an aunt who grew up in Germany during the 40s and 50s.

Only a year ago, most dictionary and etymology websites clearly credited James Kellaris, a Milwaukee professor, with the coinage of the word in 2001 (e.g. this AP story by Rachel Kipp). Others, like this Wikipedia article, credited Robert Frietag (a well-traveled primary teacher) for bringing the term to English in 1993. These Frietag & Kellaris claims curdled my cheese because (thanks to my Aunt Inge) my pals and I have been enjoying the word since I shared it at Columbus Junior High over four decades ago.

Today, a search for earworm etymology will produce over 40,000 hits. Thankfully, in the last year, many etymologists have dug a bit deeper, & while praising Kellaris’s research on the phenomenon of the earworm, have de-bunked the myth that he coined the word. I find no arguments debunking the Frietag origin, but I’m, pleased to say that at long last, most etymologists see earworm as a simple translation from the German word ohrwurm.

Confusing the issue is the fact that the German word ohrwurm also refers to dermaptera, the lowly earwig, a nasty little bug which has a tendency to make many of us squirm & whose name has inspired stories about earwigs climbing into people’s ears. The whole issue was likely further confused by a practice popular in “ancient times” (I can’t find where), of drying and grinding up dermaptera, then inserting the powder into infected ears as a medical treatment.

So I say bravo to hundreds of hard-working etymologists, to Merriam Webster’s Eleventh Edition, & of course, Aunt Inge, for the word earworm.

Good blogophiles, feel free to comment on all this hoopla, or share one of your most annoying, most invasive earworm tunes.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dictionary Nerd News

Dictionary Nerd News

Word nerds worldwide are either jazzed or all het up due to Merriam-Webster’s 11th Edition Collegiate Dictionary. The big news has to do with the 97 new words (I promise, I won’t list them all).

The biggest splash was made by – what a surprise – the most titillating words of the bunch: sexting & f-bomb. I agree that these words are notable, but I find myself most intrigued by comparing the dates the “new” words were first introduced to the language to the years they made it into the dictionary.

The following “new” words were coined from 200-2007:
bucket list
cloud computing

These “new” words hail from the 1990s:
game changer
man cave

It took these words from the ‘70s & ‘80s over thirty years to be acknowledged:
life coach
systemic risk

But take a look at the patience of these mighty words:
1959 – tipping point
1939 – aha moment
1919 – gassed
1904 – energy drink
1859 – mash-up
1802 – earworm (the etymological firestorm going on over this one’s origins will most likely result in a future Wordmonger post)

So, fellow lovers of language, what say you to this big news – the official birth of 97 words & the formidable patience of many of them?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, The Mercury News, The LA Times & The Washington Post

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Play, sport & compete

Play, sport & compete

This week, how about a look at Olympic-inspired words?

Sport came into English in the 1500s meaning both a pleasant pastime & a game involving physical exercise. In the 1660s, Shakespeare crowned war-making the sport of kings. By the 1880s the noun, sport, came to mean good fellow in American English, while down under, the word sport grew to become a way to address a man (1935). Though this next bit is nearly unrelated, I’m forced to include it: In 1972, in a riff titled “Birth Control,” George Carlin imagined a time when birth control would be available to everyone, & offered the following phone call as one that would never again be made or received:

“Hello Dave? This is Jane…You met me at a party six to eight weeks ago and you said I was a real good sport…”

But I digress.

Play comes from the Old English plegian, to exercise, frolic, or perform music. Its Middle Dutch ancestor, plegan, meant to rejoice or be glad.  Some play-based idioms include:

mid-1500s to play fair
1861 to play for keeps
1886 to play the ___card
1896 to play with oneself
1902 to play favorites
1909 to play up
1911 to play it safe
1927 play-by-play
1930 to play down
1936 to play the field

Also, in 1959 Play-Dough was born.

The word compete came to English in the early 1600s. Centuries beforehand, it started as the Latin word competere, where it initially meant to come together, to agree, or to be qualified. In Late Latin competere came to mean to strive in common. On its way through French to English its meaning shifted to mean to be in rivalry with.

Good followers, I’m hoping you’ll have something to say about play, sport, or competition. How about that initial meaning of competere, eh? Or a thought about universal availability of birth control? Or maybe you have a fond (yet printable) Carlin-inspired memory…

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, Mad Music, & the OED.

Thursday, August 2, 2012



Most words meaning kiss are imitative of the sound of a kiss, yet these words don’t all sound the same. Could this reflect on the nature of kisses in various cultures, or simply the vagaries of language?

Buss entered English in the 1560s and seems to have come from Welsh or Gaelic, bus, meaning lip. Buss falls in the imitative kiss-word camp. Robert Herrick clarified buss’s shades of meaning in 1648:

Kissing and bussing differ both in this,
We busse our wantons, but our wives we kisse.”

Kiss is another imitative word, with precursors in Dutch, Old High German, Old Frisian, & Norse. My personal favorite precursor is the Old Saxon word, kusijanan. Imitative? Hmm. One must wonder about those old Saxons.

Osculate made its way into English in the 1650s from Latin osculari, & means little mouth. Try to say kusijanan with a little mouth.

Snog showed up in the language in 1945 as British slang, initially meaning to flirt or cuddle, though over time snog has come to mean kiss. Its origins are a complete mystery.

Smack is an imitative term from the late 1550s, originally meaning to make a sharp noise with the lips, then morphing within fifty years to mean a loud kiss.

Mwah, meaning either a kiss or an air-kiss, is another imitative term. Mwah came to the language in 1994.

Smooch (my personal favorite), arrived in English as a verb in 1932 & a noun in 1942, from the German schmutzen, to kiss, which most likely was born of imitation.

I also must admit a fondness for the term Give me a little sugar, which appeared in the script of A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Though I can find suggestions that this euphemism was in use before 1959, I haven’t been able to verify any.

Do all these different-sounding kiss words reflect cultural differences?
Class reflections?
Vagaries of language?
Or are kisses & such the sort of magical things we simply shouldn’t analyze too closely?
Good followers, what do you think?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Scriptorama, & the OED.